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photo:Alicia Solsman

Watching the Wickets
By Rick Marshall

Booming abroad, cricket makes tenuous inroads via transplants and converts into American culture

 

“It’s going to be close,” sighs Steve Weisse, president of Tri-City Cricket Club, shaking his head as he tracks his team’s performance against the West Hill Cricket Club. At the moment, the Tri-City squad is enjoying a triple-digit lead over their rivals, and the sun is just beginning to sink in the sky over Albany’s Lincoln Park. Friends and family of the two teams shuffle around the edge of the field, laughing and catching up with one another as they set up a large barbecue grill and unpack foil-wrapped containers for the traditional post-game buffet.

“No, it doesn’t look good at all—we were only able to get 184 runs,” he continues, biting his lower lip as one of the West Hill players knocks a ball past the boundaries of the field, earning another six runs for the West Hill squad. With more than 20 overs remaining for West Hill (in cricket, six pitches constitute one “over”), the potential for West Hill to surpass Tri-City’s first-half tally has injected some drama into the otherwise social sideline vibe.

Next to the scoring table, prominently placed in the middle of assorted batting and bowling trophies, is the prize in this annual match between the neighboring clubs—the Mayor’s Cup. In only its third year, the series currently stands tied, with West Hill winning last year’s contest and Tri-City winning the 2003 match.

“See?” Weisse winces as the same West Hill batsman cracks another ball up and over a Tri-City fielder’s head. The ball rolls past the field boundaries, earning West Hill four runs and drawing the two teams even closer. “That’s why I get nervous anytime we don’t score more than 200.”

Despite the lure of local bragging rights, today’s contest has been a friendly match, with the Joycean “pick, pack, pock” sound of the game peppering the multilingual sideline banter. On the field, the bright white uniforms of the players provide a stark contrast to the green of the grass, the blue of the sky and the dark skin tones of many of the spectators and players.

In many ways, Weisse has become the club’s unofficial ambassador to a surrounding community that, much like the nation itself, has remained largely unaware of one of the world’s most popular sports. Despite the United States’ historical connections to the sport (the first international cricket match ever played was an 1844 contest between the United States and Canada), cricket has maintained an under-the-radar existence throughout much of North America while simultaneously becoming one of the most fanatically followed sports throughout the rest of the world.

As one of Tri-City’s only American-born members, Weisse also has the distinction of being one of the only players not to have been playing cricket since he was a young boy. However, thanks to his status as a late-life convert (the game caught his eye during a trip to England), he believes he’s often well-equipped to explain its appeal to other newcomers. Able to wax poetic for hours about the allure of sunny afternoons, clean, white uniforms and the history and traditions of this “gentleman’s game,” Weisse says he often has to rein in his enthusiasm for the sport to avoid overloading curious people with too much information—especially when it comes to the game’s rulebook.

Although many local cricket players say they’ve heard a fair share of criticism from neighbors, classmates and coworkers regarding the game’s notoriously complex set of rules, some argue that cricket’s rulebook is actually child’s play when compared to the myriad rules governing the average game of American football.

“Sure, you hear all the time that there are too many rules,” laughs Alton Brisport, the team’s wicket-keeper. “But just like other sports, when you’re actually playing the game, you only utilize a small number of those rules.”

As wicket-keeper, Brisport occupies a spot on the field just behind the batsman (similar to a baseball team’s catcher) and is charged with wrangling errant pitches (with only a pair of lightly padded gloves for protection) and, on rare occasions, using the ball to upset the trio of stumps (called a “wicket”) located between the batsman and himself. While the most common method for removing a batsman from the game simply involves catching the ball (just like baseball), a batsman can also find himself headed back to the bench for the remainder of the match if the wicket behind him is toppled. An able batsman, however, can account for a massive tally of runs if the bowling is ineffective.

While some cricket matches can last for up to five days (such as the recently concluded Ashes series, in which England ended a 14-year losing streak against rival Australia), the standard one-day match consists of two innings. In the first inning, one of the 11-person teams tries to score as many runs as possible before either running out of batsmen or pitches (the two teams decide ahead of time on a maximum number of overs for the match, typically 35 to 60). In the second inning, the other team is charged with trying to beat their opponent’s score. A winner is declared when both innings are finished or the second team is simply able to eclipse the first team’s tally.

Much like baseball, the match-up between bowlers and batsmen is often the focal point of a cricket match. And, as any diehard sports fan will attest, the drama is in the details.

