Cricket's new wicket: American high schools
The first league, which has its championships next week, is fully subscribed by teens from the far reaches of the former British Empire.
Not long after Saiful Islam moved from Bangladesh to Brooklyn in 2005, his father – a formidable man of some 70 years – asked Saiful if he'd considered buying a cellphone. Yes, of course, answered the teenager. Besides the fact that most of his friends had mobiles, one of his own could be handy if he ever found himself in trouble in the hardscrabble section of Queens where he goes to school.Skip to next paragraph
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"But I do not think you should have one," his father advised. "Because what if it rings on the cricket pitch? You will be distracted and you won't be able to play your best."
That his father's logic would make any sense at all to a teenager in America – and, indeed, Saiful did agree with his father – is a measure of the power that the sport of cricket holds among immigrants from the former British Empire. Much as Little League or high school football grips American childhood, cricket, too, is a way of life in immigrant neighborhoods: for the homesick, for the athletes, for the would-be warriors, for the doting parents on the sidelines. Every afternoon, the parks in Queens and Brooklyn fill with Caribbean, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Indian immigrants who battle through matches on islands of sand and dead grass, flanked by noisy skateboarders and the blare of boomboxes.
The game, says Saiful, is a way "to remember home. It is my game." The dark-haired 17-year-old with a quick, easy grin has been immersed in cricket for most of his life. He played on a Queens club team for three seasons; before that, he competed in Bangladesh, sweating out the hot summers and waiting through the winters for the season to start again. He watches cricket on YouTube and wanders to the Southeast Asian restaurants in Jackson Heights, Queens, to watch the matches live on big screens.
And now he plays in the nation's first high school cricket league. He's the vice captain of the Lions, the Newcomers High School squad from Jamaica, Queens that is favored to win next week's championships.
Saiful rarely sleeps, in thrall to a cricket schedule that leaves little room for family or friends. Some weeks, he leaves school to play cricket, arrives back home at 10 p.m., speeds through his homework – "I have to do it," he says – and then sets his alarm for 5:15 a.m.
Last year, Saiful canceled a flight home to Bangladesh to see his mother and brother when an unexpected match was scheduled. "This summer, I have to go back or I'll be in big trouble."
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"There were a lot of blank stares," he recalls.
Modern cricket – a sport with some similarities to baseball – originated in England, although its most ardent fans are now scattered through the remnants of the British Empire. (Some place cricket as the second most popular pastime in the world, behind soccer.) Played on a strip of dirt, surrounded by an oval field, the game requires the brawn to hit a fast-moving leather ball with a thick wooden bat. It also requires a sense of strategy and patience foreign to fans of fast-paced American sports. Matches in professional cricket stretch for days. And for the uninitiated, the arcane rules of the game are impenetrable.