A Sport for Good Sports

The stately game of cricket is winning young converts.

Before last week, I regarded the game of cricket as a stodgy ancestor of our baseball -- as a peculiar English obsession no less mystifying than the love sonnets of Sir John Suckling or those gray clots of mutton you sometimes find on your dinner plate in London.

That has all changed. After putting myself in the capable hands of Dan Ruparel, a 41-year-old, Bombay-born cricketer who teaches the sport to children at Lois Lenski Elementary School in Centennial, and Clinton Ellnor, an Australian native who loves the game, I now find cricket no more confusing than new-phase-equilibria studies in geochemistry.

This much is clear: The British Empire may be a memory, but the sun hasn't set on cricket -- not by a long shot. In fact, while most of us blinkered Coloradans were bouncing down the moguls at Vail or trundling off to the gun show to get a good deal on grenade launchers, cricket crept right into our own back yard. Some 350 Denver-area youngsters now take part in youth programs and junior clinics -- mostly in the southeast suburbs -- and since 1986, adult players in the eight-team Colorado Cricket League have been bowling and batting their hearts out for the love of a game few Americans have ever seen, much less tried. "Today this is not even a novelty sport here," Ruparel notes. "It's very much a special-interest sport, and almost invisible."

With its paddle-shaped bats, straight-armed bowling (Mike Hampton would call it "pitching") and scrambling fielders, this long-honored old game certainly has some flickering resemblance to baseball. There are "fast bowlers" and "slow bowlers," just as we have flamethrowers and junk-ballers, and cricket features "innings" and "outs." Cricketers, too, count the score in "runs." But thereafter, the two games diverge wildly. Consider, for example, the feat of Brian Lara, a great left-handed batsman from Trinidad and Tobago. In one Test Match, a top-level cricket game played over the course of five days, Lara scored 375 runs. In one at-bat! Cricketers don't actually call a batsman's time protecting the wickets and hitting the ball an "at-bat," but for our purposes, that's what it amounts to: Imagine Larry Walker standing at the plate and hitting pitches safely for fifteen hours (not counting breaks for water, lunch and high tea) before making an out, and you can grasp what Lara did. In a First Class match, a level below Test, he scored a record 501 runs. That would turn a few heads even at Coors Field.

Numbers like these (and a lot of other things about cricket) may baffle today's hot-dog-eating baseball fan, but this elegant, leisurely game actually has deep roots in the United States. Ruparel points out that colonists played cricket in Virginia as early as 1709, and George Washington's troops indulged in "wickets" at Valley Forge in 1778. The first match in Colorado was played on August 24, 1888, when Denver defeated Colorado Springs "by an innings and 36 runs." The Denver side, a newspaper account reported, was made up of "pleasant gentlemen and good cricket players."

Acting as "pleasant gentlemen" has been part and parcel of the game since its birth -- probably in the late sixteenth century. The seven- to ten-year-olds Ruparel coaches in the pilot cricket program at Lenski are introduced to an old code that dictates modesty, respect for one's teammates and opponents, and obedience to the umpire. Instead of talking trash and squabbling, these kids are taught to applaud opposing batsmen when they are retired and to walk away quietly themselves when they make an out. Those rules are not always easy for kids given to attention lapses and preteen surges of adrenaline, but they manage. No one threw a plastic training bat the day I watched practice, and ego displays were minimal, even though the kids were having a ball.

Cricket's genteel manners extend, of course, to the adult leagues, which are dominated in Colorado -- as well as in the hotbeds of New York and California -- by expatriates from such cricket-playing realms as Australia, South Africa and the countries of southern Asia. "Even when both countries developed the atomic bomb," Ruparel says, "the Indians and the Pakistanis on our [Littleton] team never discussed that; it was outside the game." Instead, the players sit down together for civilized, mid-match luncheons catered by Gandhi Indian restaurant -- a game of cricket and a plate of chicken vindaloo can apparently do wonders for international relations.

Americans may not know a "googlie" ("a leg-break ball with an off-break action," for your information) from a "silly mid-off" (one of the short-fielders on defense), but they will recognize some notable figures who played the game well. The 1,650-page 2001 edition of the Wisden Cricketers' Almanack, a sporting bible that has been published every year since 1868, tells us that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle played superior cricket, as did King George VI, Rolling Stone Bill Wyman, American Beauty director Sam Mendes and Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery. The most surprising cricketer? Before making his mark as one of the twentieth century's foremost chroniclers of doom and disconnection, Irish-born playwright Samuel Beckett was a promising cricketer at the First Class level.

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