The sound of the bat hitting the ball is less of a pop and more of a thwack. It’s the sound of flat wood hitting tightly wound leather and cork. From the vantage point of spectators and waiting batsmen just beyond the orange cones marking the boundary of the field, the sights and sounds of the match are distant, quiet.
It’s a perfect Saturday morning at Marine Park. A steady breeze is blowing salty air onto the field, where a group of men at the fore of Brooklyn’s cricket scene are taking in a match. Standing on the sidelines is Cliff Roye, the tall, imposing president of the Metropolitan League and captain of the Villagers Cricket Club. Roye resides in Canarsie, by way of Jamaica. Next to him is Patrick Sutherland, the erudite and impassioned treasurer of the New York Cricket Region and a trustee of the Brooklyn Cricket League. He’s originally from St. Vincent. A little farther over is John Wilson, the president of the Brooklyn Cricket League, who hails from Guyana. Seated in a folding chair, Wilson radiates a quiet air of authority. Absent today is the garrulous Basil Butcher, Jr., also from Guyana, son of the famed West Indies batsman Basil Butcher, Sr. When not coaching youth cricket in New Jersey, Butcher is a supporter of the Diplomats, a team that plays in the Brooklyn Cricket League.
Today’s match is a special one, pitting the BCL against the Queens-based Eastern American Cricket Association. It’s an all-star game of sorts; the best players in the match from each league will make the New York regional team, which heads to Florida in August for a national tournament. Roye is one of the selectors for this match. He’ll be watching closely and taking mental notes on who deserves to make the trip.
The game is deliberate, almost sleepy. Even a sixer — the name given to a ball struck past the outfield boundary, the cricket equivalent of a home run — has a gentle arc to it that’s more graceful than powerful. The fans, sitting on folding chairs in the shade of some trees, are dappled with the sunlight streaming through. Two men keep score at a card table. Together with the batsmen on the sidelines, they stare at the pitch, awaiting the next delivery. The bowler steps back, begins running, slowly at first, picking up speed little by little, and finally, just as he reaches the line at his end of the pitch (known as the “popping crease”), he hurls the bowl toward the waiting batsman.
Cricket, at least in the United States, often gets a bad rap as an overly complicated game. While the number of official rules can be daunting (particularly those that govern where a team can place its fielders), many of them are typically invoked only at the very highest levels of play, and a recreational league can decide how closely it wants to follow them. The basic framework of the game is actually pretty simple, and a number of imperfect but nevertheless helpful comparisons can be made between the game and its American kinsman, baseball.
Bowlers throw the ball in sets of six deliveries, known as “overs.” At the end of each over, the bowler moves to the other end of the pitch — the strip of dirt in the middle of a large ovular field. An over is analogous to an at-bat, except that a batter can be retired only if the fielding team gets him out. There are a number of ways to achieve an out, including catching a ball on the fly (as in baseball); hitting the wicket, the cricket equivalent of a base, while the batsman is still running toward it; and throwing the ball past the batter and hitting the wicket (like a one-pitch strikeout). The fielding team’s objective is to get ten batsmen out and end the batting team’s innings. (The word “innings” is singular in cricket.) Bowlers are limited to a certain number of overs per game.
As in baseball, the objective of the batting team is to hit the ball and score runs. Batsmen bat in pairs, each at one end of the pitch, and when they run to each other’s wicket, switching places effectively, they score a run. A ball that rolls or bounces off the field scores four runs, while a ball that leaves the field on a fly scores six. So while some batsmen swing for the fences, the more common strategy is to target holes in the defense, where a struck ball can keep defenders occupied long enough to allow the batting team to rack up runs gradually.
The version of cricket used in interleague play is known as Twenty20 (“T20” for short), referring to the maximum number of overs each team has to bat. Like 40-overs cricket, the version more commonly played in the New York Region, T20 was developed to combat a persistent gripe about cricket: the game’s length. A game of T20 cricket takes a maximum of three hours; a 40-overs game a maximum of six. Compare that to Test matches, played at the professional and international levels, which can take up to five days. Basil Butcher describes T20 cricket as “action from the word ‘go.’” The umpires are encouraged to keep the game moving, and the built-in limits ensure that games don’t drag on indefinitely.
