Cricket anyone? U.S. team makes history

2004 Apr 19 by

Baseball may be America's obsession, but the U.S. cricket team made history when it won an international championship against major league cricket nations.

Baseball may be America's obsession, but the U.S. cricket team made history when it won an international championship against major league cricket nations. The cricket champs are an unlikely collection of older players from Guyana, the West Indies and Jamaica--over the hill but full of experience and heart.

Forget Shaquille O'Neil, Sammy Sosa and Tiger Woods.

America's newest -- and as yet unsung -- sporting heroes are among its most unlikely.

Cricket, that oft-jeered English cousin of America's favorite bat-and-ball game and the sport famously described by actor Robin Williams as "baseball on Valium," was always something that other countries had been good at. Until March 6, that is.

On that fateful day, in the searing heat of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, 11 proud men dressed identically in red, white and blue edged past Scotland to win a tense, high-scoring thriller. They were short on practice, short on experience, and in comparison to the other teams competing in the six-nation tournament, decidedly short on accomplishment. But they had plenty of heart.

The U.S. team's victory brought five of the six participating teams even with three wins apiece. Typical of a sport that prides itself on its obsession with minute technicalities and complex mathematical calculations, the teams were ranked on the basis of their run-scoring rates, and by a little more than a fifth of a run, the Americans came out on top.

For the first time in cricket history, the Americans had won the International Cricket Council's Six Nations Challenge, a tournament designed to pick the best of international cricket's second tier, by the most slender of margins. More importantly, the United States had finally arrived as a cricketing nation after 160 years of playing the sport.

"We came to the tournament cautiously optimistic," said Richard Staple, the genial captain of the U.S. team. "We knew we had a good team, and it was a question of backing ourselves."

The team, as it turned out, was good enough to stave off challenges posed by Scotland, Namibia, Holland, UAE and Canada, countries that had previously qualified for the World Cup, cricket's quadrennial tournament. The United States has never appeared in a cricket World Cup.

More surprising than this upset victory were its architects. Much of the team's success revolved around the hulking, humorless form of Clayton Lambert, a Guyanese batsman who had been discarded by the West Indian cricket team six years ago because of his unorthodox batting technique.

Staple, a former cricket player for Jamaica, has a rather modest playing record. He and Steve Massiah, who previously represented the Guyanese under-19 team, were the only other players with any major cricket experience behind them.

The rest of the traveling squad of 14 comprised a combination of West Indian, Indian and Pakistani expatriates. Lambert, at the ripe old age of 42, might be a cricketing aberration, but he was not alone in this team. At least three other members were past 40 -- and this in a sport where players rarely last beyond their mid-30s. Players are selected by the USA Cricket Association and must have resided in the United States for at least five years to be eligible.

"The selectors do not want to give chances to the youngsters," said Sew Shivnarine, former captain of the American cricket team. "They would rather play it safe with experience."

In this particular case, says Staple, the strategy paid off. By winning the Six Nations Challenge, the United States has qualified to play with cricket's big boys. They will face New Zealand and reigning world champion Australia in the ICC Champions Trophy to be held in England in September.

"It will be tough," said Staple, understating the obvious. "But we look forward to the opportunity. If we don't play at the highest level, how will we improve?"

Cricket is by no means a recent phenomenon in the United States. The oldest international rivalry in any sport dates back to a cricket game played between the United States and Canada at the St. George's Cricket Club in Manhattan in 1844, an event that predated even the modern Olympics by more than half a century.

Until as late as 1925, the United States would regularly send out touring teams to England and other countries, but as the Imperial Cricket Conference (at that time international cricket's governing body) grew in importance, it began to gradually exclude countries outside the British Empire.

Over the course of the 20th century, cricket in the United States became the sole preserve of immigrants -- first English, then West Indian and more recently, Indian and Pakistani.

The current U.S. team reflects that history. Only one player of 14 -- Amer Afzaluddin -- was born in the United States, and he never played in any of the games. Shivnarine has to struggle to remember the last time a significant American-born player made the national team under his captaincy.

"I think there were a couple from the early 1990s that were born in California," he said. "By and large the phenomenon is rare."

For many West Indians who have immigrated to the United States in search of a better life, the sport allows them to keep in touch with their roots.

The cricket clubs in the New York area, home to many members of the national team, are populated with immigrants from nearly every major Caribbean island, with Jamaica and Guyana making up the two largest donors to the cricket pool.

