CALIFORNIA, say the geologists, is slowly cracking along the San Andre as fault. And Woodley Park in Van Nuys, Los Angeles, where the India and Australia A teams battled over five matches last week, was near the epicentre of the last big one: the January 94 quake which set back California by $50 billion. This time, however, the tremors were provided by the pitch which the groundsman from Surrey botched up by shearing off all the grass. Says Ravi Shastri, former Indian captain and TV commentator, "It was a technical oversight which the USCA (United States Cricket Association) was the first to acknowledge. We need groundsmen from the subcontinent. Otherwise, the tournament was an advanced version of the way Sharjah started out."
The matches themselves werent an aberration in US cricketing history though, which, incidentally, is nearly 250 years old. In 1759, Benjamin Franklin returned from London to his home in Philadelphia with a copy of the cricket rules. In 1844, a US cricket team played Canada, and in 1859 interest in Philadelphia reached fever-pitch with the arrival of an All England Eleven. By 1860, there were 10,000 cricketers playing in 125 cities of the US. The period between the 1880s and the 1920s was the golden age of cricket in the US. Bart King of Philadelphia headed the British averages. In 1912, Patrick Huggins made cricketing history by scoring six centuries in one week in Los Angeles and ended the season with an average of 180.5. In 1932, Don Bradman, on honeymoon and leading the invincible Australians, met up with baseball legend Babe Ruth in the Yankee Stadium.
The task of keeping cricket alive during the World Wars and later was mostly left to British actors in Hollywood. Says David Sentence, treasurer of the Southern California Cricket Association, "Now the impetus has been coming from the Indian families who moved here in the 80s." In California alone, 100-odd teams now play league matches, and in the whole of the US the figure tops 500. The major hubs include California, New York and Florida. Says Akhtar Masood Syed of the U S C A, "Our cricket is divided into nine zones, the winner in each zone competing for the national championships. But were still infants. Most players arent serious. They sometimes show up in black shoes, etc. But thatll change."
The association itself has been battling with the ICC for many years to be able to host one-day internationals .Says Dr Atul Rai of the USCA, "Now these India-Australia A matches can serve as the launching board." The association plans look impressive. With Australia committed to send a senior team next year, the locales could be divided between New York and Los Angeles. But the matches have certainly served as launching boards for at least two careers.Mohammed Kaif and Vijay Bharadwaj have made it to the senior Indian team. On the Australian side, Bret Lee and Andrew Symonds will soon be making their presence felt in international cricket. Says coach Allan Border: "These lads are just a pace off f rom the international scene." About playing cricket in the US, Border is more than enthusiastic. Says he: "New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco are the top destinations in the world and no cricketer would not want to go there to play cricket."
But cricket as a sport is very much off the US scene. Undaunted, the USCA is trying top romote it in parts of Los Angeles. Five city schools have introduced it in their coaching curriculum. One of them is the Sheenway School and Culture Centre in gang-infested south-central Los Angeles. Here 150-odd students a combination of black, Mexican and South Korean have taken to sampling the sport in their daily regimen. Says Dolores Sheen, executive director of the school, "In cricket size doesnt matter. Also, everything in the US is quick. Its the culture of the instant. Cricket teaches them some patience." Teachers claim to have seen some improved concentration in class-rooms after the introduction of cricket. Interestingly, kids at Sheenway are coached by Mustapha, a black American Muslim, who was part of a homeless mens team that toured the UK in 95. Comprising mostly of former criminals, the team went on to play Scotland Yard. Says Mark Azeez, the Trinidad - born vice-president of the Hollywood cricket club, "I was with that team and most of them held their bats baseball-style." The sport might not have travelled a great deal since, but among the children whod come for the inauguration ceremony was three - year-old Xavier reportedly the most diligent cricketer of the lot. Asked how far he could hit the ball, young Xavier wasnt humble: "Pretty far," he said, "The last time I hit it the bat broke." Fifteen years down the line who knows about young Xavier.