The history of cricket in the United States stretches back to the eighteenth century, when English immigrants brought the game to cities like New York and Philadelphia. The first international cricket match in history, between the United States and Canada, took place in New York in 1844 at the St. George’s Club. In Brooklyn, cricket was played alongside early games of baseball. James Creighton, a pitcher who in 1860 became one of the first professional baseball players, got his start as a cricketer. The Brooklyn Atlantics, a powerhouse in the early days of baseball, shared their field with the Long Island Cricket Club for some years before moving to grounds of their own. It was only after the Civil War that baseball began to take off as America’s premier bat-and-ball sport.
Founded primarily by immigrants from Yorkshire and Nottingham, England, New York’s Metropolitan League dates back to 1890. Among the founding clubs was the Brooklyn Cricket Club. (The first club was the Staten Island Cricket Club, founded in 1872). In 1936, the Brooklyn Cricket League was founded, with four teams.
Today, seven leagues constitute the New York Cricket Region, which in turn is one of eight regions in the United States of America Cricket Association (USACA, commonly pronounced “you-sock-uh”). Six of the New York Region’s leagues are based in New York City. Three, the Brooklyn Cricket League, the Metropolitan League, and the American League, call Brooklyn home.
Even within this framework, regional boundaries get fuzzy. Teams span boroughs and state lines. (One team in the Metropolitan League is based in Philly. ) But regardless of the players’ home boroughs (or cities), on Saturdays and Sundays, teams come to Marine Park and Floyd Bennett Field to compete. Three times a week they gather at 108th Street and Seaview Avenue in Canarsie for practice. Brooklyn is the nucleus around which cricket in New York City revolves.
Many cricketers in Brooklyn are immigrants, for whom the game is a sort of cultural glue. Some teams are what Butcher calls “enclaves of specific ethnic groups,” comprising members from a given country or island. Players who take the field for Butcher’s beloved Diplomats hail from his home country of Guyana. Kellon Parris, a resident of Crown Heights, plays for the Metropolitan League’s Spice Island, whose players come from Grenada. He and his teammates share the bond of their home country as well as their home sport. “We grew up in it,” he explains. “It’s our culture.”
Though there are often differences in background among teams, Parris characterizes the atmosphere of the Metropolitan League as friendly. “Everyone from all the islands, they get to play, you get to know one another,” he says. Some teams, like Middlesex from the Brooklyn Cricket League, are a patchwork of ethnicities, fielding players from India, Bangladesh, Guyana, Belize, St. Vincent, and Jamaica. Butcher agrees with Parris’s characterization, though he recalls one match between an Indian team and a Pakistani team in which the trash talk reached such a fever pitch that benches cleared and the match was stopped midway through. He attributes the commotion to the match being played for a cash prize, and emphasizes that what happened was atypical. Trash talk happens every game, he says, and “some people take that personally.” A match actually coming to blows is “the exception.”
One factor contributing to the high level of sportsmanship in competitive cricket in Brooklyn is the fact that, while the leagues are not professional, they are not strictly amateur, either. Some, like Butcher, refer to New York as the “Mecca of cricket in America.” A number of the men who play competitively in Brooklyn and around New York have also played professionally, or semi-professionally, in the Caribbean, India, or Pakistan. One such player is Junior Murray, a native of Grenada who has competed at the highest level of international cricket, having played in 33 Test matches as a wicketkeeper (the equivalent of a catcher) for the multinational West Indies Cricket Team. Murray is a world-class athlete, and he looks every bit the part. Graceful and muscular, he exudes a quiet swagger. When he casually tosses a ball back to one of his teammates, the ball sails into his teammate’s waiting hands in a perfect parabola. From mid-June to early July, Murray stayed with friends in Brooklyn, relaxing and playing league games. Afterward, he was headed back to Grenada, where he runs a cricket academy and works in the country’s Ministry of Sports.
The fact that a player of Murray’s stature participates in Brooklyn’s cricket scene speaks to its high level of play. This is not Derek Jeter playing in his cousin’s beer league softball championship; Murray says he respects and admires his teammates and opponents as much as they admire him.
Brooklyn is serving as the staging ground for the next big step forward for cricket in the U.S.: getting American-born children and teenagers to take up the game. “We have actually gotten a lot of American-born kids to take an interest in the game,” Sutherland says. The growth of the Public Schools Athletic League has sped the process along. The PSAL is the first and largest public school league in the United States to offer cricket, and the only varsity league. The cricket league covers all five boroughs, with the majority of teams representing schools in Brooklyn. The PSAL “started real grassroots,” Sutherland says. When a citywide tournament was first established in 2008, it “initially started very small, then mushroomed” as teachers of Caribbean descent quickly began to form teams at their schools. In addition to the regular season, and a playoff tournament in which high schools compete against each other for the PSAL title, PSAL athletes have the opportunity to qualify for the New York City Mayor’s Cup, a citywide all-star game. Many of the young players from the PSAL also end up playing in leagues like the Brooklyn Cricket League and the Metropolitan League.
