A Sport for Good Sports

The stately game of cricket is winning young converts.

That doesn't mean the game will ever truly catch on in America. In the best-case scenario, Aussie Ellnor says, a strong junior-cricket program here would eventually produce a generation of top American-born players for the U.S. national team and heighten cricket's profile. That could take decades. Meanwhile, Ellnor observes, the gentle pace and quiet decorum of the game don't much appeal to the inborn American lust for incessant action and violent collision. Already, a lot of people think baseball and soccer suffer from excitement-deficit disorder; where does that leave U.S. cricket?

"Well, for kids, we are modifying the game," Ruparel explains. "We want to make it quicker and more active -- six players on a side instead of eleven and..." here he trails off into a thicket of rules that Einstein, or even Bill Wyman, might have trouble grasping. Suffice it to say that many U.S. junior-cricket games now take only an hour and a half. "If cricket is to grow and thrive in America," says Ruparel, "it has to adapt to the American culture and psyche. This is one way of doing it."

In time -- a long time, probably -- some upstart American team may find itself competing at the mecca of the sport, Lord's Cricket Grounds in central London, where top players draped in sparkling white flannels contest five-day Test Matches at a stately pace while well-dressed spectators nibble on strawberries and cream. Someday, the son or grandson of one of Ruparel's charges may "score centuries at Lord's" in the manner of Sir Donald Bradman, the Babe Ruth of cricket, who died last year at the age of 92. In a generation or two, some Coloradan might "take 400 Test wickets" like the great West Indian bowler Curtly Ambrose -- the game's Bob Gibson -- whose singleminded ferocity and 7'1" frame compelled at least one NBA team to offer him a million dollars just to try out, even though he'd never played basketball.

Despite its layers of tradition, the face of the game has changed dramatically in recent decades. While the mythology of England and Lord's still holds sway, the locus of the game has shifted from the mother country to Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, the Caribbean, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. In southern Asia, the game is an outright passion: Two hundred fifty million TV viewers recently watched India face visiting Australia in a Test Match. "The jolliest game in the world" even has a scandal all its own: In 2000, South African captain Hansie Cronje confessed to taking bribes from bookmakers, and the match-fixing rumors that had been circulating for years burst into the open. Cronje, whom Ruparel calls "the Pete Rose of cricket," was banned from international play, but the scandal fallout continues.

In the United States, where regional organizations have been wracked by petty disputes, most adult players are still expatriates of cricket-playing countries, while the majority of youth players are the children of those expats, although the Lenski pilot program happily embraces all comers -- including fallen-away Little Leaguers and pint-sized Michael Jordan fanatics. Increasingly, they do know the difference between a googlie and a slip, a wicket-keeper and a gully -- and instead of daydreaming about throwing a no-hitter in the World Series, they imagine themselves as Curtly Ambrose or Sachin Tendulkar, the current superstar of the Indian national team.

What will all of this hidden passion, burning bright below the American radar, finally amount to in this country? It's hard to tell, but some things never change. Here comes spring at long last. Youngsters are once again breaking out their bats and balls. And the glow of excitement lights their faces.

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