For Maurice Persaud, one of the Tri-City Cricket Club’s most dominant bowlers and batsman (as well as one of the club’s founding members), delivery of the ball always begins with a short shuffle-step. He then begins a slow jog toward the opposing team’s batsman, increasing speed as he closes the distance between them. As he gets within 20 meters of the batter, he hops again, shifting arm position as he prepares to transfer momentum from body to ball. Then, in a sudden blur of motion, his arm uncurls and windmills around in an overhead arc, his outstretched limb catapulting the ball toward the ground in front of his opponent’s bat. A slight twist of the wrist in one direction or a bit of finger pressure in another, and the ball is imbued with his signature spin, causing it to veer, dip and slow along its path.

It’s a tricky pitch for a batsman to get a hold of this “slow-bowl” delivery of Persaud’s—even more so when one considers that, in cricket, batsmen are required to take the ball off the bounce. Persaud’s delivery may not be the speediest, either, but five decades of cricket experience have taught the Guyanese transplant—along with his brothers, Mike and John, the club’s captain—the value of subtlety in this gentleman’s game.

And as more families like the Persauds choose to make their way to the United States from nations abroad, the growth of cricket—a sport that has, for many cultures, become an important part of their national identity—may provide one of the best indications of local flavor in America’s “melting pot” of cultures.

Wearing the whites: Alton Brisport.

photo:Alicia Solsman

‘I always tell these boys here, if I win the lottery, I’ll build them a stadium,” grins Zoeb Zavery, a Kenyan immigrant, during a recent Tri-City practice session at Schenectady’s Kailberg Field. While the club originally called the city’s Central Park its home field, discovering one day that a baseball field had been built through the middle of their pitch (the area between the bowler and batsman) forced the team to relocate to this out-of-the-way stretch of grass.

“I want to build them a real stadium—like the one I grew up with,” continues Zavery. Now in his 50s, he turns a bat over in his hands, running his fingers along its edges as he describes the stadium he frequented when he was a boy. When someone on the field calls for a replacement, Zavery carefully places the bat back into an equipment bag before bounding out to the field like a man half his age.

And while Zavery, the Persauds and many of Tri-City’s members have been playing cricket since they were old enough to hold a bat, that doesn’t mean the club doesn’t attract its share of young talent, too. For some of the more recent stateside arrivals, the presence of a local cricket club provides a much-needed cushion against culture shock and, in many cases, a significant part of their last home already established here in the new one.

“A baseball? I don’t know,” shrugs an attendee at a recent Tri-City practice when asked for his thoughts on the differences between baseballs and cricket balls. A guest of one of the Tri-City players, the young man recently arrived here from the West Indies.

“I’ve never held a baseball,” he shrugs. “[Cricket] is all I know about.”

But while the local cricket clubs have provided a much-needed cultural buffer zone for some, the sport has also helped at least one local player get his chance to move on to something even bigger.

Recently returned from a tryout with England’s London County Cricket Club, Pakistan native Faisal Suhleri says he garnered the attention of the English club due in part to his accomplishments with the Tri-City team. Now back in the United States again for the birth of his first daughter, he was granted a temporary leave from the hospital in order to add his bat to Tri-City’s bid for the Mayor’s Cup.

“I was able to play with some of the most famous cricket players—the people I read about—so, yes, I think it went well,” he smiles, one eye on the action in the field, and an ear listening for the call that will send him back to the hospital. “To be able to play cricket for London County—it’s definitely an interesting opportunity.”

But while the local presence of the game has been able to fill an important cultural niche for Americans born in England, Pakistan, India, Guyana and other countries (as well as residents of those countries who are here temporarily), many of the older cricket players say they now face a new problem: establishing that same cultural niche in future generations. In a nation where baseball, basketball and football reign supreme over the sporting world, some local cricket players say they’re having a tough time convincing their children that cricket, the “gentleman’s game,” is worth their time.

“The kids are excited about cricket at first, but then they move away or get interested in the sports their friends play, like basketball or baseball,” sighs Edward Jaikisshun, another Guyana-born member of the Tri-City squad. He nods toward a group of children kicking a soccer ball around the perimeter of the cricket field.

As if on cue, one of the children suggests they play cricket, and breaks a stick into three pieces. They place the sticks in the ground and balance another stick on top to form a makeshift wicket. Grabbing a bat from his father’s bag, the youngest-looking child announces that he wants to bat first. He fails to connect with the first few wobbly pitches and falls to the ground in frustration.

“I can only hit stuff with a baseball bat,” he whines. “Let me be the bowler now.”

After making the switch, the new batsman also misses the first two deliveries, only to connect with the third—sending it far over the heads of the other children. Flashing a toothy grin, starts to dance around the wicket.

“So how many points is that worth?” asks one of the other children.

“I don’t know,” shrugs the little batsman, and keeps dancing.

rmarshall@metroland.net


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