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Sun Will Never Set on British Cricket Fanatics

April 14, 1985|JOHN NIELSEN | Times Staff Writer

Arvind Patel of Culver City was bowling his googlie in Van Nuys last weekend when a stranger came forward with some questions.

"When I bowl, I'm a spinner," Patel answered as the stranger's face went blank. "My googlie is worse than my legbreak, so I thought I'd give it some work."

Conversations like these are commonplace in Woodley Park these days as Patel and hundreds of his colleagues practice their favorite sport.

The game is cricket, and in Woodley Park it is something of an institution. Transplanted from England by way of Griffith Park, the game is quietly thriving under the auspices of the Southern California Cricket Assn.

The local game, once limited to a colony of British immigrants and Hollywood movie stars, has been helped by the steady growth of Southern California's immigrant communities.

To those who have never seen it, the sport resembles a kind of primordial baseball, with no foul lines, two "bases" and games that can last for days.

Pitchers, called bowlers, throw spinning balls that bounce strangely in the turf. Batsmen wearing heavy pads guard rows of sticks called wickets. The game is played on oval fields filled with men who wear no gloves. Batsmen will spend hours waiting for the right "bowl."

In the end, apparently, the team with the most points wins. Although a hardened baseball fan might need a beer or two at this point, the regulars insist that it is all perfectly clear.

"I'll explain it to you later," association President Jean Wong said jokingly at a recent practice session. "For those who have grown up with it, it becomes a way of life."

Whatever it is, cricket has been in the Los Angeles area a long time. In the 1930s, when British actor C. Aubry Smith brought the game to Griffith Park, regular players included Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Nigel Bruce and H. B. Warner. Errol Flynn played from time to time, although his game was rumored to be weak.

But, after all, in the old days the game was mostly social.

"Back then it hardly mattered how good you were," said Wong, a Northridge contractor and a batsman for a Golden Oldies team. "What mattered was that Mr. Smith was an excellent player, and if you wanted to get ahead with him you showed an interest in the game."

The Hollywood phase ended with the start of World War II, when many British actors returned to their homeland to enlist. Smith died of old age in 1948. For years afterward there were few new faces, and the game was largely dormant.

In the 1970s, over the bitter objections of the cricket association, the C. Aubry Smith cricket fields in Griffith Park were replaced by an equestrian center. New fields were built in the city park in Van Nuys.

In the meantime, the local game was reviving. Gradually, it was taken over by transplanted members of former British colonies who had moved in large numbers to Southern California.

"The West Indians came first," said Alan Rowland, a 66-year-old Canadian who serves as the association's secretary. "After that there was a wave of Indians and Pakistanis, and then a lot of new Sri Lankans. We also attract a lot of foreign students, from places like UCLA."

Today, in fact, there are 21 cricket clubs in Southern California, including five teams composed primarily of West Indian players, three made up mostly of players from India and Pakistan and one of Sri Lankans. Other players come from Bangladesh, Tanzania, South Africa, Uganda, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Wong said that nine 11-man teams have joined the league in the past five years, including two since the close of the 1984 season.

"It's like the United Nations out here," said Denis Stuart, an immigrant from Guyana who is a regular on one of the West Indian teams. "Only in Southern California can you play the game with people from every cricketing country in the world."

And, by most accounts, these are serious players. Although there are no professional players, many teams boast players with international experience. Players are younger than they used to be, and considerably more hot-tempered.

"As of this year a player will be (automatically) suspended for any vilification or abuse of an official," Wong said. "We are noticing more and more often . . . that people are out here to win."

There are other cricket fields in Southern California--in Santa Barbara, Compton, Torrance, Ventura, Westwood and Pasadena. But since the last Griffith Park field was destroyed in 1979, the Woodley Park complex has been the center for league play.

There are two fields at the complex. Wong says a third will be ready in July. When that field is added, the cricket center will be the largest in the United States, he said.

Although the sport remains obscure locally, Wong expects interest to continue to grow. The association is hoping to set up a "Colt League" soon, in hopes of attracting a third generation of players.

"We're starting to see the children of former players these days," he said.

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