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Cricket Fever Hits the Valley With Visit by World Champion Sri Lankan National Team


VAN NUYS — For weeks, the buzz at Sri Lankan Delight, a grocery in Reseda that caters to the estimated 5,000 Sri Lankans in the Southland, has been cricket, cricket, cricket.

Tucked into a nondescript mini-mall, the shop is the place to go for all the things that speak of home to immigrants from the former Ceylon. It is where you will find Sri Lankan spices, dried fish chips and canned breadfruit, the pesky carbohydrate that sparked the mutiny aboard the H.M.S. Bounty.

But the talk at Sri Lankan Delight hasn't been about food. It's been about the visit this weekend of the world champion Sri Lankan national cricket team, a visit that has galvanized both the immigrant community and the city's little-known but vibrant cricket culture, centered, of all places, here in Van Nuys.

For months, the Valley has been planning for a visit by the Sri Lankan national cricket team, one of the powerhouses in the once upper-class British game, now a sport second only to soccer in international popularity.

Then, a month ago in Lahore, Pakistan, something happened to turn the Sri Lankan arrival last week into a triumphal visit. On March 17, Sri Lanka amazed the sports world by beating the favorite, Australia, to win the World Cup in cricket. The upset victory made national heroes of the 11-man team and international superstars of captain Arjuna Ranatunga and opening batsman Sanath Jayasuriya, named most valuable player of the series.

"This is the biggest achievement since Sri Lanka was born 2,500 years ago," said Ahamed Sahill, 32, an investment banker and avid cricket fan who was born in Sri Lanka and now lives in Granada Hills. The only other national victory that comes close, said Sahill, was Sri Lanka's winning the world championship in billiards in the 1970s.

In Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, fans celebrated the cricket title for a week. As Philip Fernando, editor in chief of the Los Angeles-based Lanka Tribune, explained, "For us to win the World Cup, it's as if the Angels won the world cup in baseball and beat the Atlanta Braves resoundingly."

In the Valley, the visit of the Sri Lankan superstars and their appearances in matches in Van Nuys are a major boost for local cricket. As enthusiasts point out, cricket in Los Angeles centers on the three public grounds in Van Nuys' Woodley Park (two more are to be added). Locally, cricket was once a favorite game of movie stars, including Erroll Flynn, Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone. Today, about 600 people play regularly at Saturday and Sunday games in Woodley Park, including 12 clubs affiliated with the Southern California Cricket Assn., according to Krish Sharma, the association's president.

Unlike the Sri Lankan team, which is professional, local players such as Sahill tend to play a lower-key version of the game. "It's not as serious as in Colombo," Sahill said. "I play Sunday cricket here." Socializing afterward is an important element of the experience. "We try to have some fun," he said. "We drink some beers. We talk about old times."

One way to tell the pros from the amateurs is by their dress. The professionals often play something called "pajama cricket" because of their brightly colored uniforms, often emblazoned with the names of sponsors (Singer, the sewing machine people, back the Sri Lankan team). Local amateur clubs favor the time-honored white pants and open-necked shirts.

Los Angeles' first cricket fields opened in Griffith Park in the early 1930s. Col. Griffith J. Griffith, the Welshman who gave the park to the city, insisted on them. Turf is a major attraction at Woodley Park, home to cricket since 1970, according to Sharma, a Northridge accountant whose association will field a team today against the Sri Lankans. In many places, cricketers play on matting laid over dirt or even concrete. But Valley cricketers have access to well-kept grass fields. The grounds are maintained by the Department of Recreation & Parks and groomed to world-class condition by local cricketers.

"It's the dream of every cricketer to play on turf, and that's what we have," said Sharma. "It's the best grounds in all the U.S.A." As a result of the Woodley Park fields, Fernando said, "the Valley is the mecca of cricket in the United States." Local cricketers are trying to persuade the international cricket establishment that Woodley Park would be an ideal site for second-tier World Cup play in 2000.

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