A Game with Tea Breaks

Ten years ago cricket was an exotic fringe sport in the U.S. But thanks to a surge of new immigrants--and to elite players who follow the money and go to bat for more than one team--it's coming to a field near you
November 03, 2008

The half-dozenJamaican cricketers crowded into Barrington Bartley's sagging Ford Windstar andleft Brooklyn, bound for suburban Washington, D.C., and the title game of theWashington Cricket League. Midnight came and went as they rode through thetrapped fog and odd yellow light of the New Jersey Turnpike. They drank RedBull and played home-burned mixes of reggae and dance hall. Beenie Man mighthave been on as they passed Exit 7A, or Damian Marley at a Delaware pit stop;nobody was paying too close attention. In the trunk, more reminders of home:flat wood cricket bats and a mishmash of white uniforms made of nylon andpolyester, laundered in hot water but still bearing the stains of pastgames.

On this Saturdayin October the traveling Jamaicans, in their 20s and 30s, would representKensington Sports Club, the New York Yankees of the Washington Cricket League(WCL). It's a growing league in a growing American sport. There are about50,000 active cricket players in the country and 750 registered cricketclubs--a nod to the rapid increase of Indian and Pakistani immigration. Cricketis growing in the U.S. at a faster pace than baseball, table tennis, hanggliding or most any other sport you could name. On Sunday most of the playersin Bartley's minivan would play for other teams in other leagues. In New YorkCity and Los Angeles and Fort Lauderdale and Washington you can make good moneyplaying the old English game.

In the U.S., atleast, the sport's business model is a weird one. Money goes out but doesn'tcome in. Players get paid directly by the managers, sometimes called owners, ofa couple dozen cricket teams in several not-for-profit leagues. But there areno ticket sales or concession fees or parking charges. For a so-called owner,cricket is an expensive hobby--and a labor of love.

Men armed withcheckbooks have always been partial to competitive sports, and that's a goodthing for Bartley and maybe another 300 cricketers in the U.S., virtually allof them born in former British colonies--notably Jamaica, India and Pakistan.Bartley, captain of the Kensington team, is a bank customer-service manager andplays for three or four clubs at a time. He's tall and lean, high-strung in theheat of competition. When a call goes against his club, no matter which onehe's playing for, he'll run in tight circles around the officials in their longwhite lab coats, his arms trailing behind him like wings, and scream, "Noway, mon--no way!"

Bartley and otherskilled batsmen and bowlers can make $1,000 or more over a regular weekend,more during a three-day weekend. Not that any of them would ever publiclyacknowledge such sums. At a recent WCL playoff game, somebody asked RashardMarshall, another member of the Brooklyn group, about his day rate. He threwback his chin, smiled ear-to-ear and said, "I play for love of game,mon."

Other playersmentioned other draws:

•Extending theexpiration date on one's boyhood. (Bartley and Marshall have been friends sincechildhood in Jamaica.)

•Getting thechance to be a hero. (A cricket bat, one dreadlocked player said, is a chickmagnet.)

•Escaping the loudticking of the U.S. national clock. (In cricket an eight-hour game is ablip.)

•Remembering home.(One player from Pakistan had wistful memories of playing cricket on thestreets of Lahore with a taped tennis ball, avoiding his no-nonsense father allthe while.)

•The generalpursuit of a good time. (Jamaica's ambassador to the U.S., Anthony Johnson,said at a recent WCL playoff game, "Cricket ends with a dance.")

•And gettingpaid.

In the case of theKensington club, the man with the checkbook is a Jamaican-born personal-injurylawyer named Sheldon Ellis. Cricket anchors his life. He woke up early theSaturday of the final and inspected his rye-and-crabgrass home field in apublic park in Hyattsville, Md., about 12 miles from the Lincoln Memorial.Ellis, prosperous and thick-waisted, had on one of those old-school V-neckwhite sweaters you'd see at Lord's, the elegant cricket temple in London, overa white T-shirt. "You very seldom see a bum who plays cricket," helikes to say. He mockingly assumes the voice of a royal courtier, says,"Sir Sheldon Ellis," and giggles.

