Spring’s ‘other’ sport, cricket, has surprisingly deep roots in the Commonwealth.
Springtime is here, and across Virginia players will take up the old bat and ball for a classic warm-weather sport. Around the state, they’ll gather for informal games and in structured contests on official playing fields, umpire and all. The sport they’ll play? Cricket, the only sport in the world where you can be out for a duck if a bowler you thought was a dibbly dobbly sends you a googly.
You may chortle a bit at this stereotypically British athletic contest that comes complete with an official tea break, but more than 1,000 people play the sport in Virginia, according to Shelton Glasgow, the Atlantic region representative to the United States of America Cricket Association. Northern Virginia in particular has seen a surge in the number of active cricket players—Loudoun County conducts a popular cricket league, and some public schools in Fairfax County include cricket in physical education classes. Cricket is even played on the collegiate level: The George Mason University cricket team beat 31 squads to win the 2011 national championship.
Cricket began in England, with the earliest known reference to the game dating to 1598. (The game would be codified in 1788.) Long associated with countries that were once part of the British Empire, it’s no surprise the sport was played in Colonial Virginia. The 1709 and 1710 secret diaries of William Byrd of Westover indicate that Byrd played cricket with friends at Westover, Green Spring, Shirley and Berkeley plantations, and played hard enough to injure himself. “We played at cricket and I sprained my backside,” he wrote, but continued to play.
During the Revolutionary War, George Washington’s troops are thought to have played a variation of the game at Valley Forge in 1778. Even post-Independence, in 1795, a Richmond cricket club printed a set of team and sport rules, suggesting the organization’s members wanted more people to take up the pastime.
Henry Chadwick, now rememberd as “the father of baseball,” was initially a cricket writer and created a short-lived Richmond cricket club in 1857, and there are references to clubs in Roanoke, Gordonsville, Charlottesville and Richmond around the turn of the century. But it was baseball that captured Chadwick’s imagination, along with the rest of the nation’s.
Cricket was largely forgotten, but far from gone. The British Commonwealth Cricket Club, established in 1953 and now based in Washington, D.C., played its first four years in Virginia at Bellpais, a Fairfax County estate near Mount Vernon. The organization served as the fountainhead for the multiethnic Washington Cricket League and the melting-pot cricket culture that began to emerge across Northern Virginia. In 1988, the Hampton Cricket Club emerged from the gathering of NATO troops stationed in the area. A few years later, the India Association Cricket Club took up play in Richmond, taking on Hampton and another team in Lynchburg. In 1995, the four-squad Mid-Atlantic Cricket League formed, and the next year it merged into the North Carolina-based Mid-Atlantic Cricket Conference. Last year, 15 Virginia teams competed in the MACC.
Fans see cricket as a highly athletic sport. Top-level bowlers can hurl 100-mile-per-hour balls toward the batsman, who needs protective equipment, including arm, leg and chest guards, gloves, and a protective helmet with a facemask. The players wear collared shirts and brightly colored uniforms that almost resemble training suits for most matches. For test matches—the increasingly rare, five-day matches that “test” qualified national teams—players wear stylish white uniforms.
On a basic level, the game should appear familiar to most Americans. Teams of 11 take turns on offense—wielding a bat—during an innings (don’t be fooled; for unknown reasons, ‘innings’ is both a singular and plural term) while the fielding team attempts to get them “out.” The batsman stands by a wicket—three posts known as stumps, with two wooden cross sections atop them called bails—waiting for the ball to be bowled, overarm. The batsman hits the ball with a flat-faced, paddle-shaped bat. If the player makes contact with the ball (it can travel in any direction), he or she runs back and forth between two sets of wickets to score runs. A run is scored upon each successful stop at a wicket. Hit the ball out of the playing field on the fly, and it’s a six, which is worth six runs—cricket’s version of a home run. Hit it out of the playing field on the ground, and the batsman acquires four runs. A good batsman aims for 100 runs before the fielding team gets him or her out.
For baseball fans, the most familiar way the defense gets a batsman out comes from catching the ball on the fly. Nine other options exist for the defense to execute an out. One includes the bowler sending the ball by the batsman, crashing into the wicket and knocking off the bails, the cricket equivalent of a strike out. But what if the batsman blocks the ball from hitting the wicket by obstructing the ball’s path with his leg? The slightest possibility of the batsman doing so prompts cries of “howzat?” from the fielding team, an appeal to the umpire, who must then decide whether the batsman is “leg before wicket,” and therefore out.
A cricketer “should have a clear head, and a quick eye and hand, and above all be cool and collected, all nerve or none at all,” wrote Edgar Allan Poe for Burton’s Gentlemen’s Magazine in 1839. Billed in the title as an “experienced practitioner” of “manly pastimes,” he also advised players to develop pain tolerance.
Karan Sohi might not use the evocative words of Poe, but he would share the writer’s sporting spirit. The native of Punjab, India, and Fairfax resident has played pick-up cricket in a Manassas parking lot on Friday nights and at a Gainesville track on Saturday mornings. For someone who does not have the time for a structured league, these informal games are an easy way to get to play. The pick-up teams simply limit the number of times the defense bowls to the offense, set up some jury-rigged wickets, and they’re off and running. “Honestly, it was one of the things I thought I wouldn’t have a chance of doing in the U.S.,” Sohi says. “I thought when I left India that would be pretty much it.” Take Sohi’s experience and replicate it across the region, and one can see the sport’s potential for grassroots growth.
