Last November in Fort Greene Park, on a patch of field covered mostly in dirt, a couple dozen teenage boys had congregated, spread throughout a loosely-defined oval. It was the middle of the week and a school day, around 1pm. One young man bowler wind-milled balls toward a batsmen, who stood guarding his wicket. The boys were focused. Their movements were precise. They knew what they were doing, and there was not an adult in sight. And even though cricket is the second most popular sport on earth after soccer, with an estimated 2 to 3 billion fans worldwide, watching them play felt like peering into a wormhole to another country– all from the vantage point of a barren Brooklyn park.
If you’re an American, you know cricket is a sport, and you might think it’s similar to baseball. But you might not know much else. Maybe you know it involves board-like bats, and wickets instead of bases. But unless you’ve traveled to Marine Park, near Coney Island, or to the furthest stretches of Queens near Kennedy Airport, or to the Bronx, where a limited number of regulation cricket fields exist for the city’s adult leagues, it’s likely you’ve never seen a live match.
The community of cricketers in New York City is alive and well, but mostly made of adults who come from places, or around the places, where England used to hold colonies. Although the US is, of course, one of those former colonies, and cricket did enjoy some popularity here until the first World War, it ultimately declined as baseball soared. Here, the sport became relatively self-contained to immigrant communities; it never reattached itself natively to American soil, or kids. No formalized local feeder systems exist that create young batches of American cricketers. It is still the sport Americans vaguely know about as a foreign phenomenon, but don’t understand.
The boys playing in Fort Greene Park attend Brooklyn Technical High School–one of the city’s eight specialized public high schools down the street from where they played–and were part of a well-kept New York City secret: Throughout Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and, in one instance in Manhattan, 30 public high schools participate in the United States’ only high school cricket league, under the city’s Public School Athletic League. The league began eight years ago with just over a dozen schools; next year PSAL cricket commissioner Bassett Thompson says 34 New York City public schools will participate. Every season, more schools apply to join than are accepted.
The teams are made up almost exclusively of first generation American players. Their parents are from countries like Bangladesh and Jamaica, where playing cricket is pretty much a daily activity. They spent summers playing pickup cricket on the street with their friends–not necessarily to become international cricket stars, but just because that’s what everyone did. It was a part of life, and for some, much more than that.
Now, PSAL cricket represents the first time—at least within the last century—that the sport has been regularly played by kids who are not just first-generation New Yorkers, but are second and third generation New Yorkers. And as its popularity grows here, it’s easy to see how it could soon spread beyond New York.
Months after the team’s November practice, the Brooklyn Tech Engineer’s captain, 17-year-old Aritra Nirmal, stood at the head of a classroom lecturing 30 classmates on one topic: how his team would become the 2015 high school cricket champions. His teammates listened intently, like he was Tom Brady before the start of football season and knew the key to winning it all. Nirmal markered 10 season goals on a whiteboard, while head coach Steven Flanagan and assistant coach Liju Abraham stood quietly off to the side. Nirmal’s first entry was “100 push ups a day,” the tenth was “championship”.
This was the Engineer’s third cricket season. Coach Flanagan arrived last year, after Brooklyn Tech’s first coach had not been particularly successful at a major part of coaching high school sports, namely he knew the game but did not know how to work with kids. Flanagan, however, did not know the game–his first exposure to it was only the year before, when he coached the team at George Wingate Educational Complex in Crown Heights–but was a coach by nature. He is also an athlete, and does double duty as Brooklyn Tech’s wrestling coach. “By far, these are the most motivated kids,” said Flanagan, of his cricket team. “I’m a wrestling guy, and I’ll often tell my wrestling team, ‘I wish you had the passion my cricket team had.'”
PSAL cricket commissioner Bassett Thompson says it’s a common problem to find coaches who meet the league’s qualifications: being an adult, knowing the rules of cricket, and possessing a New York City teaching certificate. For sports like baseball and basketball, this is never an issue; not so for cricket. As a result, coaching leadership is hard to come by, and parents of students will often show up to practices to teach technique and strategy. After working around a lack of adequate playing fields–which Thompson lists as the biggest challenge for the future of the league–finding knowledgeable and qualified coaches is second.
Luckily, says Thompson, cricket teams historically rely more on captain leadership than on coach leadership. “The captain is the boss. He decides who is going to bat, who is going to bowl, at all levels of play,” he said, including International and Test cricket, the top levels of cricket play worldwide. “It’s different than with hockey or baseball captains, who are captain more in name.”
Aritra Nirmal at Brooklyn Tech was no exception to that standard. He grew up in Bangladesh, playing cricket for fun with a tennis ball on the street. But since joining Brooklyn Tech’s team as a sophomore–the team’s first season when they had that subpar coach, no uniforms, and didn’t win a single match–cricket became an obsession. He worked to improve ceaselessly, practicing with adult leagues over the summer, and bowling endlessly against his bedroom wall at night. It was a foregone conclusion that he would become captain and lead his team to the championship.