During thechampionship game, tension ran through Ellis like a low-grade fever. Theplayers on his roster, all of them from the Caribbean, are likely paid farbetter than players on the other 27 WCL teams. (Ellis calls the pay"stipends"; he doesn't want to look like an employer.) Kensington hadbeen winning all year and was expected to win the grand finale. Ellis felt theunbearable weight of expectation.

Kensington, theWCL champion in 2000, '02, '04, '05 and '07, had never lost a title game until2006, when it fell to the Washington Tigers, a mostly Pakistani team withunpaid players who all lived in suburban Washington. Many of the Tigers,several of whom fast for Ramadan each year during the playoffs, attached highmeaning to that win. But then Kensington won it all again in 2007, and nothingchanged in the '08 regular season. The politics of cricket is the sport withinthe sport, and all year there'd been a lot of grumbling about league schedulesand league rules--and about Sir Sheldon.

The captain of theTigers, Dawood Ahmad, declared recently, "Sheldon Ellis is not doinganything to promote cricket [among] young people in suburban Washington."It's a strong thing to say, given that Ellis is also president of the WCL."He's just worrying about his own team," Ahmad said. "It's theego."

This year Ahmadand the Tigers lost in the semifinals to Virginia, one of the few clubs in the34-year-old league in which East meets West, with players--paid and unpaid,local and imported--from Pakistan, India, Jamaica and Trinidad. TheVirginia-Kensington matchup in the final did nothing to please Ahmad. By hiscount, 17 of the 22 players in the final did not live in metropolitanWashington, and maybe half the players were getting paid. But in the 13-pageWCL bylaws, vetted carefully by counselor Ellis, there's not a word thatforbids importing paid ringers from out of town. Ahmad may not think it'scricket, but Ellis will tell you he's breaking no rules. He's in Americanow.

In the warmth ofthe afternoon, as the game stretched from its third hour to its fourth and thenits fifth, there might have been 200 or 300 spectators on hand, sitting inmetal stands and beach chairs. You could smell chicken and ribs grilling in agiant pit, $5 for a heaping plate, no napkin. Young men drank Heinekens, andolder men poured rum out of glass bottles covered by brown paper bags and intoplastic Gatorade bottles. Pakistani fans drank cans of Orange Crush andMountain Dew and smoked thin Gold Flake 84-mm cigarettes you don't see at most7-Elevens. Indian fans drank Dunkin' Donuts coffee. Jamaican men played Rummy500, gambling with crumpled U.S. dollars.

Behind the standswere woods, and their edge was a public urinal for the menfolk, both fans andplayers. (Women used the portable toilet.) Ramadan was over, so you didn't seeany cricketers bowing in prayer, heads to the turf, as you did in earlierrounds of the playoffs. Now and again you'd smell a lighted joint, and underthe stands there was a spent package of Bambu rolling papers amid the chickenbones and discarded beer bottles. People argued plays, screamed at theofficials, told stories and jokes. Nobody was in a rush.

You hear about thebatsman who told his wife he wanted to name his children for every city wherehe had 100-run games?

No.

Yes. Every city.His first century was in Sydney.

Fair enough.

The second was inLahore.

All through thegame, especially during its tea breaks, fans and players mingled. One Virginiaplayer, Saudhaun Baxi, a bowler born in India, has a university degree inaccounting and was working as a cashier at a service station. The money heearns playing cricket is unimportant to him. As Baxi tells it, the Virginiateam manager, Gunu Suri, owner of a medical supplies business, said he wouldpay Baxi $200 a game but later lowered it to $150. When Baxi learned of his paycut, he shrugged. "My expenses are low," he said. "I'm a single guyliving with my aunt, I don't eat out, and I don't believe in sex beforemarriage. I love cricket. I'd play for free."

