By Rachel Ohrenschall
Cricket is a unique sport; most uniquely, one found at Haverford College, the only institution to have a varsity cricket team in the United States. Most of the time when cricket is brought up an inevitable parallel is made, often calling it “that sport like baseball.” However, as co-captain Rushi Gambhir ’12 good-naturedly pointed out, cricket came before baseball, and was at one point not as unique as the Haverford cricket team today.
According to a Smithsonian article entitled “Cricket, anyone?” a cricket match in 1844 between teams from the United States and Canada was the first international sporting event in the modern world. Benjamin Franklin brought back from England a copy of the 1744 laws, still the sport’s official rule book, to formalize the cricket rules in the then thirteen colonies in 1754. In 1849, Abraham Lincoln turned out to watch Chicago play Milwauke. And most importantly, cricket was introduced to Haverford College, possibly by the English landscape architect William Carvill who planned the campus in 1833.
By the late 1800s the newer game of baseball had far surpassed cricket in popularity, perhaps because it was a faster game. Leonard begs to differ, however, that cricket is a slow archaic game, noting that the bowling (equivalent to pitching) speeds of cricket are very similar to baseball, because the bowler runs several paces before throwing the ball. Also akin to baseball, the bowler can alter the ball’s spin based on their finger position on the ball.
One needs only to watch one of the world’s best cricketers, Yavraj Singh, hit 6 sixes in 1 over- (an idea similar to hitting 6 home runs in a row if each home run was worth 6 runs) to appreciate what Leonard has pointed out. Overall, the perception the average American has of cricket isn’t correct. Other little known differences: the two “bases” in cricket are called wickets, and there is a batter at each base. Once a batter hits the ball the two batters switch bases, and each time they switch a run is scored.
Modern cricket is similar to many other sports in its pace, but somehow still seems a world away. For example, the players at Haverford don the traditional white polo shirts, though Co-Captain Thomas Leonard ‘13 says white is also a practical choice as it helps the red ball be seen better. Differences may also be due to the attitude with which cricket is played – it is truly a game which greatly honors sportsmanship. Haverford’s longtime cricket coach, Kamran Khan, agrees that cricket is unique among other sports in the lessons it can teach. Cricket is not a game of instant gratification – players continue to bat, even if they hit the ball, until they are out. Because of this, Khan says one learns “discipline, dedication and commitment.” And though hand-eye coordination helps new players pick up cricket more easily, skills aren’t all that play into it.
“Most players here [at Haverford] have never played before but they flourish, because we make them believe in themselves,” Khan said. “The human mind is very powerful.” With advice like this, cricket seems like a road to enlightenment as well as a game. This same style of coaching can be seen at halftime as well. As the Haverford team gathered into a huddle in the cricket pavilion two Sundays ago, Khan stood and listened to input from the co-captains and other members of the team. The team’s conversation was full of constructive advice, affirmative praise, and thoughtful comments. Most notably however was its lack of noise. The screaming and intimidation that seem to be pervasive throughout team sports, such as football, isn’t found in Haverford cricket. Instead, Coach Khan encourages the players with the advice, “if you come and work hard you will learn.” And to a new cricketer who had been successful, “I’m very proud of you.”
Watching this interaction between the Haverford team one feels a true sense of camaraderie, a view with which Gambhir agrees. “Looking back in ten years, cricket will be the biggest part of my Haverford College career” he said. Gambhir continues to say that his freshman year his best friends were seniors he knew through cricket. Cricket helped him find community at Haverford because it is a small, closely knit group. Raised in Calcutta, Gambhir has been playing cricket for as long as he can remember, at school or with neighborhood friends with as few as five or six players. He has found that cricket builds community because it, “brings together guys and girls of different ages.” This could clearly be seen at the Sunday match, when Haverford played (and defeated) Merion Country Club, whose team consisted of middle aged men.
Gambhir is not the only international student on the cricket team, or the only member who has had similar experiences. Alisa Strayer ’13 had been interested in playing cricket at the start of her freshman year but was apprehensive about playing. However, with the encouragement of some hall mates who were members of the team, she came out to play second semester and now says she is “pretty good friends” with most of her team. When asked how she is treated as the only female member she says her teammates “treat her like a fellow brother.” She also acknowledges the inside jokes Haverford has as a team and how she is teased. “I know they’re [the other players] joking. I just hope the other team can tell,” she said laughingly.
Haverford cricket is a game with much to give as far as learning and community-building goes. The recently formed United States Youth Cricket Association (USYCA) boasts that cricket as a sport is growing in the United States: “In the past month alone, over 50 American schools have contacted USYCA about its schools program.” But as the Smithsonian questions, can cricket “find a place in a sporting culture too often defined by inflated egos and commercialism?” Before spending an afternoon watching the Haverford cricket team play this author would have said no, American cricket is a remnant of British colonialism, something certainly never tolerated in the United States. But after swinging a cricket bat for the first time and feeling the satisfying smack as the ball hits the “sweet spot,” it is easy to picture children in the United States painstakingly polishing their English willow cricket bats with linseed oil, alongside their friends who lovingly oil their baseball gloves.
At Sunday’s match Leonard looked on nervously as a newer cricketer named Brian Rafferty stepped up to bat, but as Rafferty proceeded to smack two balls out of the field the bench went wild drowning out all other noise. Caught up in this infectious energy one would wholeheartedly agree with John A. Lester, author of A Century of Philadelphia Cricket, when he says “the best center from which a renewed interest in cricket can spread in the Philadelphia area is Haverford College. This is where, one hundred and sixteen years ago, young native-born Americans first organized to play the game. This is the only place in America where it has been played ever since; almost the only place where cricket refuses to die.”