Gotham and the gentleman’s game: How cricket is making a home in New York

“I’d love to see you out at a few games, Mr. Mayor,” Hugh Pitter said, speaking in a crisp American-Jamaican accent as he chatted with Michael Bloomberg over shrimp cocktails. They were at Gracie Mansion, the official residence of the Mayor of New York City, mingling with Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, several parks commissioners and other city officials at the reception hosted by Bloomberg at the end of the annual 2010 New York City Mayor’s Cup T20 cricket tournament.

This was the first such reception hosted by Bloomberg, and it was the last thing Pitter, a licensed real-estate broker in Brooklyn, expected when he emigrated to New York from his native Jamaica more than half a century ago to be with his parents. In August 1955, for Pitter – who was 17 and had grown up playing the game – the prospect of moving to a country where the word “cricket” was associated with an insect had been distinctly gloomy.

Starting out, he played an improvised version of the game using a cardboard sheet for a bat, and when he moved from his town in the countryside to Kingston for high school, he moved on to regulation play. He couldn’t afford tickets to Test matches, so he watched from the top of the tall trees in the backyard of a house of a friend who lived next to Sabina Park. “[You have to] make sure you take your lunch up,” he recalled. “You can bet you’ll lose your spot if you go down for even a second.”

As it turned out, his fears of a cricketless future in New York proved groundless. A few months after moving, in an attempt to keep him busy and off the streets, Pitter’s mother introduced him to a family friend who played with the Primrose Cricket Club in Harlem. Pitter joined immediately, and except for the two years he spent in the army in the early 1960s, he has been playing ever since.

Now a bespectacled 75-year-old, he retains his athletic frame and is still an active member of the Villagers Pacesetters Social and Athletic Club. Apart from being treasurer for his club, Pitter also manages the finances of the regional women’s cricket team and has taken on fundraising responsibilities for various events including the Mayor’s Cup.

Today, he is one of the more prominent cricketing figures in New York, where the oldest cricketing association, the 134-year-old Metropolitan League, rightly calls him “The Archives”. In 2011, he was also inducted into the Cricket Hall of Fame in Hartford, Connecticut, which has previously recognised the likes of Holding, Gavaskar and Sobers. Every available surface in his Brooklyn living room is covered with cricket statistics, photographs of players and newspaper clippings. The walls are adorned with numerous proclamations and citations from politicians in New York City and Washington attesting to his contribution to the game. There’s a box near the television set with even more edicts; he doesn’t have any more space for them.

But on that warm evening in July 2010, Bloomberg was awarding yet another accolade – recognition of cricket as one of the fastest growing sports in America, especially in the New York region. The ascendancy of a hitherto little-noticed sport is not a new story in the US – look at the growing popularity of soccer in school systems and community programmes. But what distinguishes the increased presence of cricket is that even as it has grown in popularity in America, it continues to be identified as a pastime of immigrants, specifically those from British Commonwealth nations. How this sport, which until recent decades was virtually unknown outside immigrant enclaves, has now become the focus of a mayoral tournament is an intriguing story of cultural shift and adaptation in 21st century America.

• • •

Like almost everything else in New York City, cricket is an immigrant, brought here by English and Dutch traders and settlers. Mention of the game occurs in a Virginia diary entry as early as 1709, and troops stationed at Valley Forge during the Revolutionary War entertained themselves with matches between battles. Nonetheless, the game does not seem to have been held in high esteem by some; according to a 2007 article in Smithsonian magazine, during discussions of what to call the chief executive of America after the War of Independence, John Adams is believed to have said that “President” would not be proper as “there are presidents of fire companies and cricket clubs”.

In the early stages of the game’s growth, New York was a cricket stronghold, and the now-defunct St. George’s Cricket Club, aka the Dragon Slayers, is considered the country’s oldest official club, with some accounts dating as far back as 1839. The first international match in the sport’s history, between the US and Canada, was played in New York in 1844, and the first published New York Times article was of a St. George’s contest played in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1854.