Baxi cited hissexual abstinence credo as if it were a money-saver, and maybe it is for him,but it has nothing to do with cricket. There's something about the sportthat--how best to put this?--would make Austin Powers feel right at home. Yeah,bay-bee. After a playoff win in September the Kensington team and variousguests went on a cruise on the Potomac to celebrate both the victory and thesquad's 10th anniversary. Women outnumbered men. There was dancing on the topdeck, and the most popular drink of the night was Hennessy and Coke chased byRed Bull. The boat's crew members, all white Americans, were invited by theJamaicans to shake some booty, and at the end of the night one of boat handssaid, "We've never had so much fun." One player invited two dates andsomehow succeeded in keeping one from the other. The boat got a curfewextension from the U.S. Coast Guard and limped back to the dock at 3 a.m.

Back to the final.The names of the 22 players had been carefully entered in ink in the official'sscorebook. All of them were born overseas, their dark skin accentuated by theirwhite uniforms. From the stands, Pakistani men said a single Urdu word over andover: Shabash, shabash, shabash, shabash. It means excellent, but on thisbright day it was more like a Little League chant: Li'l hit here, li'l hit.

Baxi predicted avictory for Virginia, throwing out logic and the game's early results. "Iam sure of it," he said. But despite all the shabash-shabash-shabash on theVirginia side, Kensington was in control of the game. Yvette Douglas,Kensington's unofficial social director and a paralegal in Ellis's office,stirred a fish stew on a charcoal grill, anticipating a victory supper. Ellis,a skillful politician, was moving around, talking to officials and fans andplayers, acting relaxed.

Late in the daythere was a reversal only Baxi, the service station man, could have predicted.In baseball terms, it was the bottom of the ninth, runners on second and third,no outs, Kensington trailing by a run but about to send up the heart of itsbatting order. Kensington had only to do all the little things right, and itwould win another WCL title.

The light wasfading. The air was getting cool, and you could see goose bumps on Douglas'sforearms, no longer over the grill. Fans left their card games and bleacherseats and stood on the edge of the field with open mouths, some screaming,others silent. In quality, the play wasn't close to international test cricketor even English county cricket, but the eight-hour game was well played andended thrillingly. A wicket stood, a wicket fell, runs were scored and thenthey weren't, players argued, outs were made, and suddenly the hands of thefielders went up in celebration: Virginia had defeated Kensington, 195 runs to192. A major upset. Sir Sheldon walked up to Gunu Suri, shook his hand andsaid, "You earned it." It was cricket.

Hayon russell, themost experienced of the Kensington players, loaded up a plate with chickencurry and rice but did not touch it. He stood alone on the edge of the nowempty field. "What you saw there was the future," said Russell, anative of Jamaica who lives in suburban Maryland and works as an elevatortechnician. He was referring to the mix of players on the Virginia club. Bystereotype, Caribbean players are stronger and Asian players have more finesse.But there was more to Virginia's victory than the marriage of finesse andstrength. Virginia was practicing alchemy, and also shrewd use of the team'sbudget, known to be at least $10,000. "Next year," Russell said,"we hope to have two Pakistanis join Kensington."

Saturday's lightwas all but gone. People ate, and many went off to dance at clubs where RedStripe is served and cricketers are rock stars. But not Bartley and his crew.They climbed back into the Windstar and began the long, quiet drive home to NewYork. The music was off now. The next day Bartley had another game, this one inSouth Florida. He'd get some sleep on the plane.±

"You SELDOM SEE A BUM who plays cricket," saysEllis (left), in one of those old-school sweaters you'd see at Lord's.

There's something about cricket that--how best to putthis?--would make AUSTIN POWERS feel right at home. Yeah, bay-bee.

PHOTOPhotographs by Simon Bruty PHOTOPhotographs by Simon Bruty SWINGAND A MISS Kensington batsman Marshall was out when the ball blew past himand hit the stumps in the WCL final. PHOTOTHOMAS NORTHCUT/PHOTODISC/GETTY IMAGES (BAT) PHOTOPhotographs by Simon Bruty HOT ANDBOTHERED Virginia bowler Suri protested that Bartley (in orange cap) wasout, caught by the wicketkeeper (right). PHOTOPhotographs by Simon Bruty PHOTOPhotographs by Simon Bruty REMINDEROF HOME Fans and players have roots mostly in old British colonies,notably Jamaica, India and Pakistan.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)