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 Beautydirector 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.

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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