Eleven players walk onto the grass. It’s a hot summer day, and they’re wearing a blue Argentina shirt. But the ball isn’t a size five football. Instead of goals, the field has wickets. It’s Argentina’s national cricket team, and they represent a tradition that goes back over 200 years.
The Argentine men’s national cricket team dominates the South American Cricket Championship, lifting it for a record 12th time in 2023, ten more than anyone else. In the women’s tournament, Argentina leads with seven titles to Brazil’s five. But outside the continent, it languishes far below top teams such as Australia, which won this year’s Cricket World Cup.
Nonetheless, newer and more accessible match formats, investment in local talent, and a series of planned tours in South Africa could see the bicentennial sport come bouncing back.
“We’re very far away from places where top cricket is played, so it’s expensive to compete with them,” said Hernán Pereyra, president of the Argentine Cricket Association (AAC). Argentina is one of 96 associate members of the International Cricket Council (ICC), meaning that cricket is played there, but it does not qualify as a full member.
Pereyra hopes to change that. “We’re looking to have teams compete three times a year, and we’re planning to take yearly tours of South Africa starting in 2025,” he said.
An English soldiers’ sport
Cricket has a long tradition in the country.
“It was first played in Argentina in 1806 during the British invasions,” said Pereyra. “The English soldiers that were held as prisoners in San Antonio de Areco played a game. That’s why we celebrated the bicentenary in 2006.”
At the time, the country was still part of the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata. That means cricket practice in Argentina’s territory is older than the country itself. But its boom would come much later, with British immigration in the mid-18th century.
“The golden age of cricket in Argentina was between 1900 and 1930,” said Pereyra. “In those days, the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) used to visit with a team that was virtually the English national team. In one of those games in the 1920s, Argentina came very close to winning, with the game report stating the duel was lost in the last few plays.”
The popularity of cricket waned as British influence in the country faded. Unlike football, it didn’t take off among Argentina’s working classes. But diehard cricket fans kept the flame alive.
‘They take tea in between?’
Nowadays, the olden-days cricketing tradition is carried on by the North v. South match, between clubs from north and south Buenos Aires. Held over three days instead of cricket’s traditional five, it has been played during carnival season almost uninterruptedly since 1891.
“It’s the Argentine cricket classic, the most traditional and important game we play,” said Pereyra. “It’s one of the oldest sporting competitions in Argentina.” He added that the prestigious sports magazine El Gráfico used to cover the event, reporting on which members of Argentina’s high society attended.
“It can be a hard sell for non-fans. Often, people think it’s strange that it’s played over three days. ‘It takes them so long to play it and they take tea in between?’ But that’s the core of the sport.”
Far removed from the days of old, the AAC faces a number of challenges. The ICC provides funding for its members, but they need to meet a series of objectives to receive it. This means keeping talented players on the pitch is a priority for the AAC.
One of cricket’s main obstacles to growth in the country is the duration of games. The traditional test match (or first-class) format is played over five days.
However, that is changing. The 2023 World Cup was played in an eight-hour format known as One Day International. Another, ever shorter format called T20 is capped at around three hours per game, closer to mainstream sports like football, basketball, and tennis.
That is the format that will be played in the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics (and potentially Brisbane 2032), where cricket will make a comeback after 128 years. “It’s very hard to implement a sport some people haven’t heard of,” said Pereyra, “and the Olympics will help us.”
AAC focuses their work on clubs and schools, particularly those linked with the British community, where demand for cricket is increasing. The association is also bringing back U-15 local tournaments to improve competition at younger ages.
“After the pandemic, we found kids don’t enjoy the physicality of rugby as much. Schools are looking for non-contact alternatives to offer, and cricket is very welcome.”
Infrastructure is another obstacle. Cricket is played in a 150-meter oval, which not many institutions can build and sustain due to costs and space requirements. However, this is where the glorious past comes to the rescue.
“We have important clubs that played cricket long ago and have grass and synthetic fields,” said Pereyra. “We have to set up training fields, and that’s one of our main investments now.”
Building Argentine talent
Enticing top foreign cricket coaches to Argentina can be tricky, so the association is helping former players become coaches.
“Currently, we offer the ‘Level 1’ course, which we’re giving to many PE teachers to improve the level of work at the schools,” Pereyra said.
“After that, we can offer them the possibility to travel to Brazil for a week, where they can take the ‘Level 2’ course. At the moment we have one ‘Level 2’ coach in the country, and we’re training four more.”
Argentina is one of only four ICC associate members in South America who play a domestic league, with the AAC league being played almost uninterruptedly since 1897. A women’s league started in 2021, as well as an under 15 championship.
The league, called the Robin Stuart Shield, is played from November to February, with Belgrano, Hurlingham, San Albano, Lomas AC and Old Georgian as contenders. Increasing competitiveness and the number of teams is a priority.
“Rugby clubs had a lot of cricket and we are working to bring it back, as the Buenos Aires Cricket & Rugby Club is doing. In the interior of the country, Atlético de Rosario is looking to get involved.”
Cricket’s growth worldwide is unmistakable. According to the ICC, a record 1.2 million people attended the 2023 World Cup in India, while the final between India and Australia was watched by 300 million people according to broadcaster Disney Star.
Argentina is still a long way from competing at the biggest stages, but with cricket becoming an Olympic sport for LA 2028, it will also be played at the 2027 Pan American Games. There, the AAC hopes the Albiceleste‘s South American dominance will bring the sport to the front pages once again.