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Mobtown Beat

Sticky Wickets

During Baltimore's Muggy Months, Cricket Club Serves Up ³British Baseball²

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 7/4/2001

Something very odd happens behind Lutherville Elementary School on Tuesday evenings in the summer. No, not on the grassy fields, where boisterous youth-league softball games are played. No, not on the tennis courts, where couples swat fuzzy green balls back and forth. Look closer: Within a fenced-in area next to the courts, a man takes a running start and hurls a hard, red ball in a whirling, overhand motion. The ball bounces sharply off the ground in front of another man clutching a paddlelike bat, who strives to whack the speeding ball with a swing more often seen on a golf course.

Welcome to weekly practice of the Maryland Cricket Club (MCC), local practitioner of that veddy British bat-and-ball sport.

"People sometimes look at us and wonder what the hell is going on," says MCC's Sunil Ahluwalia, the team's 40-year-old record-keeper. "But it seems people are afraid to ask."

Baltimore-area cricketers, however, are more than happy to discuss their sport. They brag that cricket might be the world's oldest team sport, and that in global popularity it's second only to soccer. Though cricket's origins are murky--some trace it to ancient India--the British have been playing it for some 1,000 years (Chaucer mentions the game in Canterbury Tales). During the empire days, the Brits successfully exported it to most every land where the Union Jack was unfurled: from Australia to Zimbabwe, from Jamaica to Pakistan. An exception is our own former colonies, for the Anglo export is little played on these shores.

"I guess . . . baseball and football have just crowded it out," MCC's president Rocky Goorcharan says. Indeed, cricket did enjoy some popularity here until baseball began its rise in the middle of the 19th century.

Its U.S. obscurity aside, cricket is on an upswing in the mid-Atlantic. Ahluwalia and Goorcharan are just two of hundreds who don the sport's traditional all-white garb and keep the game alive from April to August. "It's really growing here," says Goorcharan, a 38-year-old project inspector for the Maryland State Highway Administration. "When I joined the league in 1991, we had only had a few teams and we had to play a few teams twice" in order to fill out a season. Today the 27-year-old Washington Cricket League (WCL), of which MCC is a founding member, oversees 23 recreational cricket teams from Philadelphia to Virginia.

League membership consists almost exclusively of expatriates from cricket-playing countries--chiefly India, Pakistan, and various West Indian nations. Goorcharan, a Guyana native, says his own Baltimore-area team, which plays its home games at a recreational complex in Timonium, is one of the league's most diverse. "We've got players from all over: Jamaica, Trinidad, India, Bangladesh, and England," he says. Some, like him, are U.S. citizens; others are here as resident aliens, or on student visas. "We lose some good players at graduation time," Goorcharan laments. And the league's recent growth, he adds, is in part thanks to that diversity; the Internet has spread the word--especially among recent immigrants--that cricket is played in the States.

Because cricket involves batting, the games are divided into innings and scored in "runs," and the umpire is all-powerful, many refer to it as "British baseball." But it's a nickname that doesn't really fit.

"For one thing, cricket pitching has much more variety than baseball," says English-born MCC player Peter Lee, who's been to an Orioles game or two. "What's so hard about hitting a ball coming straight at you?"

One difference between the two sports is that cricket pitchers, called bowlers, bounce the ball before the batter. Also, despite the use of a hard ball, only the "wicket keeper," who is analogous to a catcher, wears a glove.

If Americans think of cricket at all, they likely envision interminable games (international matches can last five days), unintelligible rules, and a sort of impenetrable Englishness--how many other sports have rules governing tea breaks? But it's "really a lot simpler than people think," Goorcharan says. "I hear all the time how confusing it is, but if you just watch a game you can figure it out."

Cricket is played on a large oval field. (There's no standard size, but think of a football field with the corners rounded off.) At the oval's center lies the pitch, a 22-yard-long alley of closely cropped grass, and at either end of the pitch are the wickets: three closely spaced, 32-inch-tall wooden posts called "stumps" topped with a pair of spindlelike pieces of wood called "bails."

Cricket teams have 11 players. Like baseball, one team fields while the other bats. Two batters are actually "up" at once, though only one is pitched to at a time. They stand at opposite ends of the pitch in front of the wickets. The bowler, after a running start, pitches to a batter from the far side of the pitch. The batter's chief aim is to keep the ball from hitting the wicket and dislodging a bail. If that happens, he's out. Depending on the bowler's throw, he can also try to bat the ball into the field. Though there are a number of ways to score, runs are generally made if the ball lands beyond the oval's boundary, or if the two batters are able to run and switch sides on the pitch before fielders can retrieve the ball and throw it to knock the wicket over.

The Maryland Cricket Club isn't the only team to play this sport in Baltimore--in fact, it's not the even the best. That accolade belongs to the Cherry Hill-based Baltimore Cricket Club, a Washington Cricket League team staffed mostly by West Indian players. The Baltimore Cricket Club, which spun off from the MCC in 1975, is a perennial league powerhouse, finishing second in last year's WCL playoffs.

"We're the team that needs the [media] exposure," Goorcharan says with a smile. "The Baltimore club already got all the good players."

The MCC is having a rough season. "To put it mildly, we're doing terribly," Goorcharan says. "We haven't won a game yet." But most MCC players will tell you cricket is more than just a game. For many, it's a chance to reconnect with a bit of their homeland. Indian-born Ahluwalia says camaraderie is at the core of cricket. For instance, it's league tradition, he says, for the home team to provide dinner for the visitors after each game.

"You have to remember," Ahluwalia adds, "this is a gentleman's game."

Information about Maryland Cricket Club games and membership can be found at www. geocities.com/maryland_cricket_club.

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