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Thursday, July 10, 2003 02:20 pm

The other ball game

Springfield has two teams playing cricket—a game with more history than baseball, more rules than chess, and more devotees worldwide than any sport besides soccer.

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The bat meets the ball with a hollow thwack. On the home team's bench, a cheer goes up as the grounder skips past the visiting players' outstretched hands and across the field's outer boundary line. If you close your eyes, you could almost imagine yourself at a baseball game.

But then comes a sound you don't hear in baseball:

"Watch the ball! Mind the ball!" the home team yells, in an almost panicked tone.

The ball--brick red and about the size of a baseball--has rolled past the invisible limit of the playing field and is headed toward the unmanicured patch of weeds beyond. If the ball goes into the waist-high wildflowers that inhabit the northern end of Springfield's Kennedy Park, the game must stop until the ball is found. Pulling a shiny new ball from one of the equipment bags or from the league's storage shed is simply not an option.

"It has to be that ball because of its age," explains Vinod Patel, one of the founding members of Springfield Cricket Club. A new ball wouldn't have "the same life, the same roughness, the same shine" as the ball that is now somewhere in the weeds.

This careful attention to the ball's condition has to do with the type of spin it can achieve: a shiny new ball is less likely to spin than one with some scuffs. There is no American sport where the condition of the ball is important (imagine if every baseball hit into the stands had to be retrieved).

Therein lies one of the many intriguing intricacies of cricket--a sport with more history than baseball, more rules than chess, and more devotees around the world than any sport besides soccer. Passionately embraced almost everywhere except the United States, cricket is regarded here as arcane, obscure, bewilderingly complex, and therefore boring. Robin Williams calls it "baseball on Valium."

Yet in Springfield, there are enough diehard cricket zealots--willing to drive at least twice a week to the far northwest fringe of the city to spend hours running around a windswept field--to form not just one but two cricket teams, the oldest of which was founded more than 20 years ago. And this year--for the first time since 1991--they are playing competitively in the Midwest Cricket Conference lower division, and earning respectable records. Four games into the 14-match regular season, both SCC and Capitol Cricket Club have one loss apiece.

Along with the competition comes a social and support network for the players, all immigrants, most from India, who arrived in the United States either as college graduate students or on visas related to their special skills in engineering or computer programming. Their cheers from the benches mix English with Telugu, Hindi, Tamil, and Gujarati, and the lunch they serve (league rules require the host team to feed the visitors) is often vegetarian Indian fare. Some players bring along their young sons, a few of whom dress in traditional cricket whites to show they're eager to step in if a regular player gets injured.


Why a duck?

On a recent sunny Saturday, nine-year-old Neel Patel was handed a red ledger, a black ballpoint pen, and the awesome responsibility of keeping score--a complicated task in cricket. Each ball the "bowler" throws (sort of like a baseball pitcher) has to be accounted for in the ledger, as well as each hit by the batsmen. The system is so complex that most of the players can't keep track. They're constantly yelling over to Neel, "What's the score?"

Neel, in turn, keeps yelling to Vinod, "Can you help me, Vinod Uncle? Am I doing this right?" (Vinod and Neel are not related; they just share one of the most common Indian names. Neel adds "uncle" as a sign of affectionate respect for Vinod, who is his father's friend.) Within a few "overs," or bowler's turns, he is keeping score on his own for the first time ever, with only occasional suggestions from his friends.

"You need to draw a duck in the ledger--that guy made a duck," an older boy tells Neel gleefully as a batsman for the visiting team returns to his bench head down, having been put "out" without scoring any runs--a relatively rare phenomenon in cricket.

In televised cricket matches--which feature all the bells and whistles of most major sports, including cameras covering every angle, instant replays, color commentary, and cute graphics--a player who makes a duck is publicly humiliated.

"If you make a duck, they put a duck with your picture while you're walking off the field and show it on the Jumbotron," Neel says. "That's got to be the worst feeling you could ever have in your life!"

Sort of like baseball . . . but not

Here's a surprising fact: Aside from the Olympics, the oldest international sporting event in the modern world is the annual cricket match between Canada and the United States. The first such match, played in 1844, drew 10,000 spectators to Bloomingdale Park in New York City, where they spent $150,000 (in 1844 dollars) wagering on the outcome.

