Wicked Itch

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.

But the devotion to cricket reaches beyond its intrinsic strategic and physical dimensions, particularly in the West Indies, where the sport is laden with social and historical significance. "I always say, when you put basketball, football, and baseball together, that's the passion of cricket in the West Indies," says Felix Bisnaught, assistant secretary-treasurer of the South Florida Cricket Association. For one thing, cricket is a major staple of the athletic diet at school; almost everybody, regardless of gender, plays the game at one time or another. "I'm sure soccer is more popular than cricket and yet cricket is much more important to a national sense," observes Jamaican poet and scholar Mervyn Morris, a lifelong cricket fan who is teaching at the University of Miami's Caribbean Writers Summer Institute. "Maybe for two reasons: One is that it may be deeply ingrained. The other is that we've been hugely successful at it, and we've not yet been as successful in soccer."

The British army introduced the sport to the West Indies in the Nineteenth Century, and by the late 1940s its international touring team had become a world power. Even when the English-speaking nations opted against a post-independence federation, they stayed together as a cricketing unit. The team has, in a specific and significant way, united the islands and provided a regional focus -- unlike the area's soccer and track federations, which have presented their standout competitors under individual national flags.

This, however, hasn't been achieved without bickering. The West Indies are a loosely knit group of islands plus a chunk of South America, all of which were once part of the British Empire and happen to share a love for cricket. But they have different backgrounds and histories, with different financial, political, and ethnic problems. Large distances divide them -- Georgetown, Guyana, for instance, is about as far away from Kingston as Denver is from Miami. Inevitably, the loyalty of the inhabitants is to their islands, not to the region. Which makes the job of the West Indies cricket "selectors," those unfortunate gentleman who have the duty of picking a roster to represent the West Indies, quite difficult.

Regardless of the interisland rivalries and jealousies, the sport is woven into the cultural fabric of the area and has been the subject of poetry, song, film, and scholarly dissertation. Michael Manley, Jamaica's former prime minister, wrote a definitive text about the history of cricket in the West Indies; the Trinidadian historian and social analyst C.L.R. James celebrated the game and its political and psychological implications in Beyond a Boundary, now considered a classic in Caribbean writing.

Thus it is no surprise that the West Indies' newest hero is a cricketer. This past spring, during an international test match between the West Indies and England, a 24-year-old Trinidadian named Brian Lara scored 375 runs, the most ever scored in a single inning. (Test matches involve competitions between teams from the world's top cricketing nations.) Lara's return to Trinidad and Tobago was marked by a "Day of Achievement" in his honor, and the country's national trade union canceled a planned strike. Now Lara paraphernalia -- cricket outfits and caps, vanity plates and bumper stickers hailing "LaraA375" -- proliferate throughout the Caribbean, and among South Florida's West Indians.

Lara's achievement, while remarkable in any venue, was even sweeter because it came against the British on West Indian soil. "Cricket as a whole ritual of beating the English is extremely important," laughs Mervyn Morris, whose dark, mirthful eyes are framed with bright white sideburns accented by a goatee. "To see our fast bowlers intimidating the English, there's a historical depth to the pleasure. First you start off playing because the British taught you, then you start beating them. It becomes the importance of the game." He refers to a 1969 study by Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, "The Ritual of Cricket," in which Patterson rhetorically asks: "How better to express our pent-up rage, our agonizing self-contradiction, than to acquire and master this culture, then use it to beat the group that forced us into acquiring it?"

Morris, who grew up playing cricket and went on to become a Caribbean tennis champion, also cites "Rites," a 1969 poem by Barbadian Edward Brathwaite. The poem concerns the cricket rivalry between the West Indies and England, and, specifically, a duel between British bowler Johnny Wardle and Caribbean cricketing legend Clyde Walcott. When Walcott triumphs, pandemonium results: "'You see dat shot?' the people was shoutin';/'Jesus Chrise, man, wunna see dat shot?'/All over de groun' fellers shakin' hands wid each other/as if was they wheelin' de willow/as if was them had the power;/one man run out pun de field wid a red fowl cock/goin' quawk quawk quawk in 'e han';/would'a give it to Clyde right then an' right there/if a police hadn't stop 'e!"

"Victory against the British becomes very important, especially as Caribbean islanders impose their personality on the game," explains Morris, bolstering the widely held perception that the West Indians have developed a flamboyant and aggressive style of play in vivid contrast to the more sedate British approach. "English is a West Indian language," the poet elaborates, paraphrasing a remark from The Pleasures of Exile, a book by Barbadian George Lamming. "It's the same thing with cricket: The thing starts somewhere else, but when you possess it and become good enough with it, then you do what the hell you want to do with it, and it may well be what you do is start showing those who thought they invented it how it should be used."

