September 20, 2006

C.U. Cricketers Crack Their Bats on Campus

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“Around! Around!”
The bowler shouted as he ran toward his wicket, and then, in something between a leap and what in baseball is called a crow hop, whirled his right arm exactly 180 degrees over his head and sent the ball hurtling to the pitch where it skittered and then bounced up towards the heavily armored batsman’s mask.

And then — thunk! The sound of English willow connecting with the red leather Saturn-seamed ball was mellower than the pop its ash cousin makes when it strikes the white ball that most Americans know best. The cricket ball beat a hot streak towards what — again, in baseball — would have been the first-base dugout. But in cricket, there are no dugouts. There is not even any concept of foul territory.

The cricket bat’s warm, rich sound is typical, explained Kunal Joshi grad. The ball, he said, is best hit with the “meat” of the bat — a sweet spot where the bat, sometimes made of teak, thickens and bows out. This bigger mass of wood creates the bat’s distinct thunk.

Joshi, who came from India to study at Cornell, plays for the Cornell Cricket Club, a diversely international group of Cornellians who cannot get enough of the sport they grew up with. At 9:30 p.m. most Monday nights, the cricketers fill Bartels Hall’s cavernous Ramin Room with thunks and shouts and the smack of the red cricket balls as they land in stinging bare hands.

The club, which gets some University funding for equipment and gas money, is mostly independent. They schedule their own games and pile into full cars to road trip to tournament matches, playing up and down the northeast at cricket grounds from Rochester to Philadelphia.

The club is currently playing in a tournament run by the Intercollegiate Cricket League, which is mostly made up of Philadelphia-area universities and community colleges. Two weekends ago, Cornell lost a close match to the University of Pennsylvania. The club has two more regular-season matches before the elimination rounds begin.

An Ivy Cricket League is also in the works. Clubs at Yale, Penn, Princeton, Dartmouth and Cornell have already signed on to the idea, which is still in its earliest stages.

The cricketers say the turf in the Ramin Room and at Schoelkopf Field, where they play outdoors in the warmer months, changes the dynamics of the game.

“There really isn’t anywhere for us to play at Cornell,” said Chris Orilall grad, a Guyanese studying chemistry who is the team’s president and vice captain. “Schoelkopf is a batsman’s paradise,” he said, explaining that the level turf doesn’t allow for the odd hops that make cricket interesting. “The thing that’d be nice is if we got some sort of ground,” he said.
The club’s members are intensely passionate about the game.

“It was one of my criteria,” said Husain Bengali ’09. “I e-mailed them before I even decided on Cornell.”
Bengali, who was born in India, moved to Singapore at age nine. He said that he grew up playing a schoolyard version of the game, and then progressed to using a real ball and playing by real rules when he was six years old.

“It wasn’t until I moved to Bangalore in 1994 that I got a chance to play real cricket,” Bengali wrote over the summer in an essay for a writing course.
“Cricket has always, and perhaps always will, bring back fond memories of a childhood in which each thumping shot from the bat of an Indian player and the subsequent roar of the stadium crowd invoked an immeasurable sense of national pride,” he wrote.

Bengali has broken his jaw and shattered his thumb at cricket, yet he says he still looks forward to each opportunity to play.
“In India, cricket is like a religion,” he said. “Everyone subscribes to it.”
During the 19th century, cricket followed the British Empire around the world, and today it’s played in former colonies on every continent except Antarctica. Although in England cricket takes a back seat to soccer, in places like India, Pakistan and the Caribbean it is by far the most popular sport.

One recent evening, club baseball tryouts were ending just as the cricket practice was starting up. Jeremy Siegfried ’10, a catcher trying out for the baseball team, said he’d seen cricket before, and tried it out when he was in India over the summer.

“They’re playing pepper,” he said, nodding at the cricketers. The cricketers open up their practices with the common baseball warm-up, which they call slip training. In cricket, slips are fielders who cover the area behind the batsman.

Siegfried said the biggest difference between the sports is the swing. In cricket, the swung bat is ideally perpendicular to the field, and the hitting style is more defensive.
When he played cricket in India, Siegfried said, he gave the locals a taste of American batting.
“We’d just swing as hard as we could,” he said. “One time a kid threw one at me — a tennis ball — and I just clocked the shit out of it. They had no idea what happened.”

Ali Goheer ’08 said cricket footage on the Internet is a good way to get acquainted with the sport. “Usually it’s by Pakistani and Indian people. They have nothing better to do than just go online and make cricket videos,” he said. On, there are more than 3,000 cricket videos, including a montage called “Magic Moments in India Pakistan Cricket.”

One of cricket’s fiercest rivalries is between the two countries.
According to Goheer, who is from Pakistan, everything is put on hold during matches.

“There are so many people and they really hate each other,” Goheer said.
The worst comes after the match.
“The coach is sacked immediately … people sometimes break their TV,” he said.

The rivalry also manifests itself in banter between the club members, who universally acknowledge that Manoj Pandey grad, from India, is their club’s best bowler.

“He’s the fastest bowler India’s ever produced,” Goheer said in a jab at the Indian national cricket side’s reputation for bad bowling.
Because of the game’s unique throwing motion, a bowler’s ideal physique is tall and lean, even gangly — at least by American standards — which is where Pandey, who is at least 6’5”, comes in. Randy Johnson would probably a good cricket bowler, but there is no room for a David Wells in this game.

One thing the Pakistanis, Indians, and English all seem to agree on is their hatred of the Aussies.
“We should have some Aussies and Kiwis but they don’t bother showing up,” said John Wynne grad, referring to cricketers from Australia and New Zealand.
Like reviled teams in other sports, the Australians dominate the international cricket scene.

“Back when Australia was still a colony and we were sending over our con[vict] boats, they weren’t allowed to play cricket because it was considered an English game,” said Joe Goose grad.
England and Australia form another of the sport’s great international rivalries. David Carter ’08, who is English, said he first got into cricket after seeing the Ball of the Century on live television.

“There was this bloke called Shane Warne, who bowled to this guy called Mike Gatting,” Carter said.
Warne, an Australian known for throwing spin, got the English Gatting out on one ball, leaving him utterly confused.
“Gatting’s like an old pro, he’s been playing for years, and he didn’t know what hit him,” Carter said.
Warne threw to Gatting in the Ashes, the marquee cricket series played every two years between England and Australia.
The ball made Carter want to play cricket, and to bowl.

“You’re not just bowling as fast as you can at the stumps,” said Carter, originally of Southeast London. “There’s tactics involved.”
“When I was about 16,” Carter said, “All I did all weekend was play cricket.”
“Today’s the first time I’ve played cricket in years,” Goheer said. He said he stopped playing during high school in order to concentrate on homework, and is glad to be back in the game.

Abishek Gulati ’07, of New Delhi, is at Cornell to study electrical engineering and computer science. For him, cricket is a reminder of childhood, and of India.
“It kind of makes you not feel so homesick sometimes.”
After midnight, a visitor left the field, but the cricketers said they would play on.