The left fist shot out from a blazer sleeve, one bony finger pointing in the direction of up. Edmund Peckover—his long British face comprehending now, as if a cartoon balloon had suddenly appeared above him with a light bulb sparkling inside—had recognized the name of the place. "Ah, yes. I remember it now," he said. "They did round up all those hoodlum types right in there."
The automobile had just passed a New York restaurant that is rapidly approaching immortality in the world of cops and robbers as the spot where policemen interrupted a very important lunch one afternoon. The event was vividly recalled by Edmund Peckover and, at that moment, the incongruity of this trip struck the driver. On a summer holiday weekend there were some who swam and some who sailed and others who fished or picnicked in the park. America that day might watch something solid, baseball or Ed Sullivan; might play something familiar, tennis, golf, Scrabble. Sporting America would enjoy the holiday with all the familiar domestic pursuits. And here he was, about to spend three days watching men play an alien game, to him a new and strange game, Edmund Peckover's game, cricket. And here they were, the elderly Englishman and the young American, passing a den of hoods to get to the game of lords.
A few days earlier, wading through several books, magazine articles, instructional and what were, in effect, documented position papers that Peckover had sent on the subject, the younger man came upon this from The New York Times:
London, Aug. 28 (Reuters)—Asif Iqbal, a 24-year-old all-rounder, scored 146 runs for Pakistan in a world record ninth-wicket stand with Intikhab Alam, who got 51 runs, against England in the third and final cricket test at the Oval today.... The third match final score was Pakistan 216 and 255; England 440 and 34 for two.
September 1, 1968
Asif's 146 came in three hours 10 minutes and included two sixes and 21 fours. England's task of making 32 to win was made difficult by Asif, who dismissed Brian Close and Colin Cowdrey before England scrambled to victory.
By the time the weekend was over the American was to understand "all-rounders" and "ninth-wicket stands" and "440 and 34 for two" and "sixes" and "fours" and "dismissing" and to understand, especially, Edmund Peckover.
Peckover was born in London and came to the U.S. in 1921. He is rather tall and rather thin and a bit bent over; the way he flutters about suggests—erroneously—that, like the Scarecrow of Oz, he is about to fall apart. He has had a nicely varied life, having been at one time or another a Royal Canadian Mountie, a British officer, an American soldier, a bass baritone with two octaves, an insurance man, a portrait artist, a cartoonist, a radio broadcaster and the self-confessed "untold, unsung Boswell of Greenwich Village." These occupations, however, have always been just things to do; nothing interferes with his two great loves: chess, at which he is one of the best end-game composers in the world, and cricket.
His mind is a fertile field on these subjects. He can call forth detailed information on the two games, stretching back into their histories. Little-known statistics, uncounted facts, specific dates on cricket, for instance, come crashing out at any moment.
His preoccupation with these details is explained by a statement that Peckover attributes to a "noted educator," whose name, strangely, he has forgotten but whose theory he regards as sacred. The noted educator said, "People who have no interest in the history of the pursuits they enjoy the most have very small minds." End of discussion. Peckover quotes this theory quite a bit, and it ends all discussions. Not satisfactorily, the way one would want to end a discussion. But it does end them.
This weekend cricket was foremost in Peckover's mind. A touring team from the Marylebone Cricket Club of England, the international ruling body of the sport, was playing two matches in the New York area. (Do not call the club the "Marylebone Cricket Club" around Peckover. It is "MCC" to him.) First, however, he wanted to show his American friend a pickup cricket match, so that he could get the feel of the sport. His voice boomed over the phone: "Bring a lawn chair, too lad. The ground gets awfully hard."
The get-the-feel game was to be played in a public park in the Bronx, and they traveled through Manhattan streets that were practically deserted. "New York is a wonderful place on the weekend," Peckover said, bringing to mind the observation that it is too bad the New Yorkers who leave the city on Sundays aren't able to see how nice it is without them.
A man named Hall, a big West Indian, was batting in the park, and Peckover knew him. "Very good batsman, but a very temperamental fellow," he said. The bowler whom Hall was facing had stationed all of his fielders behind Hall (there is no foul territory in cricket; you can hit the ball in any direction). The area they were in is called "the slips." But Hall was pounding hits to the opposite end of the field. Peckover pointed out that the bowler was not moving his fielders there because it was a matter of pride. "He doesn't want to admit that Hall can take such liberties with his bowling. Ah, but wait. There he goes. He's moving them now. The fielders are changing. I believe the bowler is watering his wine."
Shortly afterward Hall made an out—or was dismissed—and Peckover jumped from the lawn chair, his fist in the air, his feet stomping the ground. "You know what that was? See that? That's a yorker. Hall thought it was a full toss. But it was a yorker. It fooled him. It really fooled him." Peckover was fairly bellowing now, wagging his head and waving his hands and then demonstrating how to hit a yorker. Peckover is highly excitable where cricket is concerned, or where anything is concerned, for that matter. He jumps around. He waves his hands, sweeping them fore and aft and up and down in long, billowing strokes, as though he were conducting the London Philharmonic.
