Cricket: Remade in the USA 

The venerable game of cricket changes the rules to win new fans. But Americans have to change too if it's ever going to take off.

No other nation does assimilation quite like the United States. It's trite but true: Immigrants come to America, throw their spices into the gumbo, and are changed in turn by our country's ahistorical, polyglot ethos. For those immigrants who actually chose to come here, this has worked pretty well for more than two hundred years. But now, American inclusiveness may face its biggest test yet: cricket.

The Northern California Cricket Association has been around since 1892, but no one paid much attention until an army of well-educated South Asians started settling in the Bay Area two decades ago. Today, the association fields 36 teams of cricket fanatics, who play on fields across the Bay Area. At least, they try to play on local fields, but sometimes the game just doesn't work out the way they'd like it to.

Most local fields suitable for cricket are dedicated to soccer or football, and groundskeepers keep the grass too long, whether by conscious choice or benign neglect. And that just won't do for cricket, notes Anupam Singh, the association's vice president. "When we share fields with other sports, some cities are very conservative when cutting the grass, and they leave more grass on the ground than is needed for even soccer," he says. "So your foot could get stuck when running, and you could twist your ankle. So the movement of the ball or the runner is impeded if the grass is too long."

Unlike in baseball, cricket pitchers ("bowlers") hurl the ball at the ground, so they need the lawn cut short in order to aim correctly and bounce the ball at the target. A batter ("batsman") stands beside one of two "wickets," which consist of three stakes driven into the earth and topped with two "bails," which the bowler tries to knock off with the ball. If the batsman hits the ball into the field, he and his teammate can run back and forth from one wicket to the other until fielders retrieve the ball and throw it at the wicket. Somewhere along this exercise, points get scored, and victory is attained -- just don't ask me how.

At parks and school districts from Pinole to Union City to Santa Clara, similarly ignorant bureaucrats are facing new demands from a soft-spoken mob of bat-wielding, kneepad-wearing computer programmers: the grass is too long, and our cricket balls bounce funny. Singh claims their most recent complaints stem from the scandalously long grass at one South Bay adult education center. But officials there had no idea what he was talking about and suggested the local Police Athletic League might have a handle on it. A league representative had never heard of it, however, and thought the county's Parks and Recreation Department might know. And of course, a Park and Rec official said she had no clue about the complaints and suggested center officials might know something about it.

Their haplessness is a little understandable. It's hard enough selling Americans on the appeal of a game that can last up to five days and breaks for a thirty-minute lunch and tea time -- now we gotta mow our lawns more too. But that's the price of multiculturalism. "Soccer and cricket coexist on other grounds," Singh says. "In India, Pakistan, even in England, people share the grounds. So there seems to be a little bit of a lack of information, or we have to communicate better, that both of these sports can coexist if the grass is short."

Singh and his colleagues have good reason to get so worked up -- they have big dreams for cricket. They see it as a counterpoint to the American approach to sports, which is often tainted by boorish behavior and an undue celebration of the individual over the team. Cricket, on the other hand, is a gentleman's game based on strategy and cooperation. "There's a lot of grace and civility and spirit in cricket," Singh says. "You never kind of go and start jumping on the umpire. Even the appeal has a very set way in which you could appeal. There's a lot of strategy associated with the game. ... It's very much a team effort. You can't just go and have one great player and win the whole season."

Still, most Americans find the game slow-paced and mystifyingly arcane. Singh's friends have had to accommodate this viewpoint, just as they are now asking us to accommodate their needs. To appeal to Americans, more and more local players have switched to a new version of the game, dubbed "tennisball cricket" or "pajama cricket." Tennisball cricket takes just half a day to play, uses a different kind of ball, and has sped up the pace to appeal to American sensibilities.

"Our philosophy is you need to attract local people, in the sense of American kids," says Giriraj Vengurlekar, a software engineer who helped start a Bay Area tennisball cricket league eight years ago. "It becomes easier for people who are interested to play a shorter version of the game. ... We play with a different kind of ball, a harder version of the tennis ball. The reason using that is you don't need all the equipment that goes into a cricket game. The chances of injury are less, and it's less expensive."

Cricket purists think tennisball cricket dilutes the nobility of the game in the name of attracting a wider audience. "Tennisball cricket is just real soft, and it doesn't require much strategy, anything like that," says Owen Graham, who was dubbed most valuable player in the Northern California Cricket Association last year. "Traditional cricket takes a whole lot more discipline and concentration to play."

But if tennisball cricket helps Americans discover the game, Vengurlekar believes the sacrifice will have been worth it. "We have discussions with people who play the purer game, and they say, 'You are not playing the real sport,'" he says. "But we have more than seventy teams. The fact that so many teams are playing, we think that it will really succeed. I guess that kind of tells the story."

For cricket fans, this difference is as big as that between NFL football and arena football. But such distinctions are lost on the rest of the Bay Area. There are only so many fields available, and the two cricket leagues often compete for time on the weekends. "When we go to an organization and say we want a field, they say, 'You already have a field,'" Vengurlekar says. "They don't really distinguish between one form and another. They just think, 'Okay, it's a cricket field. '"

American culture has absorbed many once-exotic ways of life over the years -- sauerkraut and mojitos, jai alai and hockey -- and we'll take it all, thank you very much. Cricket, however, is still weird. Still, with a little compromise, we'll even make this our own.

"We're very aware that Americans won't spend their entire Sundays playing the game," Graham says. "But the abridged version might get them in. It's a game you need a real passion for, but it will stay in you."

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