In turn, his team respected him for his work, and listened to him. Standing in front of his teammates at the season-opening meeting, Nirmal told them he wasn’t only interested in athletic excellence, he wanted them to study it, too. Normally, this would be a big and unlikely ask of high school peers, but not at Brooklyn Tech. There were literally future engineers seated in front of him; one of the teammates wore a T-shirt with a math joke on it.
“There are resources,” Nirmal told them. “You can’t all practice the same amount, but how do you mentally get ready? How do you look at the field and how do you play the gaps? Invest your own time,” he told them, in almost breathless excitement. “You should be a scholar of the sport, you should learn history, actually watch games. There’s so much free cricket streaming, did you know that?”
And another thing, he concluded–cricket is a game of respect. No one snickered. “All of the successful teams in South Africa right now, they all respect their players,” Nirmal implored. “You know what manners are, right? Cricket is a game of gentleman, so act like one.”
Before the meeting ended, Coach Flanagan asked everyone to stand up and announce a personal season goal. “To be honest, I want to play like I’m going International,” said one junior, referring to the top level of play in the world.
There were murmurs, but no laughter.
“There is nothing wrong with dreaming big,” Flanagan answered. “My parents always used to tell me, ‘If you shoot for the moon and miss, you’ll hit the stars.'”
“Aren’t the stars further out than the moon?” a student spoke up, to set the astronomy straight.
The room erupted. It was the funniest thing said all night.
Late in May, the Engineers gathered at Marine Park for a match against International High School at Lafayette. Tech’s season had gotten off to a rough start. They’d lost their first three matches, internalized mistakes too much, and got down on themselves. Counter to their natures as problem solvers, they realized the solution lay in lightening up. They did, and victories followed.
In order to make the playoffs, they needed a record of 500. A win against Lafayette would get them there–though one more game remained the very next day, and if they lost that one, they’d be inched out of post-season play.
Marine Park was a hike from Brooklyn Tech in Fort Greene, more than 20 blocks from the closest Q stop at Kings Highway. The engineer’s opponent, Lafayette, was located not so far from Marine Park; they weren’t a great team, though, and they were short a few players. Lafayette is one of 13 international secondary schools in the city, whose students are recent immigrants with four years or less of education in the United States.
Players from Brooklyn Tech were measuring and demarcating the field’s outer bounds, and hammering wickets into the ground. The sky was overcast and rain was predicted. It was breezy and several degrees cooler than the rest of the city, due to the proximity of the ocean. Lafayette warmed up and joked around in Pakistani dialect, waiting for the Engineers to finish preparing the field (a task given to away teams). Their coach, Joel, from Wisconsin, grew up playing baseball. He stood on the periphery wearing khakis and sunglasses and watched his players.
It was his sixth season coaching Lafayette’s cricket team. Like at Brooklyn Tech, a student had started it. “He played it growing up,” Joel said of the first kid who got the ball rolling. “He knew I liked sports, and I said I’d [coach] but I have no idea what’s going on there.”
It took him two years before he fully understood the rules of the game. “It’s very complex,” said Joel. “I still love baseball, but this is a little more exciting than baseball, because every ball matters. In baseball you can sit there a while and nothing happens. Although it might seem like nothing happens [in cricket], every ball pretty much has a consequence.”
Because there’s so much strategy–like billiards, he said, in the sense that the field of play is 360 degrees and you play angles–Brooklyn Tech had an advantage against Lafayette. “It’s a pretty awesome mix of mental and physical effort. Which is why Brooklyn Tech, I mean, they’re all pretty, well, smart. Their squad is pretty interesting because they play the game smartly, and I don’t think they’d necessarily have the record that they do if they weren’t playing with their heads.”
Joel was amazed by how passionate the league was about cricket, despite the difficulty of getting to matches. “Kids travel an hour, and an hour and a half, to actually get to a game,” he estimated. “That level of dedication itself really speaks to how much they really, really, love the game. I don’t think I would have played baseball growing up if somebody would have said, ‘You have to travel two hours on the bus.'”
The Engineers pulled out a victory pretty quickly (normally games last hours), with only a brief pause in play for a vigorous downpour. Sun and stillness followed. Brooklyn Tech was the first to field and bowl (or pitch, in baseball terms), until they got 20 outs against Lafayette. Games are played in halves of 20 outs (in Twenty20 cricket, anyway, which was created as a quicker version of international play, in which matches can last for days).
One of the team co-founders from Brooklyn Tech, Muhammad Mustafa, a 17-year-old senior from Pakistan, recalled how far they had come from when they started three years ago. “We had no uniforms, just gym shorts, and we drew numbers on t-shirts. We went out and got demolished. We had never played other people, so we had no idea how good anybody was,” he said. “By our last game we had seven people show up because we were so demoralized.”
Mustafa will go to Cornell next year. He plans to double major in economics and law, and also play cricket.
