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Zharnel Hughes, Hurricane Irma and an angel in the outfield – sport in Anguilla

The expectation of fans at Birmingham 2022 means next year’s Commonwealth Games could be particularly special.

With COVID-19 forcing the Tokyo 2020 Olympics to be held behind closed doors, the prospect of cheering crowds at a multi-sport event once again is a tantalising one. 

Cardigan Connor, Anguilla’s Chef de Mission for Birmingham 2022, certainly knows the impact those in the stands can have.

The cricketer, who took more than 1,000 wickets when playing for Hampshire to become part of the English county’s folklore, was once given a helping hand from a mystery voice.

“I remember we played a game against Surrey, if we won that game we’d have won the league,” Connor told insidethegames.

“Surrey had put on a big partnership, they were five wickets down and I dropped a catch. 

“I had to bowl the last over and they needed seven runs to win.

“It was like the film Angels in the Outfield, where the angels would move the goalposts and stuff like that, or catch the ball and keep it in play. 

“And I remember this old lady said to me ‘come on Cardy, you can win it for us’. 

“And I don’t know if that was a real person, but in my mind it was the best words I ever heard on a cricket field. 

“Because I was pretty much blaming myself, but they only got three runs. 

“It was her inspiration. I don’t know her name, I don’t know where she came from. She was supporting me and Hampshire that day.”

Anguilla has competed at six Commonwealth Games, and Connor has been Chef de Mission since Manchester 2002.

The small Caribbean island is aiming to take 13 athletes to Birmingham 2022, including six in athletics.

They also plan to compete in cycling, boxing and swimming.

“If you consider that we have only about 14,000 people, when we take 13 athletes to the Games the whole island is covered,” said Connor.

“There is a great deal of interest in the Games. People don’t expect us to win medals, but I think Anguillans understand that it’s more a breeding ground for athletes to go on and represent England or Great Britain at the higher level. 

“Professionally, we just cannot afford to look after the athletes. If an athlete gets injured, and they have an operation and then need rehab, with the time they need to train, unless they work for Government, or the Government gives them the money, it’s very difficult. 

“We don’t have a proper track, we don’t have any training pools in Anguilla. We rely very heavily on natural ability.” 

The men’s 100 metres final at Tokyo 2020, for many the blue-riband event of any Olympics, included a man from Anguilla.

Zharnel Hughes, racing for Britain, suffered heartbreak as he was disqualified for a false start.

There could soon be more anguish for the sprinter, and Anguilla itself, with the Tokyo silver he won as part of the 4x100m relay team at risk due to CJ Ujah’s positive drugs test.

“We’re like the factory mill and the breeding ground, and we share in the success of Zharnel and Shara Proctor, whether it’s running for GB or England,” Connor, who has now moved into politics, said. 

“They are good ambassadors for us here in Anguilla. We don’t expect them to get up on the podium and shout ‘Anguilla’, as they have a responsibility to the country that put them in that position. 

“But when they come home they will go to the schools and encourage the athletes. It’s very good PR.

“Having Zharnel out there in the finals of the Olympics, running well, he’s a role model here and a local hero, same as Shara. 

“What the Anguillan youngsters can see, and what the coaches can see, is that there is a path to the very top, to mix it with the best in the world.”

At the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics another Anguillan, triple jumper Keith Connor, won a bronze medal in British colours.

He also won two Commonwealth Games titles and a European gold during a career which later saw him appointed as head coach of Athletics Australia.

These were superb achievements for a man from an island which has to fight against the odds – such as the constant threat of hurricanes.

In 2017, Hurricane Irma caused widespread damage, including to the island’s only hospital, and sport was forced to completely rebuild.

Cardigan Connor once said that “to live in paradise, you have to accept that sometimes the devil will knock at your door”.

“Irma was a devastating hurricane,” he said. “The park where we play cricket is also where we have track and field. 

“We were able to get £60 million from Britain to help rebuild infrastructure, but that was mainly the schools and the health facilities. 

“There was nothing really for the park or the pavilion, so we are short on structural facility. 

“In football, FIFA have still been able to give money each year and the good thing is our youngsters are staying active. 

“You try to give them as many options as possible. Right now, football is the main option.”

 COVID-19 has had limited impact on athletes in Anguilla, and the island’s strong links with Britain will also be an advantage in Birmingham.

“England makes it a lot easier for us,” Connor said. “The athletes will have family there, so they go and get acclimatised. 

“By the time the Games come around they won’t feel as if they are trying to settle in, whether it’s with the food or the change in weather.”

One English town giving Anguilla special backing will be Slough, around two hours away from Birmingham on the outskirts of London.

A number of people from the island moved there in the 1950s and 1960s, with several working at a Mars factory.

“Every Anguillan has got a family member in Slough,” Connor said.

“A number of Anguillans all gathered in Slough, just to keep the community tight. Slough was regarded as the home of Anguillans.

“I take huge offence when people make fun of ‘Sluff’, as some have called it!”

Before travelling to the Games, Anguilla will welcome the Queen’s Baton Relay as part of the Caribbean leg next year.

“That’s a huge hit,” Connor said. “When the baton comes through of course we get as many people as possible on the island involved. 

“The children play a major role, and those who have competed at the Commonwealth Games over the years. 

“Boat racing is our national sport and we always, and this is a bit risky, take the baton out on one of our sailing boats. 

“The baton is sold very well to promote the Games in Anguilla.”

As a cricketer, Connor is pleased to see a women’s T20 tournament on the Birmingham 2022 schedule.

And he believes the Games next year are in safe hands.

“When you watch some of the women play now, their throwing arms are brilliant, all of them,” he said.

“The batting style, the way they hit the ball, it’s amazing how physical it is. If you look at the game, it’s a good game of cricket.

“The Games, I think, have got better and better. 

“For the athletes, the key is comfortable sleeping conditions, good food and easy access to venues. 

“And I do believe that Birmingham will do a good job, simply because it is more than Birmingham, it is the home Federation as well.”

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