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 oxy-moronic 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 to it."
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.