It is worth noting that the West Indies squad hasn't lost an international test series against England -- or any other team -- since 1980, when they were struck down by New Zealand. The empire hasn't seen a test series victory against the West Indies in 26 years.

Thirty-nine-year-old Hylton Gordon doesn't look like he'd be an early pick for a playground game of any sort. Standing just under six feet tall, with an impressive paunch, glasses, and a baby-blue sun cap pulled snuggly on his head, he doesn't exactly suggest physical prowess. But he just might be the most respected -- and feared -- player in the South Florida Cricket Association, having posted the best all-around statistics (bowling, batting, and fielding) so far this year.

"Right now I'm very tired, if you understand," admits Gordon, slumped at a picnic table beneath a pavilion at West Ken Lark Park in Fort Lauderdale, taking refuge from the relentless midafternoon sun. His team, International Cricket Club, which currently holds the best record in the league, has retired Jammers Cricket Club's batsmen, allowing only 72 runs in the process. Gordon split the bowling duties with another player; now it's International's turn to try to surpass the opponents' output. That they will succeed seems a foregone conclusion: Several of Gordon's teammates are well into their first beers of the afternoon, a couple of others have lost themselves in a heated game of dominoes.

While growing up in Kingston, Gordon says, he was among the best young players in the Caribbean, playing for the West Indies under-nineteen team in a successful tour of England in 1974 and for the Jamaican national team from 1974 to 1980. "I just played the game, and whatever I did, I was one of the ones who came out on top," muses the soft-spoken, self-effacing cricketer. But he fell short of the top: the West Indies international team. "I was this close every time," he says, holding thumb and forefinger several inches apart to illustrate. "You just have to wait and wait, and it didn't come about for me."

Beyond him, on the field, the first two International batsmen are still at bat. The rest of the team jokes among themselves as they unstrap pads and pack away their gear in anticipation of an early win.

Gordon moved to Miami in 1981, at the age of 26, for a "change of life," as he puts it. (Like many local West Indian immigrants, he chose this region primarily for its climate and proximity to the islands.) Now he's an accountant. "Fortunately, I didn't put all my eggs into one basket," he says. Indeed, it would be unwise for any cricketer to count on the sport to put cash in his pockets. There are no professional cricket leagues in the West Indies, and only players for the international team receive a salary. The top West Indian players often go to England, South Africa, and Australia to play in professional leagues. Even in the best of circumstances, corporate sponsorships are rare and not tremendously lucrative by American standards. "Sports in the United States are a money-making venture," Gordon observes. "But cricket, in that sense, is a game. No money involved. Like some sports here, it's a way out for inner-city kids, but not from a financial point of view." They play for pride, he says, for tradition, and for the dream of one day representing the regional team. "In the West Indies," he concludes, "it's all passion."

And passion is what the South Florida Cricket Association thrives on. Many local players share a certain hope -- perhaps better termed a delusion -- that the game will become something other than a delicacy on the American athletic menu. ("Big time!" blusters Banee Persaud, a member of the association's executive committee.)

To skeptics, American cricketers proffer this historical tidbit: Cricket was once far more popular on these shores than baseball. The first international cricket match on record, in fact, was played in the United States when a squad from Canada faced off against a New York eleven at Elysian Fields in Secaucus, New Jersey, in 1845. As recently as World War I, many towns in Southern New Jersey and in the Philadelphia area had their own teams.

Today's emissaries have assigned themselves the duty of ensuring the sport's renaissance, even if its chances of encroaching on the baseball-basketball-football nexus are slim. And so far the cricketing ambassadors have, as their sport's progenitors might say, made an impressive showing. About 280 teams are registered with the United States Cricket Association, an umbrella group that promotes the sport stateside and administrates a national team; association vice president Gladstone Dainty estimates that far more than twice that number of teams are currently active in the U.S. "The sport grows with the rate of growth of the immigrant population," notes Gowton Achaibar, managing editor of U.S. Cricketer, a national quarterly magazine that made its debut last year.

West Indian residents of South Florida, by virtue of their numbers, have been the agents of cricket's upsurge in this region. While the majority of players in the South Florida Cricket Association are of Caribbean descent, the teams do include a smattering of players from Asia and, more rarely, from Australia and England.

