Thursday, July 16, 2009

In Queens, Nation’s Only High School Cricket League Thrives by Regina Galea - The Columbia Journalist

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When the spring sports season began last year at John Adams High School in Ozone Park, Queens, Thakur Singh, then a junior, was planning to join the baseball team. Singh, who had lived in Guyana and Antigua until the age of eight, already played in two local cricket leagues and wanted to branch out.

Then one day Alex Navarrete, one of John Adams High’s coaches, stopped Singh in the hallway and told him about the cricket team being formed at the school. “He told me, ‘You’re going to be my captain,’ ” Singh recalled.

The John Adams Spartans were one of the first 14 teams to participate in the Public School Athletic League’s (PSAL) 2008 varsity cricket program, the only one of its kind in the nation. The PSAL, which organizes competitive sports in the New York public school system, just completed its second full cricket season with 23 teams made up of approximately 400 students, mostly from immigrant families, from across New York City.

The Spartans qualified for the league finals two years in row. With 227 runs and 19 wickets, Singh won this year’s Windgate Award as the top high school cricket player in the city. The 18-year-old said the experience of leading his high school team gave him new motivation. “It changed my lifestyle a lot to have responsibility.”

Cricket has a long, but largely forgotten, history in the United States. American colonials played cricket before it fully caught on in England, and George Washington is said to have played the game with his troops during the Revolutionary War.

In the early 18th century, the British introduced cricket to their imperial colonies on the Indian subcontinent and in the West Indies, and the sport has had a strong following there ever since. But by the mid-19th century in the United States, baseball had eclipsed the popularity of cricket, which had no professional league and was seen as an elitist pastime of the leisure class.

Since 1965, the United States has had a national team that competes, with mixed success, against Commonwealth countries like India and Australia, where cricket is part of the national identity. But at the local level in New York, the sport enjoys a growing revival as transplants from South Asia and the Caribbean make their homes in the U.S.

Far from elitist, cricket in New York exists almost exclusively in the working-class neighborhoods of Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Staten Island. John Adams High School is located in one such neighborhood. Nearly a third of the high school’s more than 3,000 students identify as ethnic Asians, and Ozone Park is sometimes known as “Little Guyana” for its thriving West Indian community.

At least seven youth and adult cricket leagues operate in the New York metropolitan area, and the Department of Parks and Recreation just opened a new cricket field at Canarsie Park in Brooklyn for a total of 14 within the city limits.

The inclusion of cricket in the public schools represents a major leap forward in the mainstreaming of the sport, according to John L. Aaron, Secretary of the USA Cricket Association.

“Cricket doesn’t enjoy the same benefits as other sports,” Aaron said, citing the lack of adequate cricket fields outside of New York. “That is changing and certainly PSAL has been a driving force in that process.”

The varsity cricket program in New York is the invention of Lorna Austin, a native of Barbados and a PSAL administrator. Austin pushed for a cricket league when she noticed South Asian students were not participating much in team sports like basketball, baseball and football.

The project stalled at first due to lack of funding but, when it finally launched in 2008, schools across New York City signed on. According to the PSAL’s assistant commissioner for cricket, Ricky Kissoon, several schools have petitioned for entrance to the league next year. Any public school is eligible to compete as long as enough students are interested in joining the team.

Kissoon emigrated from Guyana as a teenager 20 years ago and understands first-hand how sports can embody cultural identity. At the time of his arrival, cricket had relatively little presence in New York. He looked for opportunities to play cricket but had to settle for volleyball at Adlai Stevenson High School in the Bronx.

“If you notice, most of the players are from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Guyana,” Kissoon said. “Who knows if they would have played any sports in high school? It’s a cultural thing. Most kids—their parents or uncles played some form of cricket.”

The writer Joseph O’Neill explored this tradition in his novel Netherland, which features the Staten Island Cricket Club in post-9/11 New York. In a New York Times profile, O’Neill, who was born in Ireland and grew up in the Netherlands, called the game of cricket his “athletic mother tongue,” saying that to take up a new sport would be akin to learning a foreign language.

This connection between sport, country and family is true for Randy Nurse, batsman for John Adams High. The high school senior remembers playing cricket in an organized league in his village in Guyana from the age of 10. He moved to the United States two years later.

Nurse’s mother Shirley is herself an avid cricket fan, and she encouraged her son’s interest in the game. "I got all the cricket books, and Randy read them, since he was a very little boy in Guyana,” she said, seated in the bleachers at the final match of the season.

John Adams’ coach Alex Navarrete, originally from Uruguay, heads the swimming and soccer programs, but had no background in cricket before he was put in charge of the team. The league plays a faster-paced form of cricket called Twenty20, which can be completed in under four hours instead of five days, the length of a full test match.

But, even Twenty20 is a complex game, and the coach had much to learn in a world of overs, googlies and silly mid-offs. Navarrete said he taught the team about discipline and cooperation and the team taught him about cricket. “When I had a question,” Navarrete said, “they would tell me. They mentored me.”

They mentored well. John Adams’ Spartans were undefeated until the final match on June 14, at which Newcomers’ High School Lions of Long Island City won the championship, 111 to 105.

Coach Navarrete and John Adams’ principal Grace Zwillenberg were both quick to point out the role of sports in students’ overall performance in school. But cricket has a long way to go before it becomes a bridge to higher education, like basketball, football or even fencing.

Players of more mainstream sports are eligible for athletic scholarships and are courted by college programs. Cricket, however, is not represented in the NCAA, and only one college—Haverford in Pennsylvania— currently offers the sport at a varsity level. Most other college cricketers play in clubs like the ones Thakur Singh belonged to before PSAL opened its league.

Singh said he has no immediate plans to attend college. He said he’ll wait to make that decision with his parents. “That’s what makes me happy,” Singh said, “to bring pride to my family.”