To live and cover-drive in LA

Are the bad boys of Los Angeles the latest, brightest hope for world cricket? A game for English gentlemen is the mean streets' latest craze.
Three years ago, Sergio Pinales had never heard of cricket. He really had no reason to. He was your typical gangland chulo, a bad-ass Latino teenager straight out of Compton, with bad-ass short-cropped hair, a bad-ass earring in his left ear, disconcertingly well-developed biceps and a hardened stare that took no prisoners.

But something odd was going on in his neighbourhood, and he decided to check it out. On an uneven, unwatered sports field behind one of Compton's typically destitute middle schools, a raggedy band of bums scooped up off the streets of downtown Los Angeles and a handful of teenage homeboys from the city's blasted hinterland were smashing at a hard red ball with long wooden bats. Nobody in the 'hood had much idea what they were doing there, much less what this strange sport of theirs might be.

Sergio approached, wearing the trademark baggy pants of Latino gang members and dragging a bulldog on a thick chain behind him. He looked mean as hell.

"Hey, what is this?" he asked. "Some kind of baseball game?"

"No, man. This is cricket," was the answer. "Baseball's a sissy game."

Sergio watched for a few minutes. Using a rusted baseball cage as a makeshift net, kids very like himself were hooking, driving and smashing the ball across the field in all directions. He picked up the ball, staring at the seam and bouncing it lightly in his hand to appreciate its weight and firmness.

"Where's your gloves?" he asked.

"Ain't no gloves, homey. Gloves is for sissies."

And so Sergio became hooked, utterly convinced that this genteel sport for upper-class Englishmen was in fact tailor-made for tough American street kids like him. And what started out as an unorthodox sporting interest - he is now a useful opening bat with a sideline in medium-pace bowling - has turned into something ever stranger.

His team, which has gone through several names but is currently known as the Homeys and the Pops, has attracted more than local attention. Two years ago they went on a swing through England that included stop-offs at Lord's and Hambledon as well as an appointment for tea with Prince Edward at Buckingham Palace.

And now they are preparing for a follow-up tour, a 19-day trip starting on Wednesday that will not only include games against the Lord's Taverners and the British Army, but will also feature a four-day foray into Northern Ireland for a mixture of sports and goodwill politics.

Thanks to sponsorship from Felix Dennis, the magazine magnate, the team will play cricket with the Irish Civil Service and try their hand at hurling against a local nationalist team. But most of all they will be there to cheer on the peace process. They hope to meet Gerry Adams, John Hume and Mo Mowlam, and impress them with what their founder and chief inspiration, Ted Hayes, calls "cricket diplomacy".

"Americans teaching Irish Catholics to play cricket - that's irony," Hayes remarks. "We're gonna present Gerry Adams with a cricket ball and bat. We hope it will break some of the tension."

The story of this eccentric team is so odd in so many particulars that it beggars belief. Then again, the man behind it all is no conventional Joe himself. Ted Hayes has gone through many bizarre transformations in his 48 years, from religious preacher to in-line skating ballet champion to homeless activist. He spent 10 years living on the streets, ran for mayor of Los Angeles in 1993, and came to international prominence by building the Dome Village, a community for the homeless made of cheap, energy-efficient fibreglass domes that sit on a piece of wasteland on the edge of downtown LA.

The first time he came in contact with cricket was in 1995, shortly after the establishment of his Dome Village. The Beverly Hills cricket club, one of a select few amateur teams that keep the cricket flame burning in southern California, was scratching around for an 11th player and put in a call to Katy Haber, managing director of the LA branch of Bafta, to ask if she knew anyone to fill in.

Haber just happened to be a volunteer at Dome Village, and turned to Hayes to ask if he were interested. He thought it might be a laugh, and said yes. "You should have seen their reaction as I turned up with my dreadlocks and a pit helmet," he recalls. "They obviously thought I was a West Indian pro, and greeted me with deep respect and awe and trembling."

He made precisely six runs, alarming the very proper ex-pat Brits as he dropped his bat, baseball style, to take off for the other end of the wicket. But the experience was little short of an epiphany for him.

"What impressed me was how the game had a whole philosophy, and I saw that as a tool for reaching inner-city kids," he said.

For Hayes, cricket is exactly what is needed in neighbourhoods such as Compton - drive-by shooting capital of the US and home of gangsta rap - to re-establish a sense of discipline and respect for authority. "When I say authority, I don't just mean the police, but parents, teachers and even gang leaders. It's disregarding them that gets a lot of these kids killed," he points out.

"We're not working to get kids off the streets. We're working to make the streets safe. Cricket teaches them to swallow their pride and deal with problems, rather than lash out. When you're out, you fold your bat and lift your head. If you want to swear and cuss you can do that behind a building afterwards. You don't argue with the umpire."

These are things, Hayes says, that American sports can't provide. Even baseball has been spoilt by prima donna behaviour, violence between players and the corrupting influence of huge salaries. "These millions and millions are destroying our young people. These sports are a way of getting ahead, but if they don't make it they turn to crime."

Hayes built a team bringing teenagers from Compton together with residents of his Dome Village, and drafted in Leo Magnus, a Jamaican former professional, to teach them the rudiments of cricketing technique. Within two years they had captured enough imaginations and raised enough sponsorship funds to make their first trip to London.

They visited the Houses of Parliament in a red double-decker bus, met government ministers and royalty and, most memorably, sowed consternation by beating the Hambledon Cricket Club in the very birthplace of the sport. "Their coach said it was the biggest tragedy to befall Hambledon ever," Hayes recalls with a grin. They had hoped to meet that other cricketing Compton, Sir Denis, but he died before they could meet. (Sir Denis took a great interest in them, says Hayes; with his uncertain knowledge of Los Angeles neighbourhoods, he thought the team was named after him).

Providing a little cricket diplomacy in Northern Ireland is only the first in a series of ambitious projects for Hayes and his team. He is trying to persuade the feuding politicos of Compton to raise money for America's first cricket stadium, confidently predicting that, given the right facilities, the sport could turn into a national sensation within as little as 10 years. His 21-year-old son Isaac has produced a cricket rap and hip-hop CD.

And the Walt Disney Company is seriously considering turning the story of the Homeys and the Pops into a movie, with Katy Haber and Hayes himself co-producing.

All this is heady stuff for Compton kids who have barely travelled outside their own neighbourhood, let alone won recognition for anything. "Girls come up and hand out their phone numbers," Sergio says with a smile. "Even my friends ask for my autograph."

Not that there aren't a few hiccups. The Homeys' star batsman was recently convicted for his part in a drive-by shooting and faces three to five years in prison for assault. (He says he wants to teach cricket to his fellow prisoners.) One of the homeless team members can't make the tour because it would violate the terms of his parole.

Such setbacks are a blow for morale, and especially for the technical confidence of a team that could use a little more subtlety. Watching their practice sessions at the Willowbrook Middle School in Compton (motto: a Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste), it is clear that the hurtling deliveries and cracking hook shots owe more to macho posturing and the memories of schoolyard baseball than to conventional cricket.

"They don't have the patience to wait for the bad ball," comments Ryan Daniels, an Australian graphic artist who helps out with the training sessions. "It's like trying to teach a bunch of wild horses how to pull a buggy. It's hard, man, hard!" Let's hope Gerry Adams is ready.