It's been a summer of strange in the south of Victoria, Australia's second most populous state. Victoria is normally prone to dry summers, where temperatures march relentlessly into the mid-40s Celsius, but this year rain and wet weather have loitered about since winter.
In similar fashion, the cricket match at the Melbourne University Oval was unlike any other that had been hosted by the Australian Cricket Society. The Oval, boasting a field that could easily have been mistaken for a long-lost relative of the MCG's magnificent carpet, was graced by a cricket team that, as cricket teams go, was a compliment to the ground hosting them.
The Compton Cricket Club, also known as the Homies & the POPz, is an XI that can lay claim to being one of the most unique in cricket. If playing the game in Los Angeles seems like a fanciful idea at the best of times, the Compton CC will change the way you view the gentlemen's game in America forever. They have received letters from the likes of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams (after they reportedly made a "decisive contribution" to the Good Friday Peace talks through the exchange of a cricket bat and hurling stick), and have been hosted by Prince Edward at Windsor Castle. They were the first club from North America to tour Australia, and are the first touring side from there to consist of players born and bred in the United States. Not bad for a club with no home ground, and players who were teetering on the edge of social irresponsibility across the urban veld that is Compton, Los Angeles.
It all began when Katy Haber, British expat and Hollywood producer, asked activist and soon to be co-conspirator Ted Hayes an innocuous question in 1995. They had met previously in 1993, when Haber was doing a workshop on the homeless for the Creative Coalition NGO, and even though they had then worked together in close quarters for two years, the question Haber was asking Hayes was one he never heard before: "Ted, will you play cricket on Saturday?"
The Beverly Hills Cricket Club (BHCC) was a man short for their match against the Hollywood Cricket Club, and had called Haber, who was the secretary of the BAFTA LA cricket team, to see if there was anyone available willing to play. When Haber couldn't find anyone, she turned to Hayes, who asked, "What's cricket?" She replied, "Well, it's an English game and it's very much like baseball, but instead of running around in circles you run up and down." After much persuasion, Hayes found himself opening the batting.
At the time, Hayes happened to boast a head of proud dreadlocks, which led his new team-mates to assume Haber had brought them a West Indian ringer. When Hayes dropped his bat and ran towards point (or first base) upon hitting the first ball he received, the penny dropped. But while the start of Hayes' cricketing career was curious, he was immediately hooked.
Sixteen years later the Compton Cricket Club, founded by Haber and Hayes, has toured England four times, and they brought their own brand of cricket to Australia this year. So what is it about the game that appeals to the American heart?
"I like the tactical ploys. You can set fields in a certain manner and actually shut down a great batsman with a good bowler and field set. You just don't get that in a lot of sports," says Theo Hayes, Compton's captain for the tour and Ted's eldest son. A founding member, he has captained the side on and off since 2001, since Compton rotate the captaincy to give everyone an opportunity to lead. Theo takes the reins on tour since he has the most experience.
"Just play straight. Continue playing straight. Continue defending. And once the loose balls start coming the innings will open up. It's just like life. You got to keep on living and keep on struggling" Theo Hayes, Compton's captain in Australia, on the club's philosophy
What really attracted the Hayeses - Ted's younger son Isaac is also a member of the side - was, in Ted's words in an interview to the BBC, "the etiquette of cricket". "It civilises people and teaches us gentlemanliness. It teaches us how to compete, to win, but in a gentlemanly, respectful manner."
Theo elaborated: "It's giving someone options. You have a lot of children that are sitting around, waiting for their turn to die or go to prison or get pregnant there is a lot of idleness. So we went to Compton's elementary middle schools, telling people about cricket." He, Ted and Haber did seminars about how the game works and who they were as activists. "We had about 50 kids sign up, with 25 really sticking. We just started playing cricket with them and gave them the opportunity to do something different and to experience something other than sitting around waiting for a bad day."
What the pioneers at Compton CC found was that the majority of kids who came to those first practices were those who "didn't quite make the baseball team, kids that didn't fit in socially, kids that were looking for anything other than the gang. We had other guys that actually were in gangs but weren't enthralled so deeply into the mindset to a point where they couldn't get out."