Due to the influx of English blue- and white-collar workers, Philadelphia also became a cricket town and, by the mid-19th century, it had overtaken New York as the heart of cricket in the US. This legacy is reflected today in the large collection of cricket literature at Haverford College, located on the outskirts of Philadelphia. After the American Civil War, however, baseball became the national passion and cricket fell into disfavour.

But it continued to be played in the north east, and as more immigrants from former British Colonies arrived, it began to establish a broader base. In New York, the Metropolitan Cricket League, established in 1890, began sharing fields with newer associations including the Brooklyn League, the Eastern American League and, beginning in the 1970s, the Commonwealth Cricket League.

The persistence of this old-world activity in New World circumstances is hardly unusual according to sociologist Madhulika Khandelwal, director of the Asian/American Center of Queens College. She reported that immigrants typically make conscious decisions about which traditions to continue in a new environment. But carrying out such a commitment, Khandelwal added, may be another story. “Since the resources and setting have to be created for something like cricket,” she said, “it takes a community or group effort to keep the tradition alive.”

During cricket’s nascent stages in New York, that effort came from immigrants whose names are now forgotten. But in the 1960s, Pitter and his like-minded contemporaries took over the task.

As with most immigrants, Pitter’s most pressing task had been learning how to function in his new home. He graduated from Brooklyn’s Erasmus Hall High School, enrolled in Roberts Technical and Trade Schools for a degree in Automotive Mechanics and Engineering, married his girlfriend, whom he met on vacation in Jamaica, bought a home in Brooklyn, and started a family. But his weekends were still devoted to cricket and, after a decade of unsuitable playing conditions, he was more than ready to push for his team, the Brooklyn Cricket Club, to have its own cricket field.

• • •

Originally Brooklyn CC played at the current Red Hook Recreation Area, then called the Red Hook Stadium, which it shared with a neighbourhood soccer team. There were disagreements over use of the field, and tensions began to flare. Every week, the cricketers would come to find their storage room broken into and their matting burned.

Pitter and his teammates decided the club needed to move to another ground and approached the John F Kennedy Democratic Club, where the cricketers held prize-giving ceremonies and helped hand out flyers and pamphlets during elections. “In politics, you know, they’ll help you when you help them,” Pitter said. During a field trip with district leader Michael Woolens to Canarsie Park, Pitter spotted a clearing that couldn’t be seen from the street. Known as the Backfield, it was covered in dense woodland and Woolens agreed to have Parks Department employees clear the area and lay the pitch. Soon afterward, Canarsie Park had its first cricket field – but the trouble didn’t end there.

Every weekend for the next year or so, the cricketers found the pitch dug up and covered with motorcycle tracks. No one knew whether the vandalism was due to racist feelings among the residents of Canarsie, which was about 90 per cent white at the time, or to juvenile delinquency, or both, but finally the team had to call in the police. Eventually, peace reigned in the neighbourhood and slowly but surely cricket began laying its roots in Brooklyn.

With the efforts of die-hard cricket lovers like Pitter, Lesly Lowe of the Commonwealth League (the largest league in the city with over 70 teams) and others, New York now has over 20 cricket fields, spread over various city parks such as Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, Kissena Park in Queens, Walker Park in Staten Island and Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn.

• • •

When Hugh Pitter arrived in the US, teams were primarily made up of West Indians. But beginning in the 1960s, there was a wave of migrants from other British colonies such as India and Pakistan and a boom in the number of teams. Gradually, requests for playing permits for various fields across the city started coming in to the local Parks Departments and city officials began to take notice of the growing popularity of the sport. In 2007 the inaugural inter-borough Mayor’s Cup tournament was held in conjunction with the city’s Parks Departments, and the first New York Police Department (NYPD) summer cricket tournament for ethnic youth was held in 2008.

