April 17, 2011

Have kit, will play

The US Youth Cricket Association has started giving out free cricket equipment to schools. It may not seem much but it's a start as more and more schools put in requests for kit and training

It's a peaceful and sunny spring day in upstate New York, far from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. The rest of the state outside of the five boroughs of New York City is an alternate universe of sorts. Much of it is quaint and quiet, with gently rolling hills and sprawling green pastures.

Cross River is a town in this alternate universe, situated in Westchester County, about 15 miles north of Chappaqua, home of Bill and Hillary Clinton. A group of sixth graders at John Jay Middle School are using the afternoon to embody that spirit of living in an alternate universe. While their peers do warm-ups for lacrosse, athletics and baseball practice, about 20 kids have seized the centre of the football field to play cricket for the very first time, with new equipment provided by the US Youth Cricket Association (USYCA).

"It was awesome and it was a great experience," 12-year-old Lily Gengler said. Lily was the only girl in the group of kids, but wore one of the biggest smiles after the day was through. She said she'd love to play the sport again and when asked why, three of her classmates jumped in and chorused, "Because it's fun!"

USYCA president Jamie Harrison is one of the men responsible for delivering that fun. Harrison, a 46-year-old Maryland native, first encountered cricket as a history teacher three years ago when he took his class on a field trip to Virginia. A historical re-enactment of a cricket match caught his students' attention and by the end of the day, the discussion on the bus ride home revolved around runs and wickets instead of the founding fathers.

Harrison wanted to support his students so they started the first high school cricket team in Maryland in 2009. Unfortunately, it was shut down in 2010 in the wake of the economic recession. Harrison's passion didn't die, though, and less than a year after founding and becoming the president of the USYCA, he has become the point man for schools across America looking to learn and play cricket.

"In the last month, I've gotten email requests from schools in 50 different school districts across the country," Harrison said. "Anchorage, Alaska, wants cricket sets in their schools. The last count was, in over 25 states we've had schools get cricket sets from us, or at least they put the request in."

The USYCA is committed to donating at least one set to any school that makes a request. This has helped eliminate an obstacle for some schools that otherwise would not have had the opportunity to experience cricket, such as Highland Park, William Paca and Kenmoor Elementary Schools in Prince George's County, Maryland.

"These schools are all low-income schools," said Charles Silberman, a physical education teacher who has taught cricket at all three aforementioned schools. "They deal with poverty issues. Some of them are really struggling, their families are struggling. So something like this that doesn't have a cost barrier to get into is really exciting."

For schools at the other end of the financial spectrum like John Jay, there is always the option to purchase more sets.

Harrison has been shrewd in making the right connections to forward his cause. He reached out to Cricket Australia, who put him in contact with the company that produces cricket sets for the Milo in2Cricket programme, who donated 500 sets to USYCA for distribution. Harrison also got Damien Martyn, Nathan Bracken and Mike Young to speak up for the USYCA mission. Bracken's Twitter page currently features him and his son wearing USYCA t-shirts.

All this help is making an impact, and Harrison hopes that more goodwill is on the way in order to keep up with the increasing demand from schools that have caught the cricket bug.

"Those 500 sets are going to be exhausted sometime this summer," Harrison said. "They'll be all shipped out. We're going to have to find someone who is willing, either from a completely altruistic standpoint or because they see the vehicle we can become for them… someone who is willing to donate so we can purchase the next 500 sets, because the schools are asking for them as fast as we can send them out. I'd love to see USACA and the ICC get involved and say this is a worthy cause and this is going to make a difference in bringing cricket to the United States and making America a cricket-playing nation."

It's one thing to send cricket kits to the schools that request them. It's another to actually show up and explain how they're supposed to be used. The USYCA does its best to contact a local cricket club and coordinate with them to personally deliver the kits while giving a brief tutorial on both the history and rules of the game.

At John Jay, the instruction was provided by Rakesh Kallem, president of West Haven CC in Connecticut and a board member of the USYCA, and his West Haven CC club mate Satyapal Salla. The two men drove 90 minutes in order to put on a demo, where they emphasised having fun rather than bogging the kids down with terminology.

"The focus has been to bring awareness but not to expect too much from these kids yet because they are still trying to pick up a game," Kallem said. Most of the kids said after the demo that the hardest thing to understand was running with the bat instead of dropping it after hitting the ball. Other baseball tendencies could be observed, as they begged to be the next "pitcher", and cocked the bat above their shoulder before taking a swing.

On the flip side, the sixth graders quickly picked up on the fact that it was okay to leave a ball alone if it wasn't going to hit the stumps. There were hardly any run-outs either, as the communication between players after hitting the ball was impressive, as well as the patience and understanding to know when not to run. The fielding and catching were superb, showing that kids who grow up developing good hand-eye coordination in other sports can transfer that easily into cricket.

"I thought it was a lot more complicated, but when they explained it, it made life and everything a lot easier," Gengler said.

Kim Mammoser, the physical education teacher at the school who contacted the USYCA to come and put on the demonstration, was encouraged by the game after watching it being played for the first time. Even though she originally intended to have the cricket kits just for intramurals and recess, she wants to start putting the game into her PE classes too.

"I just think it requires everyone to be on board," Mammoser said. "It just keeps the kids moving more with the sprinting back and forth, game strategy, communication. As far as character building between the kids goes, they need to work together to get the ball in. I think it would be a good addition to our programme."

For Jamie Harrison and the USYCA, making sure cricket becomes a good addition not just at John Jay Middle School but at schools across America is the top priority.

Peter Della Penna is a journalist based in New Jersey