- Matthew Thorsen
It's 5:30 on a Friday night at Fort Ethan Allen. An expansive semi-circle of government-grade grass separates Route 15, with its hiss and gurgle of rush-hour traffic, from the row of former officers' quarters on Dalton Drive. The stately brick houses seem to stand at attention, watching the world go by.
From their vantage point, you can see some sort of sporting activity out in the middle of the field. It's hard to tell exactly what's going on, but amble closer and . . . Could it be? This strange-looking activity is cricket, and the players are members of the Chittenden County Cricket Club.
Close up, it looks even odder. The rectangular strip of green plastic matting, 78 feet long and 8 feet wide, is called the "pitch." Pounded into the ground at each end of the pitch are three sticks, each 28 inches high. At one end, a caramel-skinned batsman, wearing ribbed shin pads, a helmet and white padded gloves, holds a flat-faced bat made of English willow. He faces the similarly hued bowler, who takes a running start from the grass and hurls a hard, single-seamed red ball through the air. It bounces on the ground about 6 feet in front of the batsman, who takes a golf swing at it and - thwack! - watches it sail over the fielders toward the highway.
Welcome to cricket practice, mate!
Watching this game, a modern American can't help but think of baseball. After all, there's a bat and a ball, a pitcher and a hitter, a catcher and fielders, and the team with the most runs wins. But, although the games have a common ancestor somewhere in the 700-year lineage of stick-and-ball sports, there are probably more differences than similarities. For example, in cricket the bat is flat, not round; the ball is intentionally thrown into the ground before the batsman, who hits it after a bounce; runs are scored not by circling the bases but by sprinting between the ends of the pitch; and games can be measured not just in hours but in days - up to five days in international "test" matches.
Then there are the subtler, socially prescribed qualities that can make the gathering of 22 players less a game than a 44-footed dance, aided by the connective tissue of cordiality and a winning-isn't-everything attitude. Says Tim Brookes, the founder of the CCCC, "There's this tradition that you don't take yourself too seriously."
That can manifest in many ways, the most gallant being the ritual where a batsman who is dominating the competition voluntarily steps out of play and gives the other blokes a shot at hitting the ball. Not forced on anyone, this practice has as much to do with a skilled batsman's ability to bat for a full hour as it does with his not wanting piss off the guys he spends his entire Saturday with. Another faux pas: "holding the pose," or watching your good shot, like Babe Ruth gazing out toward the bleachers and taking his sweet time to mosey around the bases.
Since these customs of play tend to be cliquey and vary by location, one might expect the origin story of Green Mountain cricket to be just as nuanced and idiosyncratic. The modern history of the sport in Vermont, however, is fairly well settled, despite bearing a slight whiff of legend. It started in the early 1980s with Wally Bradley, a professor of neurology at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. He had cricket equipment and organized one very casual game per year. People showed up late and left early. "The important things were the sandwiches and the tea," remembers Brookes, now 55. "In a sense, it became an occasion that people kind of sipped at."
The sipping stopped in 1989 when Bradley moved to Florida. That left a gaping hole in the Vermont cricket calendar. So Brookes, an Englishman who played semi-pro cricket in the U.K., launched the CCCC in 1990 and accepted all comers to his fledgling organization. Vermont had one other cricket establishment at the time, the Mad River Valley Cricket Club, founded by Jim Plumpton. The two clubs played each other frequently, and the Mad River crew also hosted a six-a-side tournament that drew teams from Québec, New York and other New England states.
The MVRCC bowed out of the cricket business in 1998 or thereabouts, leaving the CCCC the sole club in the state. Even then, the talent was not forthcoming. "In an objective sense," Brookes relates, "we really weren't very good or very skillful. But we had some absolutely wonderful times."
In the world of sport, when the cup of expertise doesn't overflow, pleasure can also be in short supply. But that isn't necessarily the case with cricket, Brookes explains. "Part of the skill of running that club," he says, "was to try to ensure that everybody on the team had a good time, even though the range of abilities was extraordinary, and even though finding opponents was hard in itself."
One way to adjust the game so as to give both sides a good chance of scoring runs is to play timed innings, with an "innings" being one team's chance to bat. (In cricket, the word is always plural.) Between innings, players customarily break for the "tea interval," when the opposing teams get together and drink tea - or, in the case of many Indian players, eat curry.
During the mid-1990s, Brookes helped start a club team at UVM, where he taught writing, and finding opponents became easier. With the backing of the school, buying equipment was no longer a problem, and the group had use of the fieldhouse during cricket's off-season, which happens to coincide with the school year. The club adapted the rules to fit the setting, just as street kids might do with stickball games in different alleys. The UVM team hosted indoor tournaments with teams from UMass Amherst, SUNY Albany, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Dartmouth College and Middlebury College, among others.
In 2000, Brookes decided to cede responsibility for the CCCC's management to the eager group of Indians and Pakistanis who had arrived in Vermont for graduate school or jobs at IBM. They brought with them an abiding affection for this sport that is much more commonplace in their home countries than it is in the U.S. And they played a more serious and competitive game than the kind Brookes fostered during his tenure.
Salman Khan, 32, joined the CCCC in 2001, while he was working toward his Master's degree in business administration at UVM. The Pakistan native is now a financial-risk analyst at KPMG and lives in Colchester. When he first started at the club, Khan says, it was so competitive that if a player didn't show up for practice, he didn't get to participate in the game the following weekend. "I've seen it when it was that intense," he explains during a break from bowling his fastballs to a couple of teammates. "And then I've also seen it like it is now, where we struggle to get 11, and call Dartmouth to lend us two players."
Khan attributes the attrition of players to the layoffs at IBM, and notes that Indians and Pakistanis have found better opportunities back home.
Despite the low numbers, the CCCC is a solid team, winning a large majority of the games it plays - including ones against teams in Massachusetts and Connecticut that have local sponsors and regular league tournaments. The CCCC is taking steps to compete with those teams on a financial level, too, says Gerard van Leest, 28. The Australian native is president of the nonprofit corporation the club formed last year. Its overall mission, according to the CCCC's website, is "to provide adequate opportunities for members to play cricket on a competitive as well as recreational basis."
Toward that end, the club submitted a grant proposal to the State of Vermont, asking for about $13,000 to fund the installation of a permanent concrete pitch with Astroturf, portable practice nets, a bowling machine, bats and protective gear. And CCCC is offering two free summer clinics to teach Vermonters - kids and adults - how to play cricket.
That's got an entrepreneurial ring to it, but there's also a deeper significance in the venture. Cricket was once a fantastically popular game in the United States: In the mid-1800s, clubs sprouted like toadstools after a rain, and the first international cricket match between the U.S. and Canada was played in 1884 at Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey. Since then, baseball somehow supplanted the sport. Now a number of expatriates who call themselves Americans are reminding the rest of us that this game, too, could be ours.