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•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.
During the championship game, tension ran through Ellis like a low-grade fever. The players on his roster, all of them from the Caribbean, are likely paid far better than players on the other 27 WCL teams. (Ellis calls the pay "stipends"; he doesn't want to look like an employer.) Kensington had been winning all year and was expected to win the grand finale. Ellis felt the unbearable weight of expectation.
Kensington, the WCL champion in 2000, '02, '04, '05 and '07, had never lost a title game until 2006, when it fell to the Washington Tigers, a mostly Pakistani team with unpaid players who all lived in suburban Washington. Many of the Tigers, several of whom fast for Ramadan each year during the playoffs, attached high meaning to that win. But then Kensington won it all again in 2007, and nothing changed in the '08 regular season. The politics of cricket is the sport within the sport, and all year there'd been a lot of grumbling about league schedules and league rules--and about Sir Sheldon.
The captain of the Tigers, Dawood Ahmad, declared recently, "Sheldon Ellis is not doing anything 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 the ego."
This year Ahmad and the Tigers lost in the semifinals to Virginia, one of the few clubs in the 34-year-old league in which East meets West, with players--paid and unpaid, local and imported--from Pakistan, India, Jamaica and Trinidad. The Virginia-Kensington matchup in the final did nothing to please Ahmad. By his count, 17 of the 22 players in the final did not live in metropolitan Washington, and maybe half the players were getting paid. But in the 13-page WCL bylaws, vetted carefully by counselor Ellis, there's not a word that forbids importing paid ringers from out of town. Ahmad may not think it's cricket, but Ellis will tell you he's breaking no rules. He's in America now.
In the warmth of the afternoon, as the game stretched from its third hour to its fourth and then its fifth, there might have been 200 or 300 spectators on hand, sitting in metal stands and beach chairs. You could smell chicken and ribs grilling in a giant pit, $5 for a heaping plate, no napkin. Young men drank Heinekens, and older men poured rum out of glass bottles covered by brown paper bags and into plastic Gatorade bottles. Pakistani fans drank cans of Orange Crush and Mountain Dew and smoked thin Gold Flake 84-mm cigarettes you don't see at most 7-Elevens. Indian fans drank Dunkin' Donuts coffee. Jamaican men played Rummy 500, gambling with crumpled U.S. dollars.
Behind the stands were woods, and their edge was a public urinal for the menfolk, both fans and players. (Women used the portable toilet.) Ramadan was over, so you didn't see any cricketers bowing in prayer, heads to the turf, as you did in earlier rounds of the playoffs. Now and again you'd smell a lighted joint, and under the stands there was a spent package of Bambu rolling papers amid the chicken bones and discarded beer bottles. People argued plays, screamed at the officials, told stories and jokes. Nobody was in a rush.
You hear about the batsman who told his wife he wanted to name his children for every city where he had 100-run games?