That was also the year that the Public School Athletic League (PSAL) first recognised cricket, making New York the first city in America to have cricket as an official public-school sport, thus allowing teams to play their traditional sport in a structured American environment. Five years later, the PSAL has five cricket leagues, 26 participating high schools and a season that runs from late March until June. Each school is responsible for its own equipment and uniforms, and the PSAL, with help from the city, pays for the team coach and the athletic director.

The PSAL Commissioner for cricket, Bassett Thompson, knows the importance of the programme for the youth. “It’s like a breath of fresh air for them,” he said. “They all tell me the same thing – if we didn’t play cricket, we wouldn’t be doing anything else.” One player from John Adams High School told Thompson that the only reason he finished high school was because PSAL eligibility rules require participants to pass all classes.

“He wanted to play cricket so badly,” Thompson explained, “that he made sure he didn’t fail any classes.” Like Pitter, Thompson was born in Jamaica and was brought up on cricket. At 15, he played for the national Under-19 team, but when he moved to Long Island the next year to live with his brother, he was unable to find any clubs or even anyone with whom he could discuss the game. “I was devastated there was no cricket here,” he said, recalling that when he brought a cricket bat to school, one of his teachers pointed to it and asked whether it was “baseball bat for the blind”.

Thompson shifted to track and field and later encouraged his children to do likewise. After a stint as a volunteer official at weekend track meets, he got an officiating licence and soon became the PSAL’s track-and-field director. In 2008, his role expanded to include what he calls his “dream job” – being the PSAL’s first cricket commissioner. “I only get to play cricket when I go home to Jamaica,” he said, “but at least this way I’m involved with the sport. Can’t ask for more.”

Thompson is hardly the only one to benefit from the PSAL’s recognition of cricket. According to Jay Coakley, an expert in the sociology of sport and a retired professor at the University of Colorado, sports are one of the many modes of acculturation for younger immigrants. For them, ordinary teenage anxiety has been compounded by the stress of adapting to a different culture, and it can be reassuring to find that their new schools recognise their native sport with official school teams. “This institutional approval at a community level is much more socially significant than individual approval,” Coakley said. He explained that support from teachers and friends can produce confidence in other areas of these students’ lives and help smooth out the process of settling in.

• • •

For Zahib Tariq, a star on Franklin D Roosevelt High School’s cricket team in Brooklyn, taking up cricket is a no-brainer. “It’s in my blood, it’s the only thing I do,” he said, speaking politely but sounding as though he couldn’t understand why anyone would question why he began playing the sport. When he isn’t playing for school, the 18-year-old plays on an NYPD team (christened the Sialkot Stallions, after the team of his hometown of Sialkot in eastern Pakistan) and for the Travel Treats in the Brooklyn League. He also fills in when teams in the American League are a player or two short. His cricket calendar is pretty full.

The rest of the time, Zahib, an athletic teenager with large, alert eyes and quick feet, calls the tennis court of the Midwood Athletic Complex his home ground. Surrounded on two sides by the suburban homes of Hasidic Jews, on a third side by the Midwood football and track field, and on the fourth side by the Q Train, this patch of concrete becomes a little slice of home for Zahib and his friends every weekend. Come rain, snow or shine, the group of 15 or so Pakistani boys plays from midmorning until sunset, using trashcans for stumps and sometimes without breaking for lunch. The space is a whirlwind of Punjabi and Urdu, including the choicest curses, supplemented by the rumble of the Q and snippets of Bollywood songs being played on mobile phones. A few of them even managed to squeeze in a short game the day Hurricane Sandy hit the city.

Between innings on a particularly cold Sunday afternoon in November, Zahib talked about how his love for the game began. His father was the captain of a local cricket team back in Sialkot, and Zahib played a modified version of the game with his uncle and his older brother, Jazeb, on the flat rooftop of their home. It was usually just the three of them but on the scorecards they kept in notebooks they included the names of other imaginary players so as to make up three complete 11-member teams.

