When Khalid Kabir arrived at Haverford (Pa.) College from his
native Tanzania, he had designs on playing for the school's
soccer team. He figured he could indulge his other athletic
passion, cricket, when he went home for vacation. His first day
on Haverford's leafy campus, however, he nearly dropped his
orientation packet as he walked past the school's duck pond and
saw a group of students, attired in crisp whites, practicing
their bowling and wicketkeeping. "They weren't just fooling
around," says Kabir. "They had wickets and pads and everything."
Instead of playing soccer, Kabir, now a junior, became a member
of the Haverford XI, the only varsity cricket team in
intercollegiate athletics. For more than 150 years students at
this small liberal arts college in suburban Philadelphia have
passed by Cope Field on spring weekends and watched the world's
second-most-popular sport being played with surprising skill.
"It's not just tradition that keeps it a varsity sport," says
Haverford athletic director Greg Kannerstein. "We want to
recognize talented athletes playing a sport at a high level."
Still, this team is an antidote to the increasingly seamy world
of intercollegiate sports, where student-athlete is as
oxymoronic as postal service. Not only is Haverford (enrollment
1,100) a Division III school and thus forbidden to dole out
athletic scholarships, but also the team's coach, Kamran Khan,
doesn't believe in cuts. The program's annual budget is $10,000,
and the biggest controversy surrounding the team is which type
of tea to serve during the interval between overs. Even the
trash-talking--"How-zat?" is a favorite gibe directed at the
umpire or an opposing wicketkeeper after a dubious call--has an
air of decorum. "It's a gentleman's game," says Khan, a former
member of Pakistan's national team and the longtime captain of
the U.S. national team. "We do everything in good fun."
The caliber of play, on the other hand, is seriously high.
Competing against club-level teams from other East Coast
colleges as well as squads representing Philadelphia's swanky
lawn clubs, Haverford was 9-3 this season. On opening weekend,
April 2, Haverford defeated Penn 172-171, sustaining a rivalry
that dates back to 1864. Four summers ago Khan took his team on
a barnstorming tour of British universities and prep schools.
Haverford returned undefeated, having beaten teams from
Cambridge and Oxford. "They were shocked," says Khan,
Haverford's coach since 1973. "They didn't think an American
team would play at that level."
Half of the players on the Haverford team are natives of the
Indian subcontinent. Nevertheless, Khan's XI includes junior
captain Nick Saunders, a New Yorker; freshman Shawn Alexander,
who was born in Trinidad but attended an inner-city Philadelphia
high school; and sophomore Jesse Milnes, a native of Elkins,
W.Va. (pop. 7,500). "I hadn't even seen cricket before I came
here," Milnes says. "I played baseball as a kid, but that didn't
help me too much."
Like baseball, cricket features a batsman trying to make contact
with a rock-hard ball, fielders trying to induce an out, and a
soporific pace. (While international cricket "tests" span days,
Haverford plays limited overs, which restrict each team to 210
balls and keep games to under seven hours.) The comparisons
essentially end there. With no foul territory, cricket has a
different geometry from baseball. The absence of gloves on
cricket fielders adds an element of machismo that baseball
lacks. "It takes a while to condition yourself to bare-handing a
screamer," says Milnes. "But you get a few bruises and get used
A century has elapsed since 20,000 fans would congregate to
watch two Philadelphia cricket clubs play. Today most Americans
wouldn't know a wicket if they tripped over one--something
plenty of Haverford students have done cutting through Cope
Field to get to the science building. Yet the sport is
undergoing a modest renaissance in the U.S., primarily on the
Eastern seaboard. Last summer about a million U.S. households
ordered a pay-per-view package to watch the World Cup.
(Australia defeated Pakistan in the finals.)
For now, members of the Haverford XI get strange looks over the
summer when they practice their swings at batting cages. But
playing a cult sport has its advantages: Just two years after
discovering cricket, Milnes can tell his friends he's one of the
best players in West Virginia history.