Back then, cricket was popular in America. The United States had a highly skilled team that toured all around the British Empire. Their 1888 victory over the West Indies, in which they prevented any batsman from getting more than four runs, is the stuff of legend.

But the sport's popularity here faded due to several factors: First, it was accessible only to monied gentlemen who had the leisure to play marathon matches that could last several days. In other countries, such wealthy cricket players matured into cricket spectators and sponsors, underwriting athletes to play the sport full-time. In the U.S., however, that transition failed to happen, thereby limiting the pool of players.

Probably more significant in the demise of cricket was the popularity of its spin-off sport, "rounders." This variation added extra bases to the cricket infield, or "pitch," making the game playable in a smaller space. Since rounders could be played in urban settings, it became known as "townball" and, then, by 1845, baseball.

Today, baseball and cricket are like long lost cousins, clearly descended from the same family tree, but each its own distinct branch. Still, they are close enough to provide a basis for comparison:

A cricket team has 11 players. As in baseball, one team is at bat while the other is in the field. Cricket fielders have much more area to cover than baseball fielders, so they are constantly assuming different positions based on the style of the bowler and the ability of the batter, or "batsman."

The teams take turns batting and fielding. But they get only one turn apiece in one-day matches (two turns in test matches, which can last five days). Whichever team bats first sets the score that the other team has to top in order to win.

Play is measured in "overs," or sets of six throws by a bowler. One-day matches--the form used by the Midwest Cricket League and becoming increasingly popular worldwide--are usually limited to 40 overs per side.

On a baseball diamond, you see bases. On a cricket pitch, you see wickets.

At each end of the pitch stands a "wicket"--three sticks or "stumps" planted into the ground with a pair of spools, or "bails," balanced on top to make the shape of a lower-case M. If anything hits the wicket, the bails fall off and the batsman is declared "out." So the job of the batsman is to protect the wicket, while scoring as many runs as possible.

The bowler's job is just like a pitcher's--to frustrate the batsman and prevent him from getting a good hit. But the delivery is entirely different.

Where a pitcher has a wind-up, a bowler has a "run-up." He stands 20 feet or so behind the wicket on his end and sprints at nearly full speed, throwing the ball at the last minute before crossing the "bowling crease" (a line just behind the wicket). He can throw "on the full" (straight through the air), or he can make the ball bounce once before it reaches the batsman.

Unlike baseball, where pitchers have a repertoire of throws, bowlers tend to specialize in certain throws. Some are "pace bowlers," who throw fast balls that can "swing" in or out; others specialize in spinning the ball, making it hop in unexpected ways.

The batsman scores runs the same way baseball batters score--by hitting the ball, the farther the better. In cricket, though, there is no "foul ball." A batsman can send the ball in any direction, including behind himself with a "sweeping" shot. Any ball that crosses an outfield boundary earns an automatic number of runs: four if it hits the ground before it crosses the boundary, or six (called a "sixer") if it crosses the boundary "on the full" (in the air), sort of like baseball's home run.

There are two batsmen and two bowlers on the field at all times. But it's not as complicated as it sounds. The bowlers take turns, alternating after each over, or half-dozen pitches, and throwing toward whichever batsman happens to be guarding the opposite wicket.

The batsmen run back and forth between the two wickets. On any hit shorter than a four or a sixer, the batsman scores by running between the two wickets while the fielders are chasing down his hit ball. Of course, since there can be only one man on a base (or in the "crease") at a time, that means the second batsman has to run the opposite way. To be safe, the batsman simply needs to be close enough to the wicket that he can touch his bat inside the "popping crease" (a line about 40 inches in front of the wicket). If either batsman is caught outside this safety zone, he can be tagged or thrown "out" by a fielder hitting the wicket. Also, just like baseball, a batsman is out if he hits a fly ball that is caught.

There are other ways to get a batsman out that are peculiar to cricket. If the batsman misses a ball and it hits the wicket, he is out. If he sees the ball headed for the wicket but can't get his bat on it and it hits his leg, he's out (it's called an LBW, "leg before wicket"). And if he happens to take a careless backswing and hit the wicket himself, he's also out.