There’s now also a small community of women’s cricketers in Brooklyn. At the center of this community is Venelda Wallace, a professor at Long Island University who currently serves as the coordinator of the New York Region. From Opening Day in June until October, women in the New York Region compete in an ongoing, four-team tournament of 25-overs games. Wallace, who previously managed USACA’s national women’s team and the Villagers Cricket Club of the Metropolitan League, has been a tireless advocate for the women’s game. But it’s an uphill battle. “We know there’s a long haul for the ladies because we tend to get overlooked,” Wallace says. “The men get everything.” (And, of course, until recently, men’s cricket in the U.S. has itself been mostly ignored.) “We get whatever is left, I guess,” she remarks dryly.
Perhaps one day women’s cricket will become a sudden darling of the American public, the way women’s soccer did when the U.S. team streaked to a Women’s World Cup win in 1999. Nationally, the U.S. women’s cricket team has already competed at the highest levels of international play. In 2010, the U.S. beat out Canada for a chance to go the 2011 ICC World Cup Qualifier in Bangladesh — though the team did not ultimately qualify for the World Cup itself. (Wallace, who was at home with her newborn son, was not able to attend the qualifier as the team’s manager.)
But that’s likely a long way off. For now, it’s a struggle. In fact, despite rapid growth, and the pipeline of young talent coming out of the PSAL, it’s even a struggle for the men’s leagues. They operate on the brink.
Though overall enthusiasm for the game of cricket in Brooklyn is as high as it has been since the antebellum era, administrators are dealing with a host of cost issues that impact the day-to-day functioning of the leagues. “The financial status of cricket is not very good,” Sutherland says. There are a number of reasons for cricket’s financial woes, not the least of which is the sport’s governing body in the U.S. USACA is run “in a top-heavy manner,” Sutherland says, noting that the International Cricket Council “considers them in noncompliance with their rules, and wants them to run themselves more democratically.” The mismanagement of USACA is most clearly manifest in $3 million of debt the organization has run up. The debt is a particular thorn in the side of the ICC, which doles out $400,000 each year to USACA and sees a sizable portion being used to pay down debts accumulated in the previous year.
Then there’s the disappointment of the Central Broward Regional Park and Stadium, the first professional-level cricket stadium in the United States. The stadium, which was completed in 2007, was originally intended to be used only for cricket. But cricket matches were few and far between, so it was converted to a multi-use stadium. “They should be having at least five, six national competitions a year,” Sutherland laments. USACA is currently facing the very real possibility of being suspended by the ICC and being temporarily replaced by the rival American Cricket Federation. If the suspension ends up going through, it will be the third time in seven years the sanctioning body has faced disciplinary action.
On the local level, there are also financial issues. Sutherland says the cost of using New York City park space is “prohibitive.” The city’s Department of Parks and Recreation charges for field permits by the hour and a game of cricket can easily take six hours. That’s $60, compared to $10 for an hour-long game of softball. As league players get younger, the high cost of permits will only become more of an issue. “Now that you have school cricket, we get a lot of youngsters coming in to play with us,” Sutherland explains. Since the large majority of them are public school students who don’t come from wealthy families, older members have to effectively contribute twice as much for each game. League administrators have spoken with Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, City Council member Jumaane Williams, and State Assemblyman N. Nick Perry about changing the pricing structure of park permits, but so far “nothing has been done,” Sutherland says. He acknowledges that this is in part due to the cricket leagues not following through. “Part of the blame is ours,” he says.
Another financial drain on the cricket leagues involves a power struggle between the Metropolitan League and Aviator Sports, a for-profit corporation that manages an indoor recreation facility and a number of athletic fields at Floyd Bennett Field. The conflict has its origins as far back as August 2002, when the first cricket match was played at Floyd Bennett. At the time, then-Borough President Marty Markowitz, presiding over the opening events, predicted that “Brooklyn will be the cricket capital of America.” The event was attended by City Council members, assemblymen, and even then-Congressman Anthony Weiner. According to Roye, the Metropolitan League spent a great deal of time and effort clearing the necessary land for cricket pitches, even securing millions of dollars in state funding to construct a professional-level cricket stadium.
However, much to dismay of the league organizers, in 2003 the parks department awarded a concession contract to Aviator Sports to build a facility on the land previously set aside for the cricketers. The stadium plans were put on hold indefinitely, and the Metropolitan League began having to pay Aviator Sports for use of the cricket pitches they had cleared.