Broken into two leagues, the South Florida association teams play nearly year-round on Sunday afternoons in public parks and on public-school fields. In Dade these include Biscayne Gardens, Lillie C. Evans, Myrtle Grove, Lake Stevens, and Brentwood elementary schools; Parkway and Richmond Heights middle schools; and Margaret Pace Park. At no location is there yet a legitimate cricket field; players must contend with long grass and potholes, not to mention trees, floodlight standards, jungle gyms, physical fitness apparatus, and sometimes discarded syringes and sleeping homeless people. The cricket calendar is divided into several different types of competition. Regular league play in a three-month tournament of one-day matches ends this weekend; the finals are scheduled for July 24 at Brian Piccolo Park in Cooper City.

Seriousness pervades the association. An executive board meets every Thursday to discuss the affairs of the organization in a small conference room in the back of a real estate office run by a committee member. The board holds disciplinary hearings -- recent actions include reprimanding a player who knocked down the wickets in disgust after being called out by an umpire, and the reprimanding and penalizing of a team for walking off the field in protest against an umpire's decision. The board also produced a 72-page yearbook of statistics, schedules, and information about member clubs.

To attract more players to the association, the executive committee plans to introduce the sport to youngsters by way of in-school clinics. The stranglehold of the major sports, in fact, is a problem many foreign-born U.S. players confront in their own homes. "Young kids, if they were born here, get into baseball, football, basketball, or soccer," sighs association president Lloyd Rambarransingh, whose 21-year-old son hasn't shown the least bit of interest in joining his father's crusade for an America covered in a patchwork of manicured pitches.

Not unlike the unexpected allure of cricket, you have to know where to look to find South Florida's West Indian community. No one can pin down how many people of Caribbean descent live here; though 1990 U.S. Census statistics are the most complete source, they are unrepresentative of the actual population. According to the census, 94,878 South Floridians were born in English-speaking Caribbean nations (including Guyana); Jamaicans are the largest subpopulation, at 58,577. These numbers have increased since the 1980 census, which recorded 36,098 first-generation West Indians (excluding Guyanese) living in Palm Beach, Broward, and Dade counties. In the recent census, 357,522 South Florida residents described themselves as being of West Indian "ancestry." But the census figures don't account for the estimated tens of thousands of illegal Caribbean immigrants who reside here.

The community's general geographical contours are equally fuzzy: There's no Little Kingston or Little Port of Spain in Miami, but West Indians have begun clustering in neighborhoods as far-flung as Richmond Heights and North Dade, Miramar and Lauderhill, and West Palm Beach.

As a group, West Indians have very little political or economic presence. "The mainstream media doesn't really include us in their coverage," asserts Noel Robinson, publisher of Caribbean Lifestyles, a news and culture magazine based in Broward but circulated around the U.S. and England. "But then again, we don't really do anything to deserve coverage." Exploits of Jamaican crime posses, or large reggae concerts, seem to be the only Caribbean news that makes it into the daily press, he observes.

Some local activists attribute the population's low profile to a tendency toward cliquishness: The Jamaicans stick with the Jamaicans, the Barbadians with the Barbadians, and so on. (Indeed, although the rosters of most of the South Florida Cricket Association teams reflect a flavorful cross-section of Caribbean nationalities and ethnicities, many squads are predominantly single-nation entities: Delray Cricket Club, for instance, is mostly Barbadian; Challengers Cricket Club is primarily Trinidadian; Sportsman Cricket Club has a majority of Guyanese players; and a few teams are almost entirely Jamaican. There's also a Grenada Cricket Club and a Leeward Islanders Cricket Club.)

Don Rico Ricketts, a Jamaican-born community activist and graphic designer living in Miami, accepts the need for people to reaffirm their own national identities but also recognizes the value of bonding across national borders. "I don't advocate the dissolution of national associations," he remarks, "but everyone could work within a greater regional framework. Larger groups are often able to achieve more.

"I don't need to wave the Jamaican flag the way other people do," continues Ricketts, a Rastafarian and the coordinator for a Miami-based Pan-Africanist organization called MARCUS Universal. "I devoted 30 years of my life to being a community activist in Kingston and Miami. I know what I've done for Jamaica. But as a Rastaman and a Pan-Africanist, I have to be beyond nationality. I keep saying, 'You cannot help Jamaica by being purely Jamaican. You cannot help planet Earth by being purely American or Chinese or Jamaican or Trinidadian.' But I don't know if the community is going to move to a better level anytime soon."

Ricketts says the potential power of the Caribbean public is awesome, if only it could organize and legitimize its illegal immigrants. He believes, however, that there's a general wariness among expatriate West Indians toward political activity of any type: "People are scared shitless about being charged with sedition, of being accused of undermining society and the government." This fear, Ricketts adds, thwarts open dialogue regarding issues of communitywide importance, such as immigration and citizenship.

