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
The half-dozen Jamaican cricketers crowded into Barrington Bartley's sagging Ford Windstar and left Brooklyn, bound for suburban Washington, D.C., and the title game of the Washington Cricket League. Midnight came and went as they rode through the trapped fog and odd yellow light of the New Jersey Turnpike. They drank Red Bull and played home-burned mixes of reggae and dance hall. Beenie Man might have 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 and polyester, laundered in hot water but still bearing the stains of past games.
On this Saturday in October the traveling Jamaicans, in their 20s and 30s, would represent Kensington Sports Club, the New York Yankees of the Washington Cricket League (WCL). It's a growing league in a growing American sport. There are about 50,000 active cricket players in the country and 750 registered cricket clubs -- a nod to the rapid increase of Indian and Pakistani immigration. Cricket is growing in the U.S. at a faster pace than baseball, table tennis, hang gliding or most any other sport you could name. On Sunday most of the players in Bartley's minivan would play for other teams in other leagues. In New York City and Los Angeles and Fort Lauderdale and Washington you can make good money playing the old English game.
In the U.S., at least, the sport's business model is a weird one. Money goes out but doesn't come in. Players get paid directly by the managers, sometimes called owners, of a couple dozen cricket teams in several not-for-profit leagues. But there are no 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 with checkbooks have always been partial to competitive sports, and that's a good thing for Bartley and maybe another 300 cricketers in the U.S., virtually all of them born in former British colonies -- notably Jamaica, India and Pakistan. Bartley, captain of the Kensington team, is a bank customer-service manager and plays for three or four clubs at a time. He's tall and lean, high-strung in the heat of competition. When a call goes against his club, no matter which one he's playing for, he'll run in tight circles around the officials in their long white lab coats, his arms trailing behind him like wings, and scream, "No way, mon -- no way!"
Bartley and other skilled 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 publicly acknowledge such sums. At a recent WCL playoff game, somebody asked Rashard Marshall, another member of the Brooklyn group, about his day rate. He threw back his chin, smiled ear-to-ear and said, "I play for love of game, mon."
Other players mentioned other draws:
Extending the expiration date on one's boyhood. (Bartley and Marshall have been friends since childhood in Jamaica.)
Getting the chance to be a hero. (A cricket bat, one dreadlocked player said, is a chick magnet.)
Escaping the loud ticking of the U.S. national clock. (In cricket an eight-hour game is a blip.)
Remembering home. (One player from Pakistan had wistful memories of playing cricket on the streets of Lahore with a taped tennis ball, avoiding his no-nonsense father all the while.)
The general pursuit 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 getting paid.
In the case of the Kensington club, the man with the checkbook is a Jamaican-born personal-injury lawyer named Sheldon Ellis. Cricket anchors his life. He woke up early the Saturday of the final and inspected his rye-and-crabgrass home field in a public park in Hyattsville, Md., about 12 miles from the Lincoln Memorial. Ellis, prosperous and thick-waisted, had on one of those old-school V-neck white sweaters you'd see at Lord's, the elegant cricket temple in London, over a white T-shirt. "You very seldom see a bum who plays cricket," he likes to say. He mockingly assumes the voice of a royal courtier, says, "Sir Sheldon Ellis," and giggles.