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Bat and ball, but not baseball: Cricket catches on

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Newcomers High School pose before taking the field. Gomes is holding the bat and coach Cavaliere is on the far left. (Laurence Witherington)

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Gomes leaves the field when he is caught out. (Laurence Witherington)

The ball was flung at great speed towards a boy holding the bat, by another boy dressed in identical white. With a thwack, the boy swatted the missile hard, sending it high and to the right. “Yes, yes, yes!” shouted the small crowd that had gathered on a recent spring afternoon in a remote corner of New York City.

But the ball dipped, landing in the hand of a jubilant, gloveless fielder, prompting groans from the crowd. The boy with the bat trudged slowly off the pitch.

Although the principles are similar, this is not baseball, but cricket. The team is a group of high school students from Newcomers High School in Queens, New York.

Unnoticed amid the din of the beginning of another Major League Baseball season, the first cricket matches of a first-ever public high school cricket league in the United States began on April 3 in New York City. The 14-team league is one sign that the sport, followed largely by immigrants of British Commonwealth nations, is catching on. It is just the leading edge of a new push by cricket fans to establish cricket’s popularity with a younger generation here. Other leagues and youth schemes are scheduled to begin around the country this summer.

“I’m really excited right now,” said Dominic Gomes, 18, the Newcomer’s captain and most senior member. “We are getting a chance to play our dream game.” Gomes, who played cricket in his home country of Bangladesh since the age of 12, now says he hopes to continue playing the game in college. “I want one that plays cricket,” he said.

His team is 4-0--not surprising given that students entering the school are required to have been in the U.S. for less than 6 months. Most of Gomes’s teammates stepped straight from the pitches of Dhaka onto this twig-strewn meadow in the Bronx.

Cricket remains little-known in the United States, but it has a much longer history and more fans internationally than its American cousin, baseball. It was originally played by the children of farmers in rural England in medieval times, where the ball was often merely a lump of matted sheep’s wool and the bat a shepherd’s crook. In the 17th century, its popularity exploded, and players began to use the sport’s characteristic flattened wood bat and leather-covered hard ball. It was then exported to the world via the British Empire. Today cricket is thought to be the second-most popular ball game in the world, behind soccer (or football).

But fewer than 200,000 people play the sport nationwide, and getting Americans outside of recent immigrants interested in the game has long posed a challenge. Although popular in the United States at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries--the world’s first international match was played between the United States and Canada in 1844, attended by 10,000 spectators--the game died out when cities consumed the open space required for the sport.

These days, most fans of America’s favorite pastime know nothing about it. For one thing, the terminology can be baffling--and amusing--to the uninitiated. Googlies, wides and bouncers are all terms for different kinds of deliveries--comparable to the pitch in baseball--and square-leg and silly-point are places where the outfielders can stand.

If cricket is going to catch on, children have to start playing when they are young, said Keith Gill, who works to develop youth cricket in the United States. Starting this summer, boys and girls under age 14 will begin to play a modified form of the game in parks around the country. Gill says the youth league game is designed to be faster-paced and shorter--professional games can last as long as five days--so that parents have the time to watch and more children can play. “We are removing most of the complexity,” said Gill. “These kids mostly haven’t played before.”

Other cricket advocates, however, say cricket will face an uphill battle to establish itself in the United States. Malcolm Nash, famous as the first bowler ever to be hit for six consecutives “sixes”--comparable to a pitcher giving up six home runs in a row--while playing the sport professionally in England, moved across the Atlantic and started a junior development program up and down the West Coast in 1998. The aim was to get cricket into schools.

But the scheme failed. Nash said he was hindered by geographical and financial constraints, and by a lack of cooperation at the top level of the game. The sport is also hamstrung by its insular quality, he said, with immigrant communities often sticking together and forming local leagues rather than working towards improving the game on a national level. “You have to have Americans playing,” he said. By “Americans,” Nash means people whose origin is not from one of cricket's strongholds: Pakistan, India, Bangladesh or the West Indies.

Gladstone Dainty, the newly re-elected president of the United States of America Cricket Association, admits that he has a lot of work to do. “At this stage it is predominantly older immigrant sport,” he said. “We want to make the switch to younger immigrants so that we can generate a greater curiosity among their [non immigrant] classmates.” The association’s Web site, www.usaca.org lists all the places where the game is currently played, and many regions have their own homepages.

It will be difficult to tempt U.S. children away from the traditional American sports, but with the involvement of the public schools, the signs of cricket’s revival are encouraging.

“Basketball is my first love,” said Christina Cavaliere, coach of the undefeated Newcomers High School cricket team. “But cricket is coming up right behind it.”

Email: ljw2121@columbia.edu