He also has the habit of breaking the continuity of a discussion to focus on other things for a brief moment; nature, for example. In the midst of a lecture on the history of the Staten Island Cricket Club he paused, whispered, "beautiful butterfly" as one flitted past, then dived right back into dates, names and changes in ownership. In the park that day, as he analyzed batting and bowling styles, he suddenly looked up at an object drifting over the cricket ground and asked, "Is that a hummingbird?" Someone said, "No, that's a kite." For a split second Peckover looked puzzled, then abruptly abandoned the sky and resumed his demonstration of how to hit a yorker.
Afternoon cricket matches usually last five or six hours or until one team "appeals against the light," but Peckover decided to head for home before dark. "Look at that, now," he said as he walked up the hill on his way from the park. "The end of the day. The sun going down. The green grass and the white uniforms. This is the esthetic part of the game. What art! What beauty, eh? It is a haunting setting."
There are many theories of how the game of cricket began, but one of the most interesting holds that once upon a prehistoric time a monkey, instead of catching a coconut thrown at him playfully by another monkey, went to the opposite field on the other monkey and hit the coconut with a stick. A second story involves, of all people, Cuchulain, the legendary hero of Ireland. Cuchulain played a game in which he defended a hole in the ground into which his opponent tried to pitch a ball. At this kind of cricket Cuchulain defeated 150 Colts of Ulster. The score was:
Colts, b. Cuchulain...0
Cuchulain, not out...1
This little story does not do much for most of us, but it sends cricket enthusiasts rolling in the aisles.
Even Peckover was amused when he heard it the next day. But he came back quickly with some stories of his own. "Keats encountered a black eye playing cricket," he said suddenly, his eyes opening wide, wider and disappearing into his forehead. "Byron played in the first Eton-Harrow match. Remember how distinct a sound is the bat on the ball? Joyce wrote, 'The pick, pack, pock, puck: little drops of water in a fountain slowly falling in the brimming bowl.' "
The first match that the vaunted MCC team was to play in the New York area was against the Staten Island Cricket Club. Its residents call Staten Island a political and geographical stepchild of New York, and indeed there is more of New Jersey in their hearts than New York. The island is 14 miles long, seven miles wide, somewhere, and has a population of 270,000. It is the most rural of the city's five boroughs, and it is probably the least known. Its major notoriety, in fact, was achieved when Mel Torme used to sing that he would take it, too, with the Bronx and build Manhattan "into an isle of joy."
Peckover explained how the story of the founding of the club should be written: "Around 1872 a group of dissidents broke off from the St. George's Club and decided to go it on their own," he said. "Yes, put it like that. Dissidents. You will immediately strike a sympathetic note with the readers. You know, psychology. I can tell you about this, you know. The readers will say, 'Ah, these chaps were outvoted in the meetings. They never got a square deal.' Dissidents. That's the word. Sympathy for the underdog. It always works when you hit them with that. Say dissidents."
The match was played on a beautiful tree-lined lawn next to a quaint old stone-block clubhouse just two streets from Kill Van Kull, a tidal strait that adjoins New York Harbor. The official dimensions of a cricket field call for a circular field 150 yards in diameter. The Staten Island field was a shade smaller than this, but cricket grounds apparently are like baseball outfields—to each its own.
The New York Times, represented by a man in a black turtleneck sweater, came over and asked Peckover some questions. He seemed a nice man, Peck-over said later, but not sympathetic enough to the game. He would miss the image.
The field began filling up with good-looking young men, all with rock jaws and hard bodies, who were dressed in blue blazers with "MCC" emblazoned in red and white on their breast pockets.
The president of the Staten Island Cricket Club, John Brebner, was introduced to the man from the Times. Peckover had the honors, but he was a little flustered and introduced Brebner as the President of the U.S. Brebner said the souvenir program contained a page for autographs, "To give a little color, you know." A sweet old lady ran up, imploring all to, "Please move. Please move back. No one can see." The man from the Times muttered, "What is there to see?" One got the distinct impression that The New York Times was missing the image.
The first MCC batsman "made a duck," which meant he went out before he could score any runs; but shortly thereafter one of Staten Island's best players pulled a muscle and had to leave the game. It was getting very hot now, but a light wind was still whispering through the bushes and children were shouting and laughing on the playgrounds nearby. It was a very pleasant holiday afternoon.
Just before lunch the 37-year-old playing captain of the MCC, Dennis R.W. Silk, came over to Peckover's group. He said he had been born in California.