Once out, he is out. In a one-day match, he cannot bat again.

As long as a batsman doesn't commit a mistake, he can continue to bat. In international test matches, a good batsman may be at bat for two solid days and score more than 100 runs. Unlike baseball, where pitchers are the heroes who face a parade of opponents, in cricket it is the batsman who faces a series of bowlers man-to-man.

Not one Yank's cup of tea

Jeff Kuhlman grew up in Lincoln playing golf, tennis, and basketball, but of course not cricket. It wasn't until he was 32 and working as a computer programmer that he got interested in the sport. More than a dozen co-workers were crazy for cricket, and some of them played on Capitol Cricket Club.

Kuhlman practiced with the team a couple of times and discovered he was a hopeless bowler. "I was cheating by throwing over the top, using my shoulder, like a baseball pitcher," he says. "Whereas in cricket, you run up and it's kinda weird--you don't do a throwing motion. . . . You do a whirlybird motion of some sort. Every time I did it, they told me I was doing it wrong."

Satha Sivapragasam, the star batsman of the CCC team, remembers Kuhlman's cricket adventure and explains why Kuhlman couldn't bowl.

"You cannot throw the ball--that's illegal," Sivapragasam says. "You've got to bring the arm full rotation. You are not supposed to bend your elbow because that means you're throwing. It's called chucking. The umpire will call a 'no ball,' which means the other team gets a free run plus extra ball."

But even though he couldn't bowl, Kuhlman discovered he could bat. He got the hang of using the big fat paddle and the abbreviated back swing the first time he stepped on a cricket ground.

"It took me like one practice session, and I was having no problem," he says.

He also grasped one of the less-obvious concepts of cricket: batting defensively. A fly ball, if caught, banishes a batsman from the game, so the batsmen often hold back and resist the urge to swing hard when they need to preserve "wickets," or outs.

"If you hit it on the ground, generally, you won't get put out," Kuhlman says. "And if you hit the ball and you don't like where it's going, you just don't run. It did take me a while to get used to that."

After two practices, he joined the team for a match against Champaign. He made a few diving catches in the outfield and scored 40 runs at bat. "They carried me off on their shoulders," he says. He hasn't had the urge to play cricket again. "I went out on top of the sport."

Disney buys in

There's a campaign underway to popularize cricket in America. It's not just weekend warriors like the two Springfield clubs--it's Disney World hosting international matches. Why resist?

The "laws" of cricket were formalized in 1744 ("Ye Stumps must be 22 inches long, and ye Bail 6 inches . . . Ye Ball must weigh between 5 and 6 ounces"), and the game still manages to enchant the United Kingdom, Australia, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Caribbean. The tedious tournaments consisting of five-day matches in sets of five (yes, 25 days--football widows, count your blessings) are being overshadowed by the popularity of the more dramatic one-day game. In these one-day international (ODI) matches, the starchy tradition of players wearing whites and creams has been replaced by colorful uniforms. Popular brands like Reebok and Puma are producing cricket equipment. Fans around the world follow their teams on Web sites like Cricinfo.com and, just like American football fans, play a "fantasy" form of the sport. There's even a Playstation 2 version of the game called Cricket 2002.

Cricket very nearly shared in an Academy Award last year, thanks to the Bollywood epic Lagaan, which features singing and dancing peasants saving their province by beating the British colonists at cricket. The cricket sequence that provides the film's climax is more than an hour long.

Ironically, the plot of Lagaan, set in 1893, involves "whiteys" introducing this game to bewildered Indians. Nowadays, it's the reverse. The Indians are the cricket experts, and--in America, at least--the "whiteys" are the bewildered ones.

Springfield Cricket Club began asking the park district for a "ground" almost 20 years ago, Vinod Patel says. They were told there weren't even enough baseball fields to meet demand; a cricket ground was out of the question. In the mid-1990s, then-mayor Ossie Langfelder resurrected the request and tried to find a patch of park for the cricketers, but he was unsuccessful. Finally, SCC had so many players that one group splintered off to form a new team, Capitol Cricket Club. And when CCC asked the park district for a ground in 2001, the field at Kennedy Park was available.

