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TRICKY WICKETS : Sons of the British Empire Cling to the Grand Old Game--Cricket

April 30, 1988|PATRICK MOTT | Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

A batter was still up, but what a difference a day made in a weekend of national pastimes at Modjeska Park in Anaheim.

Saturday, quite naturally for this time of year, is the day for Little League games. The baseball diamonds in the park are filled with gum-chewing kids shrilling at the batter, and the stands are filled with parents growling at the umpire. True grit.

But about 3:30 the next afternoon, just a quick stroll across the lawn from the diamonds, 11 men dressed in white are sitting under a tree sipping tea and discussing the latest test match at Lord's cricket ground in London. True Brit.

It's quite a cultural shock in the course of a weekend, but with the coming of spring at Modjeska Park come the cricketers, armed with balls, bats, white flannels, wickets, bails and the ubiquitous tea.

They are members of the British Dominion Cricket Club, a group of expatriates from England, Australia, India, Bermuda, the West Indies--nearly everywhere the Union Jack flies or once flew--who feel that their current residence in the land of baseball and beer doesn't necessarily oblige them to give up cricket and Earl Grey.

The club is Orange County's only first-division cricket club and is one of 28 teams in the two divisions of the Southern California Cricket Assn., a regional governing body that oversees dozens of former cricketers who have come to live in the Southland but who continue to long for a few innings of their favorite game.

(The British Dominion Cricket Club was admitted to the SCCA in 1984 and became a first-division club two years later. Subsequently, some original British Dominion players broke off to form two second-division teams, Vijeta in Yorba Linda and Pacifica in Garden Grove.)

The British Dominion club was culled from men living mostly in the Orange County area, although some players live as far away as Carlsbad in San Diego County. They play all their home games on Sundays at Modjeska Park, and their unofficial home base is the British Dominion Club in Garden Grove, a social club for British-born citizens now living in Southern California.

The six-month season begins in April, and the day before the first game a small group of players are out at the park, watching a handful of groundskeepers prepare the central area of the field--called the pitch--for the next day's match.

It isn't as simple as laying down a few chalk lines on the grass, however. The 20-by-3-meter pitch must be flattened by a steamroller.

"The preparation of the playing surface is extremely important," said Robert Hutchinson, captain of the club. "You have to have the surface absolutely clean and free from pebbles or debris that would affect the ball. In international competition, I'd liken the preparation to the way a golf course is cared for."

The flat, true surface of the pitch, Hutchinson said, acts as a rebounding surface for the ball when it is thrown toward the batsman by the bowler. Unlike a baseball pitcher, the bowler usually attempts to bounce the ball in front of the batsman, allowing any spin that he has put on the ball to be accentuated when the ball digs into the grass on the bounce.

It's difficult for anyone to explain cricket to an American novice without making frequent comparisons to baseball. The games do have similarities, although baseball did not evolve directly from cricket but from a kind of intermediary game called rounders.

Still, most Americans remain perplexed by the game, and many have never seen a match. They may say they have a fair idea of what isn't cricket (calling the Prince of Wales Chuck, for instance), but invariably will admit they have very little idea of what is cricket.

The most pithy explanation of the game may be the one in the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

" . . . game played with a bat and ball between two teams of 11 players each on a large field, which centres upon two upright wickets, each defended by a batsman. A bowler throws . . . the ball, attempting to put out the batsman by hitting the wicket or in other ways. Runs are scored each time the batsmen exchange positions without being put out.

"Cricket centres around a playing area about 22 yards long and 10 feet wide called a pitch, at each end of which is a gate made of three upright stakes, known as the wicket. Atop of the wicket sit two loose crosspieces called bails. The bowler throws the ball at the far wicket and aims to knock the bails loose; if this is done, the batsman is dismissed. To defend his wicket, the batsman tries to hit the ball out of reach of the fielders. On a good hit, the batsman and his partner at the other wicket attempt to exchange places by running the length of the pitch, thus scoring one run. They can repeat this up to six times on any hit and score six runs. The fielders will attempt to stop runs and dismiss either the batsman or his partner by throwing the ball at the wickets."

Within that explanation, say the cricketers, lie centuries of history, lore and devotion.

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