To play cricket for Compton is to seek a life beyond the street. It is to seek a life of respect, a life of rising above anti-social behaviour. "Just play straight," Theo summed it up. "Continue defending. And once the loose balls start coming the innings will open up. And it's just like life. You got to keep on living and keep on struggling through what we're struggling through. Just keep on communicating, keep on networking, keep on having a good attitude, and sure enough, things will start to play out in your favour. But we have to be patient and that is why we say we're playing cricket on the field and off the field, not out."
Theo and Ted's words aren't hollow rhetoric. If you sat in the stands watching Compton's match at the University Oval against the Australian Cricket Society (whose wicketkeeper Chris Toat once raised A$30,000 for a children's cancer charity by shearing 835 sheep in 56 hours), you did not hear one word that had the tiniest sniff of a sledge. When Compton picked up wickets, they patted the departing batsman on the back and the new batsman onto the field - a sporting act that is often forgotten at club level. When the batsman hit a fine stroke, the Compton bowler complimented him. If a team-mate made an error in the field, there wasn't any shouting or hands on hips. There was only encouragement and then the next ball.
An important aspect of Compton's approach to the game has to do with music, specifically rap. Compton itself gained notoriety after NWA's debut 1988 album, Straight Outta Compton, popularised gangster rap, and has since had an influence on the evolution of West Coast hip hop. Compton CC's most well known song is "Bullets", with the group Cloth lending a hand in the video. On tour they have been performing "Bullets" and other songs in places such as the Newington College, one of the most prestigious boys schools in New South Wales, and the town of Harrow, the cricketing home of Johnny Mullagh, described on the occasion of his death in 1891 as "the [WG] Grace of aboriginal cricketers".
Theo sees rap as "the engine to our vehicle. It is what keeps everything going. You can sit around and talk about cricket and tell kids all day, 'Don't do this, don't do that. Be good,' and they'll remember it for a minute, but the bottomline is that they have to go back to their realities. That reality is what they hear on the radio. That reality is what they see on TV. It's time for the world to step up and say, 'Hey, music doesn't have to be so vain, it doesn't have to be so vulgar and everything doesn't have to be about glorifying or idealising romance. Let's be a little creative."'
Theo cites the likes of John Lennon, the Beatles, INXS and Jim Morrison as artists who looked deeply inwards towards their own thought process. "Gangsters like to rap about being gangsters, pimps rap about being pimps, hustlers rap about being hustlers. We're cricketers... and we rap about playing cricket."
Their performance in Harrow, where they also played a match against the Johnny Mullagh XI, wasn't so much a coincidence as it was a satisfaction of fate's desires. In 2001, when Compton were touring England, a chance encounter led to Homies & the POPz meeting the Aboriginal All Stars and Torres Strait Islanders cricket team - a newly established representative side containing Aboriginal cricketers from across New South Wales and Victoria - who were also touring England at the time. The Aboriginal team's original opponents for their fixture at the birth place of cricket, Hambledon, had to abandon the game. Luck would have it that the Homies & the POPz were in Hambledon at the same time. Upon hearing of their plight, Compton filled the void and took on the Australians.
It didn't work out too well for the Americans as Barry Firebrace, the opposition captain, a young 16-year-old at the time, made Compton chase leather all day, scoring 127. The Aboriginals went on to win the match, with the Homies & the POPz commemorating the event by burning their own "Ashes" and vowing to win them back one day. Ten years later Compton didn't win the Ashes back but they made many a friend along the way, with their music complementing their sportsmanship on the field. Firebrace is now employed as a cricket development officer, and both parties hope to cooperate on cricket development on either side of the Pacific in the future. Firebrace graced the Homies & the POPz by playing for them against the Australian Cricket Society.
Theo and the rest of the team hope that the increased exposure they have received due to the Australian tour will have a positive effect in the future. "My ultimate goal is to travel the world to cricket countries, promoting and celebrating cricket, raising money, so when I go back to the United States, we have a ton of resources, a ton of information, a ton of coaching, whatever we need to go back and say 'Hey look, this is what's happening all across the world. You guys want to be a part of this?'"
The game needs more teams like Compton to remind us that we are on that field to have fun and challenge ourselves. International matches might be the milk and honey of the game, but the Compton Cricket Club represents cricket's heart and soul. As Theo says, "How great a world would it be when everybody is playing cricket?"