February 17, 2011

Then & Now – What sparks an athlete’s hopes and dreams

Last week in Florida, Cameron Mirza, the 17-year-old batsman, set a USA Under-19 record for an individual score by finishing unbeaten on 118 against Argentina at the ICC Americas U-19 tournament

Last week in Florida, Cameron Mirza, the 17-year-old batsman, set a USA Under-19 record for an individual score by finishing unbeaten on 118 against Argentina at the ICC Americas U-19 tournament. Mirza’s story is fascinating from the standpoint that the New Jersey native never knew anything about the sport until four years ago when he stumbled across a game his dad was watching on television.

It took me back to January when I was covering the USA senior team in Hong Kong at the ICC World Cricket League Division Three. On the second day of the tournament against Denmark, a 12-year-old fan Ryan Schimpf attended the match with his father Eric. The Schimpf family is originally from Atlanta but Eric’s work had taken them last year to Sydney. Ryan had got into cricket through friends at his new school and his father wanted to stay involved, so he became a volunteer umpire. In the process, Eric became well-schooled in the game’s laws. For anyone who is curious, neither one of these born and bred Americans thought cricket was hard to learn.

Being patriotic Americans, they followed the success of USA’s cricket team online from Australia and when they found out that USA were going to be competing in relatively nearby Hong Kong, they decided to fly up to attend some of the matches. While they were surprised to learn they were the only fans in attendance supporting USA’s fortunes, Ryan was probably equally surprised to be given a ball autographed by the entire USA squad. He also got his picture taken with captain Steve Massiah and coach Clayton Lambert, a former Test player for the West Indies.

Ryan is a year younger than Mirza was when he started playing, yet from the few glimpses I saw of Ryan playing some shots in front of the USA tent, he seemed to have a pretty good technique for a 12-year-old who has only just discovered the game. Handing away a signed ball and taking a picture with a random boy probably won’t make the top 100 moments in the lives of either Massiah or Lambert. But to a 12-year-old, it could mean the world and provide the spark that sets off a path to greater accomplishments.

Malcolm Gladwell has written about some of these things in his books, analyzing what sparks and leads to certain phenomenon. One seemingly innocent moment can be a catalyst for a massive change in someone’s life. I stepped off a plane in Brisbane on July 22, 2005, having never seen a cricket match in my life. I was looking to pass the time in between a connecting flight to Cairns and walked up to a newsstand to buy a copy of the Sydney Morning Herald. Ricky Ponting’s cut and bleeding face was splashed across the front page with the headline “Bloody Hell – These Poms Mean Business.”

Nearly six years later, I’m entrenched full-time in cricket journalism. What would have happened if George Gregan was on the front page of that newspaper instead of Ponting? Would I have become consumed by rugby and never thought once about cricket?

Ice hockey was my biggest passion growing up so when I talk about cricket to my friends, I often compare it to ice hockey rather than baseball. There’s a famous photo of Wayne Gretzky as a kid with Gordie Howe in which Howe pulls Gretzky close by tugging at the young boy’s neck with a hockey stick. Gretzky wore No 9 growing up, Howe’s number, until it was occupied by another teammate in junior hockey. Gretzky then chose No 99 as a tribute to Howe and it became perhaps the most famous jersey number in sports, more so than Michael Jordan’s No 23. Lots of players on lots of teams in lots of sports wore No 23 before Jordan arrived, but as an Upper Deck ad said upon Gretzky’s retirement, “If we live another 99 years, we’ll never see another one.” Gretzky was already breaking records as a kid, but perhaps that one moment meeting his hero Howe is what spurred Gretzky on to greatness and led to him to smashing Howe’s scoring records.

Who knows what the future holds for Cameron Mirza and Ryan Schimpf. Mirza apparently crossed paths with Michael Clarke in England last summer while playing club cricket. Clarke was touring England as part of the Australia team. Mirza received a source of inspiration after seeing one of Clarke’s many tattoos. Stenciled on one of Clarke’s forearms in Arabic, the English translation means, “The pain of discipline is nothing like the pain of disappointment.” Less than a year later, that inspiration led to Mirza setting the record. It would be equally fascinating to see Schimpf represent USA one day, sparked by a chance moment watching a match in Hong Kong.

Peter Della Penna is a journalist based in New Jersey