January 7, 2011

Bringing up my maiden century

Heading into 2011, the tournament itineraries on tap for USA will hopefully lead to some new and exciting destinations, the first of which is Hong Kong later this month

There’s really no such thing as a full-time job in US cricket. Even though USACA is in line to receive millions of dollars from its share in the newly formed Cricket Holdings America, it will probably take at least another year or longer before players and coaches can get paid to represent USA on the field of cricket on a full-time basis. However, that does not mean that a full-time commitment is not required from players, coaches, administrators, fans … and at least one journalist.

In an effort to get out of the New York/New Jersey area ahead of the mother of all blizzards which dropped nearly 30 inches in my hometown, I had to sacrifice Christmas Day with my family, rebooking my flight that was due to leave the following evening for Los Angeles so I could make it to the USACA Junior Nationals. The tournament eventually wound up being cancelled after the New York team was stranded at home in the snow and players and family members from the South East team were injured in a car accident driving home from the airport when their connecting flight from Fort Lauderdale to Philadelphia was cancelled. After the tournament was officially called off, I stayed in Los Angeles to cover trial matches between the players and teams who did make it to Woodley Park.

After returning from Los Angeles on New Year’s Eve, I finished 2010 having spent 101 days on the road covering various events on the USA cricket calendar. I can’t complain as I’m getting a golden opportunity to see the world while getting paid to watch cricket matches at the same time, something that most people wouldn’t mind trading places with me to do.

Going through the various airports, I’ve managed to come across some interesting personalities. I always intend to go up to them and ask them something about cricket, but sometimes get a little gun shy.

My first blown chance occurred while I was waiting in LAX on the way to New Zealand for the U19 World Cup in January. I had a few hours to kill before my flight took off and was sitting at the bar of one of the restaurants in the terminal waiting for my order of chicken strips to come up. I overheard a distinct voice in conversation a few bar stools away from me where a guy with a British accent was discussing how he liked to study actors from the past like Mickey Rooney. I picked my head up from my computer to look at him before turning back to my computer. Then I looked back at him, down at the computer and back at him before it hit me that the guy was Simon Pegg.

I do my best in these situations to not harass celebrities or star athletes because at the end of the day, they eat the same food and breathe the same air as the rest of us. Most of them like to be treated like everyday people instead of stared at like the bearded woman at a travelling carnival. Still, I had a burning desire to go up to him and ask, “So, that cricket bat you used to kill zombies in Shaun of the Dead, how many runs have you scored with it?” I was torn. Should I or shouldn’t I? The decision was taken out of my hands when Nick Frost came out of the restroom and they paid the bill and left. An opportunity missed.

A month later, I went through the wretched process of obtaining a visa from the Indian embassy and had to rush to the airport to catch a flight to Dubai for the World Twenty20 Qualifiers. I wasn’t actually going to India, but needed a visa because I had a connecting flight going through Delhi on the way to Nepal for the World Cricket League Division Five tournament that followed the Qualifiers and then had to go through Mumbai in order to get back to America once the tournaments were done. I finally got my visa approved and received my passport back in New York City only an hour before my flight to Dubai was scheduled to leave Newark Airport. Miraculously, the plane for Dubai was late arriving from Beijing so my flight was delayed one hour which barely gave me enough time to navigate through Manhattan’s evening rush hour traffic to get to the airport and check-in.

When I got to the security screening checkpoint, standing next to me in line was former New York Yankees centerfielder and five-time All-Star Bernie Williams. I was struck by how well he blended in. I suppose it was made easier because his last season was in 2006 and he’s been retired for a few years now, but he’s still a highly respected star from the Yankee dynasty of the late ‘90s. I wanted to ask him, “So, did you ever try playing cricket in the off season or since you’ve been retired?” but I was in a hectic rush to get through the metal detector and get to my gate before it closed so I didn’t seize my chance. An opportunity missed.

Finally, I struck up enough gusto in May coming back from Fort Lauderdale after the Twenty20 series between New Zealand and Sri Lanka. I got off my flight in Newark and was walking toward the baggage claim area when I saw a limo driver holding a sign that said, “Peter Gammons.” I turned around and right behind me was the very same three-time National Sportswriter of the Year and former ESPN “Baseball Tonight” analyst.

I was a little apprehensive about approaching him, but then thought to myself, “He’s a sportswriter and I’m a sportswriter. So we’re kind of peers in a way, even if he’s been in the business 40 years longer than me.” We were both waiting for our bags to come down the carousel when I took the opportunity to introduce myself before asking, “What’s your opinion of cricket?” I was pleasantly surprised by his response.

“I took a trip to Australia once in the off season back in the early 90s with a couple of former baseball players,” Gammons said. “We wound up playing in a cricket match one day and I was totally blown away by the skill and the athleticism these guys had. I came to bat against one of those spin bowlers. I was in there for 10 or 15 minutes and never made contact once. It’s a really fascinating game and I’ve got a lot of respect for what they do.”

A few moments later, his bag came and he wished me luck before taking off with his driver. That brief conversation stuck with me though because it confirmed to me that a true American sports enthusiast will have no problem appreciating cricket if it’s presented in the right way.

Just in terms of all the travel itself, I’ve grown to appreciate how hard it must be for the international players from Test nations to be on the road for the majority of the year. Over the summer, I sat down one day to calculate all the days I had been on the road and it came up in a random chat with my girlfriend. I considered all my tours as badges of honour. On the flip side, she didn’t sound too thrilled at the prospect of one day marrying a guy who spends three to four months of the year away from home. I tried to reason with her that guys like Kevin Pietersen and Ricky Ponting spend twice as much time travelling as I do and somehow their families manage. We try to make the best of our own situation. There’s a lot of give and take, but I’m sure we have it easier than some of the professional cricketers who practically live out of a suitcase.

Heading into 2011, the tournament itineraries on tap for USA will hopefully lead to some new and exciting destinations, the first of which is Hong Kong later this month. If I bring up another century of travel days this year, I’m sure it will provide just as many memorable experiences as my maiden ton on the road.

Peter Della Penna is a journalist based in New Jersey