St Peter’s Cricket Club – An Irishman’s Diary on the first Irish cricket team to play the Vatican XI

Courtesy of Pontifical Council for Culture

Courtesy of Pontifical Council for Culture

 

History was made this month when the first Irish cricket team to play the Vatican XI paid a visit to Rome.

The visiting team, made up mostly of Irish journalists and former journalists, faced considerable odds in challenging a team taking to the field with divine favour and youthful athleticism on its side. The question was, could the middle-aged maturity of a ragbag team of Irish journalists take the day from a bunch of youthful priests from the subcontinent?

Fr Eamonn O’Higgins, a Dublin-native and manager of St Peter’s Cricket Club, told me about the history of the team, as I waited to go out to bat for the journalists during the game, at Roma Capannelle Cricket Ground.

Established in 2014, the Vatican XI was the idea of Australian ambassador to the Holy See, John McCarthy. Made up of priests, deacons and seminarians, most of the players are young men from India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. The team, which is sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Culture, is amateur, and O’Higgins is clear that they are “priests first and cricketers second”.

With an ambassadorial role on behalf of the Holy See, St Peter’s also sees itself having a role in interfaith relations. And as part of this brief it has played the Archbishop of Canterbury’s XI in England, as well as a visiting Muslim team from Bradford and the Royal Household at Windsor.

This interfaith brief was pertinent as our Herald Taverners took to the field. The St Peter’s side displayed considerable unity before the match with a group prayer, led by Fr O’Higgins at the focal point of the huddled circle.

It is possible that years of sub-editing small print had destroyed his ability to see the ball. No excuse for our ineptitude was too incredulous not to be employed

With our team made up of Catholics, atheists, one Protestant and myself, a Zen Buddhist priest, no such spiritual unity was available. But what we had in common was that we’d newspaper ink running through our veins. We had delivered stories with the speed of a fast bowler; we’d batted away libel actions; we’d all been on sticky wickets in The Irish Times, the Herald, or some other hallowed Irish title over the years. We were fearless men of the press, and the need for this courage became immediately apparent when the first Vatican teenager came tearing down the track with his first delivery. Our ever equanimous captain, David Robbins, made reassuring noises to us on the sidelines. Brain, rather than brawn, could still take the day.

The sun sets behind St Peter's Basilica in St Peter's Square in the Vatican this evening. Cardinals are set to enter the conclave to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI tomorrow. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.
The Vatican, Rome: Established in 2014, the Vatican XI was the idea of Australian ambassador to the Holy See, John McCarthy. File photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.

But then there is the small matter of talent. As one wicket fell after another, it seemed nothing short of a miracle would restore our pride. Having won the toss we had opted to bat. Was this a fatal decision? Whether we batted now or later, we’d still have to face the missiles they were hurling at us. How could such pointed violence come from men of the cloth? They were bowling at over 100 mph, surely. Speculation from our players grew that it was closer to 120 mph, as one of our batsmen gestured from the centre for a helmet to be brought out. “I’m in fear of my life,” were his reported words from the returning helmet carrier. It is possible that years of sub-editing small print had destroyed his ability to see the ball. No excuse for our ineptitude was too incredulous not to be employed.

Our guest bowler ensured that at least every second ball wasn’t hit for six

Those that could not bear to look at the coliseum of slaughter took advantage of the Italian sun and did a spot of sunbathing. Others, labouring under the Roman revelry of the night before, dozed in the shade. Only the masochists couldn’t look away. The 75 All Out on the scoreboard could not be denied as fake news. We were too well seasoned as journalists to know the truth when we saw it. At least we had (almost) used up the 20 overs available to us to score.

Luckily, we were short players and had cannily borrowed some from the hosting team. Where our core players had collapsed, our guest batman put up some runs. Now, as we took to the field, our guest bowler ensured that at least every second ball wasn’t hit for six. But as the overs were used up, the inevitable was written all over Fr O’Higgins’s satisfied expression. By the 11th over we were shaking hands and being applauded in from the field by the gracious and genetically superior Indians, Sri Lankans and Pakistanis of the consecrated opposition. We asked ourselves, how could it be possible to beat a team with God on its side?

Over the presentations, sandwiches and speeches at the end of the match, Fr O’Higgins repaired our bruised egos with the reassurance that we had entered the history books and that we would always be “in the Vatican annals as the first Irish cricket team to play St Peter’s”. The fact that none of us were seriously injured was the most we could hope for in Rome that day. In that, at least, our prayers were answered.