With the Caribbean Americas Business Network, Sharon Reid is trying to link Florida's dozens of Caribbean-oriented business associations with their counterparts in the West Indies. "We need to communicate and we don't have that network going on right now," complains Reid, the network's president. The individual business and commerce associations, she says, are often specific to one country; but by meeting with one another periodically, they can share resources and build stronger commercial links between the U.S. and the Caribbean.

Caribbean Lifestyles publisher Robinson, too, laments that in his line of work he's perpetually fighting the insular tendencies of the West Indian subcommunities: The magazine, he notes, is commonly perceived as "Jamaican," rather than as a regional publication. This stereotype was borne out at a Caribbean variety show he presented recently under the magazine's banner. At a performance given by Trinidad's top comedian, most of the audience was Jamaican; few Trinidadians turned out.

Caribbean leaders agree that at least one bonding force does exist: cricket. It absorbs players and nonplayers alike. "Visit the Roman Pub [a Caribbean-owned bar in North Dade] during a West Indian test match," suggests the cricket association's Felix Bisnaught, who is also president of the Alliance Cricket Club. "You'll never see the bar so full during the day. The disco next door has the music blasting, but they don't care as long as they see the action. This is something to cling to home."

Forty-nine-year-old Elmore Waite knows the feeling. Standing among his Parkway Athletic Club teammates on a field in North Dade, the private investigator describes the painful years during which he gave up cricket, distracted by the struggles of making a living and raising a family in the United States.

"I'd get the papers and read the scores in it and say, 'My God, I should be there,'" says the wiry Waite. "My friend even went and paid my dues for me to join a team, but I still could never make it." Joining up with Parkway this season, he says, has put him in touch with other West Indians. "It's good for relaxing," he remarks with a gap-toothed grin, "having some fun with the guys."

"Cricket for me is a boring game," declares Joseph Barnes. He pauses, considers what he's said, and smiles, aware that such words would be akin to heresy in some Caribbean quarters. But the statement is even more befuddling coming from someone who has just traveled 50 miles from his home on a Sunday afternoon to watch a group of mediocre amateur cricketers play the last few overs of a match under a merciless sun. Barnes, a thick-necked man with a low, melodic voice, proceeds to clarify himself. "It's my favorite game to play," he says. "I like playing more than anything else, but I don't enjoy watching."

And yet he defies himself by remaining here, in the shade cast by a portable classroom behind Lake Stevens Elementary School in Northwest Dade. He gazes out toward the field, where Alliance Cricket Club chases Islanders Cricket Club, which scored 118 runs during its at-bats earlier in the day. Though both teams have fallen out of the race for the title, the match is well-attended: Spectators cluster outside the boundary of the field, availing themselves of whatever shade they can find, gathering around a shortwave radio tuned to the BBC to catch cricket scores from around the world. The click of dominoes commands the attention of a knot of men sitting around a folding table. Children play a game of tag. A Jamaican woman peddles soda, Caribbean beers, and the last of her home-cooked snacks. A whiff of ganja wafts by on a forgiving breeze.

Several years ago, Barnes muses, that was him out there on the pitch. Like all his friends, he played the game while growing up in Jamaica. "When I was a kid in school I could never get cricket out of my head," the 52-year-old retired banker reminisces. "I'd be walking to school and doing this" -- he takes a long stride and, slowly, gracefully, bowls an imaginary ball. Then marriage interceded. "After the game you usually go drinking and stuff," he says. "My wife said, 'You're going to look for girls.' Actually we'd just go to the bar, sit and drink beers and play dominoes. But for a peaceful life, I stopped."

An outburst on the playing field intrudes. Members of the fielding team, insisting they've bowled out a batsman, are threatening to walk off in protest of the umpire's call to the contrary. A few beer-swigging onlookers begin to heckle the umpire, the rules, the injustice of the situation. Their ribbing yields to a running patter of cussing in a Jamaican patois.

Sensing unpleasantness, an executive committee member in attendance quickly substitutes himself for the beleaguered umpire, who happens to have been associated with the batting team. It's the second change of umpires in the game; usually there are none. Joseph Barnes smiles embarrassedly, commenting quietly about the "poor behavior" of the players and fans. But he seems amused by the unusual turn of events.

Resuming his narrative, Barnes recalls that he finally picked up his old bat when he moved to Miami in 1976. Here he helped found the Islanders Cricket Club, by name the same team that is on the field, though none of the original players remain. Now living in Palm Beach County, he still travels south on the occasional Sunday to watch league play and renew old acquaintances. "It's something to do," he shrugs, although it's clear that, despite his disclaimer, it's a whole lot more.


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