"Eureka, California. October the eighth, nineteen hundred and thirty one, wasn't it, sir?" Peckover said. Silk was startled. Then he said that the MCC had done all right on its tour, most of which was in Canada. "Won some, drew some," he said. He was asked for specifics. "Won 20, rained out two, drew one," he said. One should believe what one hears about British understatement.
"Cricket is a great game," Silk said, "a game of character. There are more books on cricket than on any other sport."
"Except chess," said Peckover.
"That can't be," said Silk.
"Oh yes, sir. Except chess," said Peckover.
"That's impossible," said Silk.
"My dear man," said Peckover in rising tones. "You are speaking to an international authority on the subject. Do you know how many Russians play chess? Do you know how many Englishmen play cricket? Sir, I would be willing to bet you ¬£100 right this minute...." And off he went, explaining to Silk that people who have no interest, etc. "have very small minds." The crowd that had been attracted by the strength of Peckover's voice was gently dispersed. The discussion was ended.
In cricket the players have a refreshment break, a lunch break, another refreshment break, a tea break and another refreshment break before "the light fails" and everybody goes home. Observing these many intermissions one day when he visited Lord's, the famous cricket ground in London, Will Rogers said, "Hell, this ain't a game. It's a banquet."
After lunch the crowd, about 300 people now, was treated to the play of Everton Weekes, a 43-year-old West Indian batsman of world renown. Weekes is stocky and powerful, with skin of mahogany and a pencil mustache. It was plain to see the special charisma he held for the crowd.
Weekes scored 33 runs, including two booming sixes (a six is more or less a home run). After the MCC had finished its innings and the Staten Island team was up, two American-born members of the American club spoke of how they happened to start playing cricket. Dr. Donald Snider, 28-year-old resident surgeon in New York, said he had gone to school in Kent but learned the game at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. He liked it, he said, because it was relaxing and comfortable. He also said that he never met a man in cricket he didn't like. Will Rogers must have had more influence on cricket than one would imagine.
The second man, Al Garcia, who is an actor and model, said he had been born in Yoakum, Texas. A man born of Mexican parents in Yoakum, Texas who plays cricket is a major upset. "Any umpire who calls me out up at the bat, I stab him in the back," said Garcia. He said that it was an old Mexican tradition, stabbing in the back. Garcia is pretty funny.
"I learned the game in Australia," he said. "I was down there with a road company. I saw these men in white come onto this beautiful green, and a hush came over the crowd. It stayed like that the whole afternoon. They had tea. The hush stayed. Such grace and peace in the game. It was beautiful. 'This game,' I said, 'I must play.' "
Some of the club members were applauding and urging on one of Staten Island's best batsmen, Baji Palkhiwala, an Indian. They were yelling "Baji, Baji." Peckover came running over. "My God, my God," he yelled, waving his arms, "come! Come see. This man is bowling a perfect, genuine, googly ball! From my end of the field you can see it quite clearly. A real, honest-to-goodness googly!" A googly is cricket's knuckle-ball; it breaks in the opposite direction from that which the batsman expects. Well, it is more complicated than that, but that is enough to know.
Peckover went back to the googly, and an Englishman who had been engaged earlier in a violent conversation with Peckover came over. His name was Don Roger. He said he had been kidding when he told Peckover that cricket was a dying game, so why did Peckover get so angry? "I was only having some fun with him," Roger said, "but he acted like a wild man. Truthfully, though, I don't like the game anymore. I used to play, and I would stand out there in the field and think about all the things I could be doing elsewhere. A bloody waste of time." It was obvious that he had taken his life into his hands with that earlier remark to Peckover, but his candor was admirable.
A small boy on a bike rode past. "See those refs out there in the white coats?" he said. "What are they, butchers?" "No, he's the butcher," said Roger, pointing at his friend Dr. Snider. Everyone was having a good laugh over that one when an Italian custodian of the park walked over. "You think I watch this game if I don't work here?" he said. "You crazy. I go see the Yankees if I don't work here." Roger said that cricket was a good Italian game. The custodian said that cricket was a good Italian game, his rear end. Something like that. "I never understand this cricket. It's nuts. Boccie," he said. "Boccie, that's a good Italian game."
Toward the end of the match, when it was becoming apparent that Staten Island was forcing a draw with the MCC, there was a dispute about the time left until the finish. All the watches showed past 7 o'clock, the finishing time that had been agreed upon, yet the match was still going full blast. Arshad Khan, the Staten Island captain, ran onto the field, arguing with the umpires. "Why isn't it over?" asked Dr. Snider's wife. "Arshad looks furious. If he gets any madder he might pull stumps. He's done it before." If Eddie Stanky ever runs out and pries up home plate with a crowbar, he will be pulling a wicket.