When Zahib was 12, his family moved to America. With no friends and seemingly no hope of playing cricket, Zahib was miserable and wanted to go back to Sialkot. But as it turned out, that was the year the PSAL league started, and Jazeb was able to play. The next year, Zahib was in high school and on the team, and Jazeb’s friends had become his friends. “Cricket made me more comfortable,” he said. “[Without it,] I wouldn’t have anyone here.”

He still fills notebooks with imaginary scorecards, including his name amongst the top players of the world, only now he does it while daydreaming in class. His loyalty to the sport even makes him play during Ramadan, which most players take off.

• • •

Zahib and his generation aren’t the only ones who live, breathe and dream cricket. Their parents and grandparents are also enthusiasts, but until recently, faced major obstacles indulging their passion for the game. Fans had to subscribe to special internet packages to watch jerky, streaming videos of games or tune in to radio broadcasts of proceedings from the other side of the world.

Pitter saw this desperation and decided to do something about it. He joined the US Cricket Promoters Association, Inc. (USCPA), which was started in 1986 and aims to promote cricket by bringing international superstars over to play exhibition games.

The group’s first major project, in 1987, was to invite the mighty West Indies, including Viv Richards and Curtly Ambrose for a weekend of cricket at the Mt Vernon Memorial Stadium in New York. Each day over 8,000 spectators from across the region came to watch their favourites take on a local XI.

In 2006, USCPA hosted a similar weekend at the field in Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field with a new crop of stars and Brian Lara. The USCPA went all out for this one, erecting huge tents and selling tickets through Ticketmaster, and attendance reached approximately 15,000 over two days.

But a major obstacle to cricket assuming a mainstream role in the American sports pantheon remains the lack of big tournament sponsors. There have been discussions with various companies, ranging from Jamaica’s Red Stripe beer to Guinness, Moet Hennessy (sponsor of the 2010 Mayor’s Cup tournament), and even the Walt Disney Co, which talked about building an official cricket stadium in Orlando. But each time negotiations fell through and no long-term sponsorships have yet been signed.

One of the most promising developments has been the formation of the American College Cricket (ACC) league in 2008. Founded by Lloyd Jodah, a cricketer from Guyana, ACC now has teams at over 60 universities, including Harvard, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania. Perhaps in part because of this show of interest, in 2011 ESPN bought the US broadcast rights to all future international cricket matches, including the 2015 World Cup, and there is now talk of organising an American version of the IPL.

• • •

The growing presence of cricket in New York City is understandable to sociologist Richard Zamoff, an associate lecturer at George Washington University and an expert on the sociology of sports. “One of the functions of sports is that of a social integrator,” he told me in a telephone interview. “It serves as a cohesive factor in the community, between a father and son and between those outside the family.” In his view, immigrants form teams here to replicate the associations with teammates in their home countries, but doing so has the additional benefit of allowing them to interact with people they would otherwise have never known.

Every summer weekend, these New York grounds provide refuge for an army of players who don the traditional whites, play the sport they grew up with and, for a few hours, feel a little more at home in an alien country.

In the process, they have to deal with irate soccer players, stubborn sunbathers and, in Kissena Park, duck faeces on the pitch, but there is a reward beyond the satisfaction of vigorous athletic activity and memories of home. The field is also a gathering place for members of the immigrant community, who are able to combine their cricket watching with discussions of daily issues – how to set up meetings with teachers at school, where to find a good dosa or how to manage that loan from the bank.

Zamoff believes that the little universe created on the fields is good for ethnic communities as it helps them retain parts of their identities. “In my own value system, I don’t believe any immigrant group should be forced to give up its own values, beliefs and practices just to be accepted,” he said. In his view, the current American political and social environment pushes immigrants to “Americanize”, causing unnecessary tension. Today it could be other cultures’ sports that are forfeited; tomorrow it could be their languages. “Historically, cultures have given up too much of themselves in new environments, soon becoming indistinguishable from the host culture,” Zamoff said.