Captain Nirmal walked over. “We learned all by ourselves,” he said. “Other schools, they came from their countries later,” he said comparatively, indicating that they started out already playing cricket at a higher level. “So we played with those kids, and after the season ended, we got better.”
Nirmal reported that he had stuck to his goal of 100 pushups every morning. But it wasn’t only about being fit; it was for mental preparedness. “A couple of us started making sure every one did it and take videos of ourselves and post it on Facebook,” he said. “(Mustaffa) has all the clips compiled somewhere.”
Next year Nirmal will go to Stony Brook University. He wants to study computer science and make apps and websites. Stony Brook has a cricket club, he said, but not an official team. He plans to start one. “I wanted to stay close,” he said. “If I went out of state, I might not get to play cricket.”
He turned to watch his team finish the last few points of the match. But he stopped himself before walking away; he stuck out his hand for a shake, like a professional athlete at the end of a post-game interview. And like a gentlemen. “Thank you,” he said, with a single pump and a firm grip.
A couple weeks later, the PSAL cricket championship took place on a breezy, hot Sunday at Baisley Park, in South Jamaica, Queens. It was John Adams High School–a team Brooklyn Tech nearly beat in May–versus Richmond Hill. And it was a trek to get there. From Fort Greene, the field was a full hour and a half away on public transit. Nearby, planes descended low in the sky before landing at JFK.
Brooklyn Tech had been walloped the last game of the season by Martin Van Buren, a good team from Queens. The kids were heartbroken when they got the call from Commissioner Thompson, said assistant coach Liju Abraham, saying their record didn’t qualify them for post-season play. But the season had so many highlights, said Abraham, including the team’s best record yet with six wins–last year they had five.
Next year Brooklyn Tech will lose five seniors–nearly half the team of 11 players. But the kids are doing a great job of recruiting new players, said Abraham, and balancing academics and athletics.
Could they win the championship? “Honestly, I can tell you, that’s probably a possibility,” said Abraham. “But even if we won the playoffs, there is always a chance you can do better. I always teach that aspect. Never be satisfied, no matter what job you’re doing or in life. You can do better, or achieve more.”
Back at Baisley Park, a formal cricket scene was unfolding, the likes of which most Americans probably have never seen before, even if they’ve caught a match at Marine Park.
A thick industrial rope designated the field’s oval boundaries; every few yards, along the curve of the rope, miniature flags from different cricket-playing countries were stuck in the ground. A covered stand housed large trophies for the winning team, and individual awards for outstanding players. Blasting out of tall loudspeakers all around the field, came bowl-by-bowl color commentary–a cricket announcing service called Cricket Voice USA, started by two cricket players from the city’s Metropolitan League to help Americans follow and understand cricket play. The announcers referred to the boys (though, technically, the league is co-ed) by their last names, like professional athletes, sprinkled in season-spanning team statistics, and reminded everyone to follow the game live from their app, cricHQ.
Commissioner Thompson was on hand, as well as Lorna Austin, a PSAL administrator who grew up in Jamaica and is also the PSAL Cricket Coordinator, who was responsible for mobilizing the PSAL to start a cricket league eight years ago. Fans dappled the perimeter, and a cluster of families congregated in foldout chairs near the trophy tent. Commissioner Thompson chatted with PSAL officials, and helped parents get seats in the shade, or a better view of the field. The teams were well matched. The outcome, at half time, could not be predicted. Thompson, who grew up playing cricket in Jamaica, and made the country’s under 19 team when he was just 15, had high hopes for the propagation of cricket in the US.
“I wanted to introduce cricket to America, and New York,” said Thompson, who was selected commissioner when the league began. “And every year we’re getting better.” Thompson predicts 34 schools will play next year. The best teams are often in Queens, he said, but standouts have popped up throughout Brooklyn as well. Stuyvesant, the only school with a team in Manhattan, stands out because they have the most American-born players, even if the players’ parents are still mostly from other countries. And recently, said Thompson, the city has dedicated a lot of money for additional cricket fields in the Bronx, to try to accommodate the growing demand for playing room.
Thompson is especially excited about what the PSAL represents for the rest of the country. “We’re a big country, but we’re the only [cricket league],” he said, referring to the PSAL. Excitingly, he gets calls from school districts around the country–mostly on the East Coast–inquiring how to start a league of their own. “We tell them what they should do,” said Thompson, “and each year they say, ‘Yes, we’re going to try,’ but we’re still the only ones.”
Still, he is undeterred. His vision, like Abraham’s for his team at Brooklyn Tech, is big. “I’m shooting for the top,” he said. “I’m hoping that, one of these days, we’ll have a live draft for cricket, like we do for other professional sports. That’s what I’m hoping for. The players are so dedicated. Most teams are student led. In cricket, they listen to each other, and they respect each other.”
Cricket Voice USA boomed over his words with precise, engaging commentary. Thompson surveyed the field. He had no prediction for the outcome of the match–the teams happened to be two of his favorites. He walked back to the tent to check in with league officials before he settled down to watch the rest of the match, and the end of the season, to the very last out.