Mexico women's cricket team taps into grass roots to revive sport's dormant history

Anjuli Ladrón forms part of a Mexican women's national cricket team that has thrived over two years through grass-roots involvement. Luis Antonio Rojas for ESPN

MEXICO CITY -- A few minutes after the Mexico national women's cricket team defeated Costa Rica in the Central American Championship in April, star all-rounder Anjuli Ladrón was long gone. The 32-year-old player stuck around for a few pictures on the grounds at The Reforma Athletic Club, a private association founded in 1894 by British expats and where cricket has been played since.

Ladrón accepted her trophy as the tournament's best player, then quietly slipped away while her teammates celebrated.

"I'm playing in the American football league here as a wide receiver," Ladrón explained later. "I had a game an hour after the cricket match ended and I had to race across town."

A graduate of Mexico City's Universidad Latinoamericana who works full-time as an administrator in the medical industry, Ladrón has played more than a dozen sports either professionally or semi-professionally. Her athletic resume includes a stint in Mexico's professional women's soccer league, the Liga MX Femenil, as a goalkeeper with Club Tijuana. She has represented her country internationally in five disciplines: soccer (both in its traditional version and in seven-on-seven), football, a precision sport called footgolf in which players apply the rules of golf on the links using a soccer ball and, since 2017, cricket.

It is cricket that has occupied most of Ladrón's recent attention, especially with next week's men's International Cricket Council's World Cup on the horizon. The sport, which has an established but long-silent history in Mexico, is experiencing a grassroots revival that has put the women's national team on the international cricket map.

The Mexican women won't be participating in the next women's version of cricket's quadrennial championship in 2021, having failed to reach the World Cup qualifier. Still, Ladrón expects to follow the men's tournament along.

"Cricket is so low-key in Mexico, the tournament doesn't have an official broadcaster," Ladrón said of the ICC World Cup, which begins next Thursday in England and Wales. "Even if it's not live, I'm sure I'll find highlights."

Curiosity, then obsession

On any given week, Ladrón will set aside time for the four sports she's currently engaged in, often covering large distances in chaotic Mexico City traffic to do so. Though athletically active since childhood, her involvement with cricket spans back only a couple of years, aided by serendipity in the form of YouTube's viewing algorithm.

"I was watching sports videos and then a cricket clip popped up," Ladrón said. "I found it interesting and after a while, I was watching a show on Netflix about it. Later, I googled to see if there was a league in Mexico."

She found a social media profile belonging to the Mexico Cricket Association and set up a meeting with Craig White, a former cricketer from England who has spent his time promoting the sport over various stints in Latin America.

"We didn't have a women's team at the time," White said. "But Anjuli was so interested, kept asking questions. It was a project that we wanted to launch, and she just became the perfect ambassador."

As the association's secretary, White oversees the men's and women's teams. The former is made up almost exclusively of Indian immigrants in Mexico, which number just less than 5,000, according to the International Migration Database; the latter, nicknamed Las Jaguares, has just one foreign-born player.

Though Las Jaguares have represented the country in international competitions, White said Mexico's government has yet to sanction them or provide financial assistance.

"Even then, I'm so happy and excited about the growth of the women's team, there's just so much potential there for us to be a world power sooner rather than later," White said.

In the roughly two years since Ladrón turned her attention to the sport, the assembled Mexican women's national team has risen to a ranking as a top 50 team in the world, according to the ICC, the world's governing body.

Recruits have come mostly on word-of-mouth basis -- all friends, acquaintances or family members of those already involved. Most had already played sports at some point in their lives, albeit never at a national team level.

"It's funny, we've had issues getting men involved, but the women are absolutely mad about it." Mexican Cricket Association secretary Craig White

In Mexico, where baseball is popular, the Mexican Cricket Association has launched efforts to convert players of that sport into cricketers. Ladrón, who doesn't count on baseball or softball experience in her extensive sports background, herself joked that she trained with a plastic children's bat at the beginning.

"It's funny, we've had issues getting men involved, but the women are absolutely mad about it," White said.

One player whose curiosity turned into a spot on the national team is 19-year-old bowler Gaby Morales, whom White recruited from a restaurant where she worked. Despite a language barrier, the two began talking about cricket. An intrigued Morales ventured to Reforma to see for herself. She got hooked -- a common occurrence among Jaguares players.

"This happened for a reason, and I'm grateful for it," said Morales, who just took up the sport in January. "If there were any way I could do this for a living, I would."

European roots

While writing a book about cricket's history in Mexico, White found that it was first played in the country in 1827.

"It's the oldest [European] sport in the country," he said. "For a while, the most popular too."

After Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, the United Kingdom was among the first European nations to establish diplomatic relations with the nascent country. Thousands of working-class British nationals who came to Mexico to work mostly in the mining industry introduced sports, such as cricket and soccer, in the process.

After Reforma's founding, the venue became ground zero for cricket among societal elites. The country's president and later dictator, Porfirio Díaz, was a noted fan, but his resignation from office in 1911 -- a result of the Mexican Revolution -- led to a decrease in popularity. Cricket in Mexico was relegated almost exclusively to the grounds at Reforma for much of the 20th century, kept alive by newcomers from the British Commonwealth who mingled at the club. Coverage of the sport is non-existent.

However, the latest influx of cricket fans from throughout the world have banded together in Mexico to stage a revival.

"It's absolutely a challenge, but one that I think will pay off," association president Ben Owen said. "There's a lot of excitement over what we can accomplish, even in the short term. But we need to get the word out and get more people involved."

Like White, Owen is from England and has spent more than a decade in Mexico City. During a post-graduation trip through the United States in a Volkswagen Bug, he decided to press on into Mexico after arriving in Texas. A few years after returning to England, he moved to Latin America on a permanent basis.

Both White and Owen share a vested interest in Mexico beyond cricket. White married Abril, a Mexican citizen, two years ago and has now spent eight years living in the capital. "I'm a local now, no doubt about it," he said.

Owen's youngest son was born in Mexico, and his wife Caroline serves as the Jaguares captain, a role that includes coaching duties.

"It's been a great privilege to play with these women," Caroline said. "It is truly fantastic to see how far we've come in such a short space."

Plans to introduce cricket in other large Mexican population centers such as Monterrey and Guadalajara have begun, thanks in part to partnerships with the ICC and local institutions. The aim is to introduce the sport to youngsters and create a demand beyond what currently exists.

As cricket in Mexico progresses beyond Reforma, Ladrón is enthusiastic about the initial crew at the forefront of relaunching the sport and achieving success in the process.

"Think about it: We train only once a week, and sometimes some of the girls can't even make it," she said. "We have mothers and daughters on the team, and none of us had ever played before."

Yet on a hot Sunday afternoon in front of a small crowd of less than 100 that included British ambassador to Mexico Corin Robertson, Las Jaguares celebrated their 158-108 victory over Costa Rica in the tournament's deciding match. As both tears and cheers flowed, the latest chapter of cricket's stilted Mexican history had been written at Reforma, the express hope lying in the fabled ground continuing to provide the country with memories -- while simultaneously serving as a launch point for much more.