ROME: In a first for world sport, the Vatican cricket team took on an all-Muslim side from England Saturday with the home squad clinching narrow win in the final minutes.
“It is not about who wins or loses,” priest Eamonn O’Higgins, manager of the Vatican team told AFP, after leading the enthusiastic players in a prayer and rousing hymn on the bus journey to the match.
“It is about building bridges between different faiths through cricket,” he said as they arrived at Rome’s Capanelle cricket ground.
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The Muslim Mount CC team landed in the Italian capital Thursday and were treated to a tour of St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums prior to the match in hot Roman sunshine.
The two teams were also set to dine together and attend mass at the Vatican on Sunday.
“The hospitality has been outstanding and it is such a honour to be here,” said Hanif Mayet, Mount CC’s chair.
He founded the club in 1976 after claims of racism in Yorkshire in northern England made joining an all-white cricket club an almost impossible task.
Desperate to play, Mayet put together a team with friends.
“Thankfully, nowadays attitudes have improved greatly and where we live racism is no longer a problem. Our club is also open to everyone, we don’t discriminate, but it has remained predominantly Muslim,” he said.
Bringing his club to play against the Vatican team is “a dream come true”, he said. The team asked St Peters in August to organise a match and “received a positive response almost immediately”.
Soon after, Yorkshire County Cricket Club and the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) got behind the team’s bid and provided Mount CC with kit as well as equipment and guidance.
“It such a fantastic opportunity,” said Philip French, director of public policy and international relations at the ECB.
“It shows how cricket can break down cultural boundaries and we are so immensely proud of the fact that a team from Batley in Yorkshire is out here.”
French said he hoped the Vatican team would come for a return match next year — and if all goes well it could take place at Yorkshire’s home ground of Headingley.
Despite the clear hunger for victory in the air, the teams said it was about more than winning.
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“Today we have realized one of our dreams to play against a team composed of Muslim friends,” said Pratheesh Thomas a member of the Vatican team and a seminarian.
Mount CC has no intention of stopping here: Abeda Rajpura, ladies patron of Mount CC, said that the team had started cricket training for girls.
“Women playing cricket is not common in our society but we are training girls and we hope one day to have a girls team that could also come here and play at the Vatican,” she said.
John McCarthy, Australian Ambassador to the Holy See and founder of the Vatican Cricket club, said the game met “all my expectations and all my hopes about what could be done through interfaith and ecumenical sports associations of this sort”.
On October 24 the Vatican team have a rematch against the Church of England team they were beaten by last year.
“A return match, but not a grudge match,” O’Higgins was quick to add with a grin.