Thwok. Smack. Thud. "Howzat!" That's the sound of the most exciting bat-and-ball game in existence, a game played by millions of people all over the planet, a game that's still being played all over Philadelphia today. Cricket, lovely cricket.
I'm at Haverford College watching the Philadelphia-based British Officers' Cricket Club (who are for the most part immigrants from the Indian subcontinent) host Montego Bay (who are mostly Jamaicans living in New Jersey). Cricket has been played here at Haverford since 1833.
Close your eyes on this balmy spring day, breathe in the warm air and listen to the enthusiastic but gentlemanly shouting that accompanies cricket's signature sound of a rock-hard red leather ball smacking violently into a seasoned willow bat--and you could be in rural Southern England.
Open your eyes, though--and you could still be in rural Southern England. A professional English cricketer visiting Haverford for the first time was stunned by the beauty of this gently sloping pitch, surrounded by stately oaks and beautiful Victorian stone buildings and crowned by a genteel wooden pavilion.
"Ooh, it's just like an English village," he said. "Except there's no pub."
At just about any of Philadelphia's other many cricket grounds one might also expect to hear the murmur of Philly cricket folk--immigrants from the former British empire for the most part--patiently explaining the laws of cricket (always laws, never rules) to baffled Americans. Not here at Haverford, though. One ancient American couple tells me they've been coming to games here for 20 years. A couple frat dudes perched on a curb just past the boundary tell me they're here for their five-year reunion and they love the sport.
This pisses me off. How in hell can you write an article about cricket in America without the stereotypical straight-from-central-casting stereotype of the American who hasn't got a clue what's going on?
"Excuse me ... "
I look 'round. It's a woman leaning out of an SUV. She wants to know what this game is called. I tell her. She looks confused. Is it a special version, she asks. She's seen cricket on TV and knows it's played with hoops and mallets.
I gently explain she's thinking of croquet. She drives off still confused. There are people in the rest of the world who think Twenty20 cricket--a super-fast, super-exciting new version of the game that makes baseball look slow, boring, overlong and desperately in need of a massive overhaul--will sweep America. They might be right. But first they'll have to educate those Americans who think the game is played on neatly trimmed lawns by straw-boater-sporting toffs sipping Pimms and munching crustless cucumber sandwiches. (That's definitely croquet. Cricket players drink tea and beer--and they always leave the crusts on.)
At the pavilion, a slightly ramshackle wooden building, members of Montego Bay are shouting abuse at their own players in sometimes impenetrable Jamaican accents. Members of the British Officers Club gently chide or encourage each other in their default English. It's all terrifically polite, don't you know.
If this were a professional game, things would be different. Vile abuse would flow like pus from an infected wound. They call it sledging. One of the most famous sledges took place at a game between Australia and Zimbabwe.
"Why are you so fat?" snarled the Aussie bowler.
"Because every time I fuck your wife she gives me a biscuit," replied the Zimbabwean bowler. Badum-tish.
Our host for the day is 83-year-old J. Alfred Reeves. Reeves spent the first part of WWII as a schoolboy in his native Sheffield, England, dumping buckets of sand on Nazi phosphorous bombs. And he ended the war as a British soldier in an India preparing for independence.
He shows me around Haverford's amazing C.C. Morris Cricket Library, filled with stat-packed books and blazers and ties and photos of stiffly mutton-chopped Victorian cricket thugs who look like they'd murder their mums for the price of a pint of grog.
Here you could learn about the history of cricket in America. How King George came to the British throne only because his brother died of a cricket injury. How George Washington played the game at Valley Forge. How the first ever international team sports game was a cricket match between Canada and the U.S. (in 1844, back when baseball was still called rounders and was played only by little girls and invalids). How cricket drew huge crowds in Philly until the late 19th century.
As he sits on the bench he donated to the ground, situated behind the wicket ("so I can watch the bowler's hands"), Reeves has no time whatsoever for those ignoramuses who say cricket is boring.
"That's the kind of guy who watches chess and says it's boring. You just don't understand the bloody game."
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