The cricketers have also been lobbying officials around the contract issue, with the goal of regaining authority over the fields. Adams, in a statement, has expressed support for the cricketers, but stops short of endorsing their demand for control of the land. “We want to help cricket leagues to accomplish the larger goals we have for Brooklyn and its future,” he writes in an email. “I recognize the challenges facing sports like cricket, including permit costs and the sharing of open space, and my administration will continue to work on bringing all parties to the table to ensure recreation can continue in a safe and sustainable manner.” I reached out to Aviator Sports about the cricketers’ efforts, but the company hasn’t responded with a comment.
In the meantime, the cricketers are not sitting around twiddling their thumbs and hoping an influx of cash magically materializes. Roye has hit the ground running since his election as president of the Metropolitan League in February. “We’re trying to see how we can elevate the league financially,” he says. In the past, New York’s cricket leagues have relied primarily on dues from each team, and annual award dinners, for raising funds. This year, for the first time, the Metropolitan League began its season with a daylong kickoff tournament event, which attracted the notice of local politicians and a camera crew from local television station News 12. “It’s strange — in 123 years, we never had all of the teams play at the same time,” Roye says by way of an explanation. The event was such a success that it was later replicated to kick off the women’s tournament last month. Roye sees his efforts as part of a larger push for cricket in Brooklyn across the city. “I’m hoping that what I’m doing other leagues can copy,” he says.
Sponsorships are another revenue stream that has gone largely untapped, and Roye and Sutherland seek to change that. Both men are actively pursuing sponsorship opportunities for cricket in Brooklyn. There is a precedent for such sponsorships in New York. As recently as 2010, Hennessy, an English company, sponsored the Mayor’s Cup. Generally speaking, British companies are more interested in promoting what is originally a British game. American companies want to know, in Sutherland’s words, “what’s in it for me.” For example, a sporting goods store might hesitate to sponsor a cricket tournament because most cricket players purchase their equipment from specialty Pakistani and Caribbean importers. A potential sell for sponsors is that cricket has a growing — and increasingly loyal — fan base. But at the moment, the onus is on league administrators to pursue sponsorship opportunities as aggressively as possible. “No one’s taken the initiative,” Sutherland says.
Perhaps the most important thing cricketers can do to ensure the long-term viability of their sport is to evangelize for the game. The PSAL program, which has grown each year, is a promising start. But Brooklyn’s cricketers want to expand beyond kids from cricket-playing backgrounds. “The goal is to get American kids to play the game,” Butcher says. Murray agrees. “I think, once the Americans pick up the game, I think it’s going to change, they’re going to go further,” he says. They will “pump some money into the sport,” he adds. This means kids who weren’t raised with the game —and who may may even have negative preconceptions — will need to pick up cricket bats. Butcher hopes that because cricket has so few physical requirements — “many of the best batsmen are 5’5” or less,” he says — the sport may be able to attract children and teenagers who don’t fit the mold for more traditionally American sports like football or basketball.
Cricket also may appeal to young athletes as a sport in which the United States is very much still on the rise. The women’s teams have already had international success. And in men’s cricket, the U.S. has competed internationally as well, playing for the ICC Champions Trophy in 2004 and in various other international competitions from the Caribbean to Uganda. The men’s team is aiming to qualify for its first Cricket World Cup in 2019. Players from this year’s Mayor’s Cup could be part of what American cricketers hope will be a historic squad.
The sun is setting at 108th Street and Seaview Avenue. Sounds of a Pop Warner football league practice waft over from one end of the field, as cricketers wait around for their turn at batting practice on the near end. Gear bags, helmets, and huge white shin pads streaked with dust are strewn on the ground. Junior Murray has assumed his post as wicketkeeper, behind the batsman.
Like all of the practices at 108th and Seaview, this session is open to all comers. “You can just show up here and practice,” one of the players explains. (While I was standing on the field watching, one of them even asked me if I was there to learn the sport.) Players are here from different teams, different leagues, different boroughs. It’s wide open.
Here, the challenges cricket faces in Brooklyn and across the country seem distant. It’s just a group of men gathered together to hone their skills at the game they hold dear. For Murray, cricket represents basic values and strength. “It’s a very disciplined game,” he says. “You got to be disciplined, you got to be fit, mentally and physically. It’s a game whereby it brings out the best in you.” This particular version of cricket feels welcoming, it feels hopeful, it feels democratic — it feels American.