The Gentleman's Game

           WHEN YOU PULL into the parking lot of the Bryn Mawr Meadows, the cricket matches are not the first thing to command your attention. Perched at the southern end of this urban playground is a gorgeous view of the Minneapolis skyline, spreadeagled on this August Saturday afternoon against a cloudless blue sky. As you walk toward the field, the argumentative appeals and celebratory cries of the players mix with the low drone of vehicles moving in and out of the city on I-394, a muted chorus that doesn't sound much different than your average touch football game. It's only when you get close enough to absorb some of the details that you start to appreciate how many cultural light years away you are from the Gopherville aspect of Minnesota.

           A fertile assortment of languages are being spoken among the 30 or so people occupying the benches and picnic tables along the sideline. The game is an English invention that was spread by colonization; it remains most popular in countries that were formerly part of the British Empire. Consequently, most of Minnesota's weekend cricket players are natives of India or Pakistan, or of West Indian nations such as Guyana, Jamaica, and Antigua. Their relaxed, idiomatic conversations somersault along at a quicksilver pace, with most people deftly moving in and out of English, sometimes within the space of a few words or sentences, until they collectively sound like someone fiddling with a shortwave radio.

           Two women in light, form-fitting saris are digging through coolers, preparing for lunch. A few yards away, a man is busily sorting through metal numbers that he hangs on the hooks of the scoreboard. There are a handful of elderly men out for a taste of the old country. And there are the players, all pretty easily identified by their resplendent white outfits, with even the most ragtag participants taking care to wear cream-colored T-shirts and shorts.

           Like most team sports, cricket looks chaotic and silly if you don't know how it is played, but it doesn't take much familiarity to acquire an appreciation for its athletic precision and strategic possibilities. CLR James, the eminent black activist, writer, and historian, once wrote an entire book, Beyond A Boundary, about cricket, describing it as "an art, not a bastard or poor relation," but one that "belongs with the theater, ballet, opera, and the dance." Like baseball, its action is initiated by a confrontation between a pitcher--known as a "bowler" in cricket--and a "batsman," who in cricket is wielding the equivalent of a large paddle. At the international level, a single match, or "test," generally lasts up to six hours per day for five days, and many bowlers are deployed; even in the abbreviated, 2-4 hour matches at the Meadows, a minimum of five of the 11 fielders on a team must also take a turn bowling.

           Despite its relatively low profile in the Twin Cities, competitive cricket has been played here for nearly 20 years. Moiz Akhtar, who moved from Pakistan to Chicago in 1970 and came up to Minneapolis at the end of that decade, remembers the early days when the location of the park where the games would be played kept changing, moving from Diamond Lake Road to Portland Avenue, over to Chicago, and then out to the fields by the airport before a permanent local cricket site was established about 10 years ago at Bryn Mawr Meadows just off Penn Avenue on the northwest perimeter of Minneapolis. The number of teams in the league has fluctuated from six to 12; currently there are nine.

           It has been an exciting season for the league. The perennially unbeatable United Cricket Club team has proven itself to be mortal this year, especially when playing Bhakta. Now, with the regular season over, the two teams are squaring off as part of a mid-August elimination tournament and even a novice can notice that it's a passionately played contest. On the other field, the Continental team, consisting mostly of people native to India, is playing the Falcons, a team with a large contingent of Guyanese players. The winners of these two matches will finish the tournament the following day.

           With friends and acquaintances on all four teams, Labhesh Ganatra lies back on his elbows and watches both matches from a small area between the two fields in the middle of the Meadow. Ganatra has just finished up his third season of cricket in Minnesota, playing for a team that wasn't good enough to make it into the tournament at the end of the regular season. Like many people from India, his immaculate intonation and command of the English language sounds very formal, even as he good-naturedly indoctrinates a neophyte American into the intricacies of cricket.

           Before long, it's apparent that cricket and baseball have enough similarities and crucial differences to create a whole batch of unwarranted assumptions. A bowler, for example, neither rolls the ball toward the batter along the grass (the American definition of bowling), nor tries to baseball-pitch it past him on a straight fly. Instead, after a sizable running start, he bounces the five-pound, leather-covered ball with a furious windmill arm motion. Fastball bowlers obviously rely on speed, while the cricket counterpart to a curveball pitcher in baseball is known as a spinner. Ganatra points out a spinner playing for the Falcons who was one of 23 people invited to try out for the United States World Cup team; his offerings seem tantalizingly slow yet have the batsmen off-balance and out-of-sync.

           The cognitive differences between cricket and baseball continue with the options facing the batsman. His primary responsibility is to protect his "wicket" (one of two sets of sticks in the ground that are cricket's equivalent of bases in baseball) from being struck by the bowler's pitch. If that happens, the batsman is out. He is also out if the fielders catch his hit on the fly, or touch either of the wickets, located approximately 22 yards apart, while the batsman and his co-runner move between them, attempting to score runs. Each team gets 10 outs before it is their opponent's turn to bat. Four runs are scored if the ball rolls outside the playing field boundaries, regardless of whether it is pitched or hit. Six runs are scored if the ball goes past the boundary on the fly. Typically, hundreds of runs are scored every cricket match.

           Asked what he enjoys most about the game, Ganatra says, "I love the batting. I love the pressure involved in the game because it is much more a mental game than one of physical attributes. It also helps me remember where I grew up." CP

           On Labor Day weekend, Ganatra's team will host a cricket tournament at the Meadows featuring teams from Winnipeg, Chicago, and St. Louis. All subcultures are welcome. For spectators, white clothing is optional.

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