Richmond Hill hasn't earned its sobriquet of Little Guyana for nothing. A few thousand of the inhabitants of the South American country have been transplanted into this picturesque little neighborhood in eastern Queens. Home to a rather peculiar kind of food called Guyana Chinese, the area is also home to Steve Massiah, one of America's most gifted young cricketers, and given the average age of the squad now, almost certainly a part of the team's future.

Massiah is 24, but he looks much like a schoolboy who never quite grew up, with slick black hair that makes him appear as if he's trying his best to pass himself off as someone much older. His lazy Guyanese drawl complements his laid-back Caribbean demeanor, which in turn barely conceals a self-assured, almost smug attitude about his own abilities.

Massiah is -- and this is something he is willing to admit, albeit indirectly -- a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Born in Georgetown, Guyana, he first played for the Guyana youth team at 16, and one of his teammates there was Ramnaresh Sarwan. Sarwan is now vice-captain of the West Indies cricket team, while Massiah, who moved with his parents to New York in 1998, left his cricket dreams behind.

Now, with the American cricket team clearly his only path to pursuing his passion, Massiah, not without an underlying sense of regret, realizes he must reassess his dreams of international cricket success.

"I want to do my best for United States cricket in whatever way I can," he said. "I'm sure we're going to get better the more we play."

Clearly, the lack of high-level cricket competition has limited his cricketing career. Massiah, who once received the outstanding player award in a junior competition in the West Indies years ago, had to wait five years before he could qualify to play for his adopted country in March 2003.

Since then, he has become a central part of the American cricket team. A string of important scores in the recent Sharjah tournament showed just how vital he had become.

"Steve is a key part of our plans," Staple said. "He is exceptionally gifted, but more importantly, he is really young."

With the United States having qualified for a major tournament for the first time in its cricketing history, Messiah realizes that this might just be his best chance yet.

Of course, September will be the time that Massiah will be facing his toughest test ever, and while he says he looks forward to playing Australia, he also admits that it might not exactly be very pretty.

"We're going to get whipped, maan," he said. "You have to be re-a-lis-tic."

Given cricket's low profile in the country, it is quite incredible that the team has achieved as much as it has. But Staple would like a few more players like Messiah.

"Our team is in need of fresh blood," said Staple, who is 34. "It's not that they're doing a bad job, but there are times we could do with some youngsters."

Lambert, Zamin Amin and Howard Johnson, three vital cogs of the team that won in Sharjah, are all hovering around the 40 mark, and several of the other members are well into their 30s.

Most team members have jobs and families to tend to. With sponsorship being nonexistent, cricket for them is a weekend distraction, rather than a sport to be seriously pursued.

And there are other logistical problems as well.

"The biggest problem we had was to get the guys to practice together," said Hubert Miller, formerly of Guyana and a one-time U.S. captain who managed the team in Sharjah. "The team met for the first time in the UAE itself, and that was where they practiced seriously for the first time as well."

Winter in the Northeast, where most of the players are based, forced some of them to train in Florida, and even that was not good enough because the playing surfaces were woefully inadequate. "Our players play year after year on [makeshift] matting surfaces," Miller said, "while the world plays their cricket on turf wickets."

The New York Cricket Region, host to 10 of the country's 26 cricket leagues, has proclaimed its mission as "promoting the world's best game." However, there is very little evidence to suggest that they are on their way toward achieving that goal.

Clubs are cash-strapped, with the more prominent ones going door-to-door or organizing raffles to raise funds, says John Aaron, president of the Atlantis Cricket Club in Queens, Lambert's home club.

Most clubs don't have a fixed place to play their weekend matches, and a large portion (between $800 and $1,000) of the average club budget for each season is set aside to pay the city parks department for renting fields every Sunday afternoon.

"They don't even provide us any basic services, like they do to the baseball players," Miller said. "All we get is a large field of grass. We have to make the pitch [playing surface] ourselves."

March's victory in the UAE tournament has raised the hopes of players and administrators alike that the fortunes of cricket will improve. Staple says he has spoken with two public schools in Far Rockaway about introducing cricket as an after-school sport. Perhaps the next Steve Messiah is just waiting to be discovered in some schoolyard in Queens.

"The principals seemed very enthusiastic about the idea," he said. "The sooner we get young people involved in this, the better."

-!-!- After emigrating from Guyana with his parents, Steve Massiah, 24, had to wait five years before he was eligible to play cricket for the United States team. After only one year of play for the US team, he is already recognized as a star player. (CNS/Lane Johnson) -!-!-

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