"Why isn't it over?" Dr. Snider's wife asked again. Dr. Snider said the umpire's watch was the deciding factor. "What?" roared Peckover. "Why that's preposterous! What if the umpire has a Woolworth's watch on?" He was very serious. "This is utterly ridiculous." Later it was discovered that a Staten Island batsman had taken some extra time in the middle of the match and Captain Silk had requested added time at the end to make up for it. Actually the MCC could have claimed a victory because of the opposing batsman's transgressions. But peace was imposed, and the match ended in a draw.
The Times covered the match artfully, with a fair-sized feature story the next day and two pictures. But on arriving at a field in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn for the final match of the MCC tour, Peckover expressed to Captain Silk his displeasure with the article. "You were most magnanimous in your praise of baseball," he told Silk. "And I thought you came out quite all right, if the truth be known."
Silk agreed. Of course, he had been quoted in the paper as saying that baseball had "moments of great excitement punctuated by popcorn."
Unlike the Staten Island ground, Red Hook was not particularly suitable for cricket. The field was uneven and rocky, the grass uncut and ankle-high in most spots. Beer cans and other debris were strewn about, and a cinder track circled the ground, cutting into the playing field. The boundary on one side was a concrete bleacher. Football goalposts were in the line of well-struck hits, and people kept walking across the field during play.
The cricket ground was tucked in, not very charmingly, among trucking warehouses, Port Authority shipyards, some abandoned cargo hangars, a small custard-colored paint factory and towering garbage incinerators. This was the neighborhood where young Alphonse Capone used to play hopscotch. "That's right, yeah," said a passing ice-cream man. "That was the old days. He came outa here. You know what? I heard he had a real good brain. Say, what is this stupid game, anyway?"
The opposition this day was an All-Star team made up entirely of West Indians. The crowd was West Indian also. It was a happy, animated crowd, well versed in the nuances of cricket and of having a good time. Some had brought guitars and drums and they played calypso much of the afternoon. "Hey mon, hey mon," they would yell gleefully, time and again.
The day was the warmest of the weekend. Peckover sat in the shade on his lawn chair, talking to Gerald Butterfield, an elderly gentleman who was wearing a straw hat and a mocha suit. Butterfield, it was said, had played many fine years on the national team of Bermuda and once took the wicket of the great Australian, C. G. Macartney.
Hugh Silk, brother of the MCC captain and a transplanted Londoner who is at present the assistant to the headmaster of a preparatory school in Manhattan, was sitting in the sun with some American friends. An amiable type, he was explaining the game to them and saying that well, now, the MCC was doing remarkably well, considering the conditions. It seems that the MCC had taken "a bit of guff" from the crowd the day before. They had been told that today's match would be their roughest of the tour, for the West Indian team was very good. Hugh Silk said he thought the MCC boys were quite up for this particular match.
They seemed to be. Though plagued by the high grass, the MCC was scoring well until two batsmen made outs within five minutes of each other. "Oh, oh. Headline: 'England in danger,' " said Hugh Silk. He then explained that such headlines in British newspapers occasionally upset visiting Americans. They would see ENGLAND IN DANGER in the papers and wonder what new international crisis had arisen, when what really had happened was that England had given up seven wickets to Australia.
The MCC finished its bats, scoring 140 runs, its lowest total of the tour. But the long grass, more than the opposition bowling, was responsible for this. Surprisingly, the West Indian team was practically helpless against the MCC bowlers, especially when they faced the deliveries of Alan Moss. They went out rather quickly, scoring only 53 runs.
At a farewell dinner for the British team that night, Captain Silk explained the success of Moss. "He brought something out of the bag today," the captain said. "Alan is an England bowler and he bowled like an England bowler." This seemed to satisfy everyone, and wine glasses were raised all around as the American toastmaster announced: "To the Queen." Captain Silk responded: "Let me return the favor. Sir, to the President."
Throughout the festivities, Peckover's head kept bobbing up and down, out and away, over everybody, swooping like a seagull upon the fish, as he conversed with one and all. He was not seen all the time, but he was heard.
Later the West Indians honored the boys from the MCC with a dance and party in Harlem at the Renaissance Ballroom. As the distinguished British cricketers danced out their tour to the cucarachas of Cougie's Orchestra, one remembered what Dan Piachaud, a young team member whom the MCC roster described as "a splendid fielder and useful bat," had said earlier in the evening.
He was talking about his many travels, the cities and lands he had visited and what made them good or bad.
"Most cities are not really very different," Dan had said. "It is all elementary, anyway. We have a room here. A large room, with maybe 60 people inside. And we are in this city. But take any room. Anywhere. A small room with two or three in it. Very small, you know? But if it is a good evening, if you are having a good time, if the people are good—ah, yes, if the people in the room are good—then, it is a good city."
That evening, as the English say it so well, "the standard of wit was high." Dan Piachaud was right, and Edmund Peckover was right. Cricket is a good game.