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Cricket Spreads Its Wings

Sports: U.S. players are vying for the national title in the British export today in Van Nuys. They have big plans for the little-understood game.

September 01, 2002|STEPHANIE CHAVEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like their distant baseball player cousins, these athletes wield bats, score runs, play innings and gulp Gatorade.

But the stars on this Van Nuys field Saturday weren't thinking about the impact of an averted strike, new team luxury taxes or a declining television audience.

These players were focused on a game of cricket, obscure in America, but close to their immigrant roots.

There they stood in their all-white uniforms--long pants, polo-style shirts--swinging a piece of equipment that is a cross between an oar and a bat, intent on scoring a run by hitting a hard red ball.

Players from Florida, New York, Ohio and Oregon who grew up in foreign lands such as Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan converged on Woodley Park this holiday weekend to pursue their version of a great American pastime: winning a national championship.

"Cricket Is Life," read Aijaz Alli's T-shirt. "When I came to this country, I thought my cricket days were done for good," said Alli, a 24-year-old Pakistani immigrant who lives in Santa Clarita. "Then I found the league."

The league is the 15,000-member United States of America Cricket Assn., the group that sponsors amateur weekend players, many of whom stumbled on the league as if it were a pick-up basketball game.

"I was jogging through Woodley Park, and I couldn't believe it. I saw guys playing cricket," said Nasir Durrani, 24, an Ohio college student in the midst of a Los Angeles engineering internship, who joined the L.A. league last spring.

Today at 10 a.m., all-star teams from New York and Los Angeles will vie for the title of American Cricket Champions. Then, a team with the best of the best will be selected to play other international amateur teams.

This is the league's first national championship, a rare chance for players to match their skills against the best in their adopted nation.

With a $200,000 annual budget--half from a professional international league and the other from U.S. donors--the American league paid for the players' air fare and hotel stays. Otherwise, their biggest expenditure this year was a $15,000 heavy-duty motorized roller to compact the prized Wood- ley Park Field.

"There is no way these guys would be able to afford to play in a tournament without help," said Atul Rai, president of the U.S. Cricket Assn. and a Santa Barbara dentist.

Cricket may be an obscure sport in America: What's that they use? Bats? Sticks? Do they throw it? Roll it? Run for it? And from a distance, the players make a decidedly English portrait, looking much like a group of genteel, white-clad croquet players.

But up close, the guys are spitting on the ball and rubbing it smooth to make it aerodynamic. The game is similar to baseball, only the ball is supposed to bounce off the ground once before it's swatted by the batter.

Instead of running around a diamond to score, players run across the field. The opposing team stops the run by throwing the ball and hitting a wooden wicket, much like throwing the ball to base. The "bowler," or pitcher equivalent, is allowed to hit the players with the ball.

"See that guy over there? Yesterday he got hit on the cheek," said Arjunan Ethirveerasingam of Cerritos. "We iced it down. He's OK. But that's the nature of the sport."

For the thousands of U.S. players, most of them immigrants, the game is like an old familiar afternoon lifted out of childhood memories.

The ethnic diversity of cities such as Los Angeles and New York brings men of many nations together to play what they still like to call " a gentleman's sport," for their tradition of politely deferring to the umpire's decisions.

Southern California has 40 teams, the state of New York more than 120. Strong teams also can be found in Florida, Arizona, Nevada and Oregon.

First popularized in England in the 1700s, cricket was then exported to Britain's colonies and thrives as a professional sport in places including Australia, the West Indies, South Africa and Jamaica. The biggest professional games can pack a stadium of 100,000.

The Woodley Park cricket field--one of only two dedicated cricket fields in the country, the other in Florida--is known as the best maintained field.

Los Angeles, it turns out, has cricket in its history. Col. Griffith J. Griffith, who donated the land for Griffith Park in 1896, was a cricket player himself and requested that a field be maintained on the land, according to Rai.

The city Recreation and Parks Department opened the Woodley Park field in the 1970s, and volunteers from the cricket association have helped maintain it since.

Rai and the players have plans to keep cricket alive in America. Already they have launched a local elementary school program, especially attractive to immigrant children from countries where cricket it popular. Perhaps a sponsor or two will donate money to help train players and pay for coaches and travel expenses.

In 2005, the best players in the nation hope to travel to Ireland for a tournament that could qualify them to play in the amateur version of the World Cup of cricket.

"Satellite TV, that would be cool," said Ethirveerasingam.

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