The far pavilions

Cricket, lovely cricket - the game of village greens and balmy afternoons, the essence of pastoral England. And now, a big hit on the mean streets of the Bronx. Over here, we've been bounced out of the World Cup. Over there, the game is booming
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The Independent Culture
It is two o'clock on a blistering Saturday afternoon, and the driver of the brightly painted ice-cream van is trekking across the wide expanse of grass that is Van Cortland Park in the northernmost reaches of the Bronx, in search of a shady patch to park on. Suddenly, he hears voices bawling at him from a grassy bank to his left. A furious knot of black gentlemen, dressed all in white, is screaming at him to "get off".

Perplexed, the driver accelerates, ignoring the succession of little green flags he is knocking over one by one. How is he to know, after all, that he has veered on to the edge of a cricket field and that those flags are there to mark its boundary? Probably he knows that some sort of game is going on nearby, on that slim stretch of clay over there with the little wooden posts planted at each end. But that's a long way from where he is, so what is everyone yelling about? And what kind of game is this, anyway?

For Elmond Harley, this is nothing new. The life of a cricket nut in the United States has always been one of serial indignities. "We have people wandering on to the pitch and starting games of pick-up baseball and whatnot, or setting up for a picnic." Each time, he will stride out and politely ask the intruders to move on. Usually, he'll take the opportunity to explain to them about the game they are disrupting.

Harley, a native of St Kitts who came to the US in 1967 after living for eight years in England, is here most weekend days of the summer. Retired from his job at a bank, he is vice-president of the New York Cricket League, and Van Cortland is the league's home. For a small fee, the New York City Parks Department gives him control of seven of these clay strips, which have jute matting where the grassy crease should be. He rents a roller once a year, for $300. The grass in the outfield areas, such as it is, is kept mown by the city. Evidently, however, nobody stops by to pick up the litter of plastic cups and paper.

On this particular afternoon, there are two matches under way. One of the eight clubs in Harley's league is playing a club from the Nassau League, from the other side of the city, on Long Island. (His side is getting punished, too, by a Nassau batsman who used to play in the Red Stripe league in Jamaica, which is one level below Test standard.) The other is a friendly with a visiting side who come all the way from Boston.

Similar scenes abound all over New York during the months of summer. Cricket barely registers on the American sporting calendar - Monday's defeat of Pakistan by Bangladesh in the World Cup earned two paragraphs in yesterday's New York Times sports section - and yet the sport does exist here, even if it does not exactly thrive. There are eight leagues in New York and another 18 across the US. The biggest in New York, the Commonwealth League, has no fewer than 50 member clubs. Most of those playing are drawn from New York's huge West Indian community. Some are from India and Pakistan.

But the overwhelming majority of Americans have no clue about cricket. Even residents around Van Cortland, who see the game being played here every weekend in the summer, are still uncertain what to make of it. Take Gonzalez Arrio, who is dropping by the ice-cream van with his girlfriend and her two small children. Arrio is from El Salvador originally. I ask him what the game is called.

"I have no idea," he replies with a grin.

I tell him, and he struggles over the pronunciation.

"Cree-kit," he says, over and over again. "I think it is a game that comes from India or somewhere, but I really don't know."

Another newspaper here, Newsday, last week acknowledged the hoopla going on in England over the World Cup with this explanation of the game, based on a comparison with baseball. "Cricket," it began, "has two home plates, with two batters up at once. A homer is worth six runs (except when it's worth four). A game lasts five days (except when it lasts one). Outfielders don't wear gloves, but batters do. There's no seventh-inning stretch, but the players do stop the game in mid-afternoon for tea."

If history had run differently, leather and willow might have reigned in America. As far back as the revolutionary war, troops loyal to George Washington used to play a version of the game, called "wickets". In 1884, this country staged the first recorded international game, between America and Canada, arguably the forerunner of the Test Match. Cricket bit the dust here in 1917, however, when the International Cricket Conference (ICC), banned America from competition because it did not belong to the Commonwealth. And so it was not cricket but baseball that emerged as the so-called "national pastime".

Last year, however, the ICC changed course. It mandated the West Indian Board to direct new energy towards promoting cricket in the US and Canada. And that may not be as impossible a task as it at first appears. There is, for instance, already a US team, overseen by the United States of America Cricket Association (USACA). It sent the side to Malaysia two years ago for the qualifying rounds of this year's World Cup. (It came up against Scotland, Kenya and Bangladesh and was duly crushed.) And two weeks ago, the Walt Disney Company invited officials of the USACA down to Florida to discuss its plans for a Test-standard ground at its Wide World of Sports complex at Disney World, Orlando.

That there is an audience for cricket here has been demonstrated by the numbers tuning in to pay-per-view television coverage of the World Cup - albeit mostly in areas of Brooklyn and the Bronx, which have high-density Caribbean populations. Kelly Broadcasting Systems, which offers the service, reports that audiences have matched those that tuned in for the recent Evander Holyfield-Lennox Lewis heavyweight boxing bout.

Now, however, comes even more important news. There is hope at last that, in the next few years, New York City will have its own, international- standard cricket ground. The proposed stadium is the brainchild of Max Shaukat, a native of Pakistan, who heads an outfit called the World Cricket League. For more than 10 years he has been seeking permission from the city to build such a ground, and last month he was finally given the green light. The necessary funding of $25m is in place from private investors, and he expects to announce the site, somewhere within the city's boundaries, later this summer. The plans call for a stadium with seats for 12,000 spectators that could also be a venue for soccer games and rugby.

Shaukat, who nine years ago staged a match on New York's Randall's Island in the East River, between the Test sides from England and the West Indies (the grass, in places, was 8in long), believes that building the stadium will give the game the final push it needs to flourish again in America.

The project, he claims, is more a "labour of love" than about money.

"Cricket here is sort of at the evolutionary stage, with a club here and a club there, but we hope that eventually it will gel in to one set- up," he said yesterday. "I think that in my lifetime cricket will become at least a niche sport here."

Here at Van Cortland Park, talk about the stadium comes second only to gossip about the World Cup. "When they build it, I will believe it," cautions Harley, but if it happens, he will be the first in line for tickets. And he has no doubt that it will be a viable business. "How much money could I make with a proper cricket ground in New York? We are talking $50m at least. And then we could use that money to encourage the game across the country, in the Midwest and California".

Selwyn Caesar, the secretary of the USACA, who is also at the park, concurs. "If you built a field like that in New York, you would make more money than you could dream about," he says. Standing with him is Paul De Silva, president of the Nassau team that is so handily clobbering Harley's players. He, too, is breathless about Shaukat's project. "New York will become the Mecca of cricket throughout the world. We have the audience here, this is the media capital of the world, and you have the corporate sponsorship. New York is just the perfect environment. This is where cricket is meant to be."

For now, though, reality is these seven clay strips at Van Cortland. There is no break for tea in the clubhouse, because there is no clubhouse. Going to the lavatory means running across the road to the nearby Mobil petrol station. As for spectators - well, they have themselves, their patient wives and the few passing unwashed, who look, furrow their brows and move on.

And finally, Gonzalez gets his tongue around it. "Cricket," he repeats, licking his cone. "Cricket. Thank you."