It is about as far away as possible from UIS, where many of the SCC team members live. The pitch slopes down on one side, so bowlers have to run uphill. The wind is constant, the bathrooms distant, and the shade nonexistent. But no one ever complains.

The UIS cricketers practice whenever the mood strikes near the tennis courts at the university, Tarun Bhoomireddy says. Bhoomireddy, who is working toward his master's degree in computer science, admits that most of his Indian classmates are not as obsessed with cricket as he is. But just a few months ago, enough classmates were willing to pitch in $30 apiece to subscribe to the Dish Network's entire broadcast of the cricket World Cup, which cost about $500--twice.

"We had it in two houses so all of us could watch," Bhoomireddy says.

Since the Cup was held in South Africa, the live broadcasts began around 2 a.m. Everyone altered their schedules to watch cricket all night and sleep during the day. "Classes are at 6 or 8 p.m., so it worked out," Bhoomireddy says.

The final one-day match had enough drama to make another Bollywood epic. Tiny (5'3") Sachin Tendulkar, star batsman of India's team, had averaged 69 runs per game throughout the tournament, becoming the heaviest scoring batsman in World Cup history. But in the final match, Australia's team achieved the phenomenal score of 359 in its turn at bat. The only possible chance India had to catch that score was to forget batting defensively and swing for sixers. With the hopes of the subcontinent resting on his shoulders, Tendulkar went for broke, and was caught out after only four runs.

Bhoomireddy and the rest of the cricketers think no less of Tendulkar. "He's like a demigod to Indians," Bhoomireddy says.

These players are so devoted to cricket, they feel certain everyone else would enjoy the game, if given the chance. Bhoomireddy's teammate Suren Gummadi says it wouldn't take long.

"If I could take them to a stadium somehow and make them watch the game for one hour," he says, "I am sure they will spend every weekend at the stadium."

Cricket arcania

The only players allowed to wear protective gear are the batter and the wicket keeper, or catcher. All other playerscatch the ball bare-handed.

In international test matches, which can last up to five days, players take several breaks each day: a morning break for "drinks," an afternoon break for tea, and between innings a break for lunch.

Notable cricketers include Robin Hood, Oliver Cromwell, and our second president, John Adams. A 1930s Hollywood team that toured Canada featured Errol Flynn, Boris Karloff, and Nigel Bruce.

The highest number of runs scored on a single hit in recorded cricket history occurred in a game between two Australian teams, Victoria and Bunbury. A batsman for Victoria hit the ball into a tall Jarah tree where it lodged in a three-pronged branch. The Bunbury team asked the umpire to declare it a "lost ball," but he refused, saying it couldn't be lost since it was there in plain sight. Efforts to find an axe to cut the tree down proved fruitless. Finally, someone found a rifle and shot the ball out of the tree. By that point, Victoria's batsmen had scored 286 runs. Victoria went on to win the game.

There are approximately 30 fielding positions in cricket, and some of them are plain silly--"silly mid on" and "silly mid off." The reason they're called "silly" is a mystery. However, these positions are close to the batsman.

In 1986, at the request of Prince Edward, Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice wrote a one-act comic musical about the game, called, appropriately, Cricket.

Play ball!

The Springfield and Capitol cricket clubs play at Kennedy Park, just north of the airport on J. David Jones Parkway. Matches begin at 11 a.m. Their remaining home games are:

7/12 CCC vs. Vikings

7/13 SCC vs. Vikings

7/19 CCC vs. Gujarat CC

7/26 SCC vs. IIT CC

7/27 CCC vs. Sonics

8/2 SCC vs. Continental

8/3 CCC vs. Continental

8/16 SCC vs. Naper CC

8/17 CCC vs. Suburban

8/23 SCC vs. Warriors

8/24 CCC vs. Warriors

8/30 CCC vs. Jaguars

8/31 SCC vs. Giants

9/6 CCC vs. Jolly Rovers

9/7 SCC vs. Strikers

9/13 CCC vs. Collinsville

9/14 SCC vs. Rockers

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