For decades, these fields have served as a home away from home for thousands of immigrants from countries that once comprised the British Empire. But now those who gather there each weekend are not only cricket fans; they are also voters, which is why there are city-sponsored tournaments and why what mattered that July evening at Gracie Mansion wasn’t the final score of the day’s game but the promises made to attend future matches and create more cricket fields.

As Pitter knew, such promises did not mean much. Although Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly makes it a point each season to see the first and last game of the NYPD League, most of the politicians present would never actually go to a match. In 2012 the Mayor’s Cup was suspended due to lack of funding from the city, and the tournament’s future is now in limbo. But as the evening at Gracie Mansion showed, cricket has come a long way from the days when Pitter was trying to carve a pitch out of a scruffy Brooklyn woodlot. Back then, cricket was a minor sport with little cultural or political cachet; now, due to the growth of its fan base, it has become a major-league activity worthy of mayoral attention and concern.

• • •

Zahib dreams of being a professional cricketer. In the summer of 2009 he was one of 50 players at the try-outs for the New York region’s Under-19 team. Zahib thought he had no chance, but, after a day of basic batting, bowling and fielding drills, he made the preliminary cut, and the following weekend he and his partner of many battles, Abrar, were called up. Zahib’s first tour as part of the New York Under-19 team was to Woodhaven, Connecticut, to compete against teams from Florida and New Jersey. Although he racked up a decent score in the first match, a nosebleed sent him down the batting order in the remaining, forgettable, games. Worse, another player who had sat out most of the tournament was selected to the national team while Zahib wasn’t even told about the try-outs. “It was really heartbreaking,” he said. “I messaged Ricky [Kissoon, his former coach], saying I’m done. Here I work hard every day, practise every day and then they pick a non-performer!”

With a little coaxing from coaches, he later played a regional Under-18 tournament. There his bowling figures earned him a spot on the national Under-19 team, and in the summer of 2012, the squad went to Florida, America’s cricket headquarters, for a series against Canada and Bermuda. But Zahib fell victim to both an unfamiliar batting surface and position in the order, and he worries that his poor performance in what he now calls the “nightmare tour” will hamper his chances of playing for the US in the future, including in the Under-19 World Cup in 2014.

Sitting at a Subway outlet in Brooklyn the week before Christmas 2012, Zahib shared a secret. “Last week was my Test debut,” he said nonchalantly, nibbling chocolate chip cookies with purple ink-stained fingers. “I made 200 runs.” The previous night, he added, was his ODI debut against England. These matches, played in the middle of his Brooklyn College finals week, were all imaginary. After his parents and brothers were asleep, he went out into the living room, picked up his bat and pretended to hit strokes against the world’s best. As befits a middle-of-the-night fantasy, these were always do-or-die situations, when Pakistan desperately needed a match-winning performance, and he gladly obliged.

But he’s hoping that reality will some day catch up with his imagination. “I really want to play for Pakistan at the highest level,” he said. He looks at playing for the US as a stepping stone and hopes that Pakistani selectors will take notice of him, but he knows the odds are not in his favour. “Sometimes I think I’ll just end up driving a yellow taxi cab,” he said. “If you [only] follow cricket here, you’re done.”

His father has faith in him, though. In January 2013, he allowed Zahib to skip his spring semester of classes and, with the help of his uncles, sent his son to England to play club cricket.

The trip was a qualified success. A mix-up with the specific visa he needed to play league cricket meant that he couldn’t play officially, though he did train for a few months with Hartlepool CC and Saltburn CC. Though it was later decided that Zahib could have played in the league, and some teams even offered to pay him, he’d already decided to come back to New York by then… On his return he flew to Florida for the under 19 camp, where he was selected in the top 24 but fell ill and was left out of the squad that went to Canada. So it is back to the Brooklyn League and the play-offs and waiting – for the World Cup and for Pakistan.

Published in The Nightwatchman and on Wisden India – November, 2013

Cover Photo: David Surtees/Flickr/Creative Commons