After repeated requests from local residents, Loudoun County established its first cricket league, which played its inaugural season in 2009. Organizers decided to start the league using a modified tennis ball, much softer than a cricket ball, since the county did not have a proper cricket pitch for competition. In just two seasons, the organization mushroomed from five to 25 teams, split into one upper and two lower divisions, and constructed a cricket pitch near Middleburg that hosted three games a day during weekends last season. Contruction of a second venue is being considered by the Parks and Recreation department.
“I think we had a number of people who kept asking us to do it, and we finally said ‘OK, but we need your help spreading the word,’” says Dave Carver, Loudoun County Parks and Recreation’s division manager for sports. “Now we’re turning away teams because we don’t have the space.”
Youth outreach efforts by the Washington Warriors Cricket Club and the United States Youth Cricket Association have helped bring the sport into some school systems as well. A number of middle schools and high schools in Fairfax County have included, or are planning to include, cricket in their physical education program. The USYCA says that Henrico and Loudoun counties are also preparing plans.
“It’s a very good equalizer because a lot of students have not played cricket before, but it’s very easy to understand,” says Fairfax County health and physical education teacher Tony Salgado. “It gives students the chance to succeed where they haven’t before. We’ve gotten a lot of good feedback on it.”
George Mason University’s championship cricket team started out playing informal matches in parking lots and leagues scattered around Northern Virginia. There was enough interest to form intramural competitions, and then to create an unofficial school team in 2009. In 2011, the GMU Patriots traveled to Lauderhill, Florida’s Central Broward Regional Park and Stadium and the only American venue with International Cricket Council certification, to win collegiate cricket’s national championship. Winning meant that Mason’s players got to take home the Chanderpaul Trophy, donated by former International Cricket Council Player of the Year Shivnarine Chanderpaul of Guyana, who captained the West Indies’ national team in 2005 and 2006. The club now has official backing from the university.
So, with such growing interest in the sport, could the U.S. become a respectable cricket nation? Stickier wickets have been solved. •
Let’s Play Cricket!
Think you might enjoy the sound of leather on willow? Here is a list of places to play cricket in Virginia, as well as a guide to some of the more confusing terminology.
Mid-Atlantic Cricket Conference
Teams from North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia compete against each other in this recreational cricket league, which was established in 1997.
Washington Cricket League
Founded in 1974 and a member of the USA Cricket Association, the WCL is home to 33 metro-D.C. clubs, many in Northern Virginia.
Loudoun County Cricket League
Plays the faster-paced short version of the game known as Twenty20, using hard tennis-balls instead of leather cricket balls.
Washington Metro Cricket League
Hard tennis-ball league with 32 teams, working in partnership with Fairfax County to stage matches in Northern Virginia.
Ashes, The: Biennial contest between England and Australia, dating back to 1882, when Australia beat England in England for the first time, leading one British newspaper to declare the death of English cricket. Whichever teams wins the five match test series takes possession of a small terracotta urn.
Beamer: An illegal delivery of the ball, aimed to bounce at the batsman’s head.
Boundary: Perimeter of the field. If the batsman strikes the ball beyond the boundary, he scores four runs. If he does without the ball bouncing, he scores six runs.
Century: When a batsman scores 100 runs. Also refereed to as a "ton."
Declaration: When the batting side ends their innings before all their batsmen are out. They do this to prevent time running out.
Googly: A surprise delivery from a bowler that the batsman expects to spin in one direction, but actually spins in the opposite direction. Known in Australia as a “wrong’un.”
Duck: A batsman who is dismissed without scoring a single run is “out for a duck,” because the number zero resembles a duck egg. If dismissed on the first ball he faces, it’s a “golden duck.”
Duckworth-Lewis Method: Mathematical formula used to recalculate the batting team’s target in games affected by rain.
Dibbly Dobbly: A bowler of limited skills.
Dolly: An easy catch.
Full toss: A ball that reaches the batsmen without bouncing.
Gardening: When the batsmen repairs scuffs or divots in the turf, even if he doesn't really need to.
Grubber: A ball that bounces very low after striking the surface of the pitch.
“Howzat?”: The fielding team’s appeal to the umpire when they believe the batsman is “out.” The umpire cannot dismiss the batsman unless the fielding team appeals.
Jaffa: A ball delivered so perfectly as to be unplayable.
Leather on Willow: When the ball (made of leather) is struck by the bat (made of willow).
LBW: Acronym of “Leg Before Wicket,” where the ball would have hit the wicket had the batsman’s leg not been in the way. If the umpire deems the batsman was LBW, he is out.
Maiden: An over (set of six deliveries by the bowler) in which no runs are scored by the batting team.
Michelle: When a bowler takes five wickets, it’s called a “Michelle,” after actress Michelle Pfeiffer. Why? Because bowling statistics are expressed as a ratio of number of wickets taken to number of runs allowed, such as “five for 50.” Get it?
Nightwatchman: A less talented batsman sent in to play when light is fading, so that the more talented batsman is not risked in poor light.
Nelson: A score of 111, associated with Lord Nelson and considered to be unlucky in England. Superstitious players will stand on one leg during a “Nelson.”
Plumb: When the batsmen is very clearly LBW. No room for argument.
Popping crease: The area in which a batsman must stay (or return to) to avoid being stumped out.
Run-chase: Towards the end of a match, the batting team will know how many runs they need to win.
Sledging: Verbal abuse, often humorous, directed at a batsman in an attempt to unsettle him before he faces a ball.
Tail-ender: A batsman low down on the batting order.
Teapot: Bowlers often subtky (or not so subtly) indicate their disappointment with a teammate who fails to make a catch by standing with hands and hips. Teapot-style.
Yorker: A delivery intended to bounce close to the wicket, or at the batsman’s feet, making it very difficult to play.