Wicked Itch

If you don't know a bowler from a batsman or overs from innings, you probably don't know anything about South Florida's West Indian communities

On February 12, 1968, hometown fans at Sabina Park in Kingston, Jamaica, upset with an umpire's call in a sporting match between the West Indies national team and a visiting squad from England, express their outrage by launching beer and rum bottles onto the playing field. Ignoring appeals by both the captain of the West Indies team and police, the disgruntled spectators continue the hail of glass until authorities call in police reinforcements armed with tear-gas canisters. With the first sign of burning eyes, the crowd's annoyance turns to rage and the stadium becomes a cauldron of rioting. The rest of the match, needless to say, is postponed.

At a match in Kingston ten years later, an umpire's call against the West Indies team, on the verge of losing a match to Australia, sparks more rioting. This time the choice of projectiles escalates from bottles to pieces of the grandstands and other assorted debris. -- riot squad fires bullets into the air to quell the disturbance and disperse the rabble. That same year, after an Australia-West Indies match in Georgetown, Guyana, is called on account of soggy turf, the crowd begins destroying the stands and proceeds to raid the field. Players, fearful for their lives, barricade themselves in the locker rooms.

In February 1981, a mob of 3000 burns down the main gates of the stadium in Jammu, India, and, hurling rocks, besieges the visiting English team in its locker room for five hours. This demonstration is tame compared to a 1967 incident when authorities oversold seats to a match between India and the West Indies at Calcutta's Eden Gardens stadium, provoking the crowd to riot and set fire to the wooden stands.

In November 1993, fire illuminates an evening match between India and the West Indies, the culmination of an international tournament at Eden Gardens. Every play is an excuse for a pyrotechnic outburst, as members of the 120,000-strong crowd shower the stands and the field with firecrackers, bottle rockets, and flares. One West Indies player has to leave the game after a spark flies into his eye. The smoke is so thick that it becomes difficult to see the electronic scoreboard from the opposite side of the field. When India beats the opposition to win the tournament, tens of thousands of euphoric spectators roll up newspapers, set them ablaze, and hold them torchlike above their heads, sending sheets of fire into the air. A writer from the Washington Post likens the sight to being inside a "massive Weber grill."

What sport provokes such violent, primal responses in these throngs? Soccer? Rugby? Professional wrestling?

Try the gentlemanly game of cricket. Aficionados of the sport offer up such anecdotes to convey to the uninitiated the notion that cricket isn't, as is commonly believed on these shores, the rarefied domain of British lords with tea in their bellies and perpetually stuffy noses, an anachronistic pastime that has about as much to do with athletics as does the rugged, heart-pumping sport of croquet. The fact is that in several countries around the world -- most particularly the international cricketing powers of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and the English-speaking islands of the West Indies -- cricket is the finest legacy of British colonialism and an intense source of national pride.

In recent decades the sport has been propagated in other countries, as well, by wicket-toting emigrants from Britain and its former colonies. Unbeknownst to many Americans (who are still trying to figure out soccer), cricket has plunged a few roots into U.S. soil. The sport is growing quickly in South Florida -- second only to New York -- where most cricket players count themselves among the area's burgeoning population of West Indian immigrants.

Within the framework of the 23-year-old South Florida Cricket Association, a league that has grown this year to 34 teams, hundreds of Barbadians, Guyanese, Jamaicans, Trinidadians, and Leeward and Windward islanders pursue the game on scraggly public playing fields from South Dade to St. Lucie County with a devotion that reaffirms a shared cultural heritage.

Though rendered practically invisible alongside the highly politicized and well-organized Caribbean communities of Cuban Americans and Haitian Americans, local West Indian players and spectators find a joyful communal voice in the resounding smack of leather against willow and in the nearly imperceptible but dramatic click of the fallen wicket.

How does a game that makes baseball seem like a full-contact sport capture the attention of so many participants, spectators, even entire nations? Judged in terms of action per minute, cricket looks like a doctor's prescription for insomnia. (See sidebar.) Cricket lovers, however, extol the sport's subtle complexity, its athleticism, its range of expressive possibilities, its emotional demands on player and fan alike. ("I said to my wife last night, if O.J. Simpson had played cricket, he wouldn't have beat his wife," snickers Martyn Belben, a middle-age English expatriate who wandered over to Brian Piccolo Park in Cooper City to watch a recent match. "He would've learned to deal with frustration.")

Much of the sport's intrigue occurs on the level of tactics, the action between the action, as it were. Closer inspection also reveals a latent aggression, most notably in the bowling, one of the more intimidating and impressive spectacles in sports. Fast bowlers unleash the ball at speeds of nearly 100 miles per hour, caroming the leather-covered sphere off the pitch with fierce spins and curves. Among the bowler's arsenal is the bouncer -- analogous to baseball's brushback pitch -- which leaps high toward the unprotected head of the batsman. This is tolerated. It is sanctioned violence. It does not cause bench-clearing brawls.

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