The Old, Old Ball Game | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The Old, Old Ball Game

Amateur cricket league keeps sport alive

With the WVU Chargers — dressed in bright yellow outfits reminiscent of baggage handlers or the '79 Pirates — up at the wicket, the ball sails way into the trees.

In the manner of a school-yard game, an orange-clad fielder races after the ball, rustling through the brush to find it.

This is cricket, and that clout is worth six runs.

"Good one! Good one!" the batter's teammates cheer in English. They also append an all-Indian gumbo of Hindi and Punjabi and Tamil. With team members from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka — as well as the British Isles, Australia and the West Indies — they're likely to speak virtually anything.

Out west of Wexford, surrounded by Linbrook Park's scrim of trees, 22 members of the Pittsburgh Cricket Association take the field every Saturday and Sunday, April through October. While the field is a standard, lumpy green, the pitch itself — the 22 yards where the bowler hurls at the wicket — is artificial turf, ensuring a regular and easily maintained surface.

Cricket is, of course, baseball's step-dad. As in baseball, there is a catcher, who wears shin guards and gloves — the latter akin to the gray Iron Boy work variety. But cricket bats are somewhat heavier than those used in baseball, with a flat, paddle-like front and a rounded or scalloped back. Many players adapt their bats with duct tape and plastic sleeves on the slender handles.

The pitches, thrown at a trot and overhand, bounce off the playing surface. Batters, wearing helmets, gloves and shin guards, swing underhand and up, all hips and wrists. Balls hit anywhere are in play. A batter hits until he makes an out — a ball caught on the fly, for instance. Otherwise, he can swing away for the rest of recorded time.

Or so it feels.

The fielders — today the Pittsburgh-based Classics Cricket Club — are in orange, like DOC inmates. Many uniforms bear sponsors' names, much like in Little League: Eclipse Wholesale, Coca Cola, Pizza Palermo. Playing barehanded in the field, they hope for a clean catch: The leather ball feels nearly wooden. Getting the ball back quickly helps, because batters score runs by scuttling back and forth between opposing sets of wickets.

"We've got a good mix," Shailesh Bokil says of the PCA's 18 member teams. Bearing decidedly non-Empire names like Blitzers, Steelzags and Strikers, each squad carries an active roster of 20-odd players. While the ages run from 16 to 67, the average player is 30 years old. Matches are played here, in South Park, and in Ohio.

A Mumbai native who came to Pittsburgh for college 25 years ago and stayed, Bokil founded the PCA some nine years ago. "We all played when we were young," he says. "We're trying to keep in touch with the game.

"We can play at a professional level," he adds, "but we play for fun. Just for fun. People have a deep passion for this game. They just want to play."

It's a languid game — the pace so slow it makes baseball seem positively frenetic. Cricket knows no hurried throws to second, no base stealing, no plays at the plate. Just pook, and a little trot between wickets with no apparent haste, each batter holding his bat as if the opposing team might filch it when his back is turned.

With traditional whites worn only for full-tilt league matches, not these Sunday scrimmages, the teams favor pastel colors, often with nicknames on their backs. The WVU Chargers, for instance, include Kalli, Nag, Dev, Srinivas, Vijay, Ravi, Saurabh, Arun, Venky and Virk.

The Charger batsman smacks one into the field. A fielder stops it with his foot, tosses it back underhand.

"Well done!" the West Virginians applaud. "Beautiful."

The next shot skips between fielders and bounces past the border sticks, meaning four runs. A soft fly ball over a fielder's outstretched hands, a bit of back and forth, means a couple more.

"Nice running, guys! Nice running!"

Currently, WVU is up a few dozen runs. Since games can go to 150 runs, no Classics are sweating just yet. But as the West Virginia wrecking crew continues, a series of well-placed wallops has the Orangemen buzzing about the field. Some 30 minutes into a seemingly endless at-bat, the WVU team's Whammer Whambold is still whappin' 'em.

A sharp smack bounces past a CCC fielder.

"Great batting!" the Yellows holler. "Great batting!"

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