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T20 sparks a fire among New York's schools

The city's Public Schools Athletic League is the only high school cricket tournament in the USA. Now eight seasons old, its popularity hasn't stopped growing

John Adams celebrate after clinching the 2014 title  •  Peter Della Penna

John Adams celebrate after clinching the 2014 title  •  Peter Della Penna

In 2008, an upstart T20 league was formed in one of the world's biggest economies. The season kicks off every April and since its inception has grown dramatically. Some of its domestic stars, who were previously anonymous, have performed so well that they have been picked to represent their country. Based on the organisational prowess of its administrators, some consider it to be the best-run cricket league in the country. And no, it isn't the Indian Premier League.
The New York Public Schools Athletic League (PSAL) high school cricket competition is wrapping up its eighth season this month. A crown jewel for junior cricket in America, it is the only high school cricket competition in the USA. Headed by commissioner Bassett Thompson, assistant commissioner Ricky Kissoon, and PSAL cricket coordinator Lorna Austin, the league began with 14 teams in year one. Student interest was so strong that the number jumped to 22 teams in year two, and it kept growing - to 30 teams today, a number held steady over the last two years mainly due to budget restrictions.
"We could have 60," says Thompson, 56, who also serves as the director of track and field events at the New York City Armory. "A lot of schools apply and the PSAL says they don't have the money to fund it. The competition is fierce. It's right up there with any other sport."
"I played adult league cricket at that age because there was no youth cricket," Kissoon, who came to New York as a teenager from Guyana in 1989, says. "I played alongside my father for Cosmos Cricket Club in the Metropolitan League, and we still play together. Not because I work for them, but compared to other local leagues, the PSAL is at the highest level in terms of organisation."
One of the main reasons the league is such a remarkable success story is the dearth of youth cricket in general across the USA. According to the last ICC Associate and Affiliate member data census in 2013, the country only has 975 registered junior players nationwide. That's about 19 per state, not even enough for every state to field two teams to play against each other. Yet about half of USA's junior players nationwide are concentrated in the PSAL circuit.
A vast number of players are first-generation immigrants from the West Indies and South Asia. Newcomers High School, the PSAL champions from the first two seasons, derives its name from the fact that the majority of its students have literally just arrived in the USA. While many schools have traditional nicknames, like Hawks (Hillcrest), Spartans (John Adams) or Bulldogs (Long Island City), Lafayette Educational Complex's sports teams are called the X-Pats.
However, about half the coaches are NYC high school teachers are either American or from an ethnic background not typically associated with cricket. PSAL administrators have been diligent about contacting the ICC Americas office in Toronto to facilitate coach education courses. The first was run in 2011 by then ICC Americas development officer and now current Nottinghamshire bowling coach Andy Pick. Another was conducted by Tom Evans in 2013 in order to help coaches newer to the game who wanted to build their strategic base and bridge the gap with the players they are coaching.
Any notion that coaches had to hail from a traditional cricket-playing heritage was shattered in year one. Newcomers head coach Christina Cavaliere was an established girls' basketball coach but had never worked in cricket before, yet she helped guide the boys team to the 2008 PSAL championship. The losing coach in the 2008 final, Alex Navarrete of John Adams, came to the USA from Uruguay when he was a teenager, and spent most of his time coaching soccer in the fall and swimming in the winter, but seized a chance to take up cricket in the spring.
"Our school has a big population of kids from the West Indies, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan so I was always curious," Navarrete says. "I'm a gym teacher so most of my kids would say, 'You never play cricket with us.' I said, 'No, but I'm curious, so how do you play?' 'It's easy coach.' So when they brought it into the PSAL as a proposal, Adams was one of the few schools that said yes, absolutely. We got signatures and we wanted to put up a team in the league."
While other title-winning teams like Newcomers and Long Island City - undefeated champions in 2012 to winless in 2015 - have watched their fortunes see-saw after reaching the summit, Navarrete is the only PSAL cricket coach to go through all eight years without a losing record in the regular season. After three runner-up finishes in 2008, 2009 and 2012, John Adams finally came out on top in 2014, beating Hillcrest by 37 runs in the final. The Spartans are back in the 2015 title game against Richmond Hill for a chance to repeat.
"These coaches that you see, a lot of people may want to criticise them and say they don't know what they're doing," Kissoon says, referring to jealousy-tinged jibes spouted by private academy coaches from outside the PSAL. "They weren't familiar with the game of cricket but they learn a lot from the kids as well."
"He inspired me and backed me when I was down," star player Derick Narine said of Navarrete after winning the 2014 final with John Adams. Narine grew up in Guyana but moved to New York in 2013, making an immediate impact in his first season by scoring a record 1005 runs at an average of 71.79, including four centuries. He says the team wouldn't have won if it hadn't been for Navarrete. "He's just been there. When I needed someone, he was just there to help me. Although he doesn't come from a cricket background, he's still a good coach."
While John Adams is the cream of the crop, some schools have found the competition a struggle. Maspeth joined in 2014 and has yet to record a win. In ten games during their inaugural season, they tallied a total of 303 runs, with 208 of them coming in extras, which top-scored in every game. Their season high of 57, against Newtown, was aided by 39 extras. Out of a possible 100 wickets, 56 were ducks and six were out hit-wicket.
However, Maspeth demonstrated incremental improvement this year and passed 100 for the first time (126) against Queens High School of Teaching. Though they lost by six wickets, opener Uros Petrovic turned in the team's best ever individual score, of 45, including nine boundaries. Maspeth only needs to look at Springfield Gardens for further inspiration. After going 1-11 in their inaugural season in 2013, Springfield Gardens went 8-4 in 2014 and 10-3 in this year's regular season, earning a No. 4 seed in the playoffs before losing in the quarter-finals to Brooklyn International. On the whole, Thompson says he has seen major strides made not just from the players but also in terms of the logistical aspects of the league.
"At Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, they invested [$15 million] to create cricket-only grounds," Thompson says. Others like Gateway, Baisley, and Idlewild Park have either been opened or redeveloped in recent times in Queens, where 16 of the 30 PSAL teams are located. It has lessened the strain on securing permits for spaces occupied by the adult leagues. "Since I started in 2008, there's a lot of cricket-only grounds that have been established which has been a great help to the PSAL."
Currently all matches are played on matting wickets and scheduling issues occur when games are rain-affected, particularly when trying to cram in 20 overs before darkness in the spring for 4pm weekday starts. Austin says the ideal solution would be the construction of a proper turf stadium facility with floodlights, which would put the cricket PSAL final on the same platform as the city finals in other high school sports.
"We have our other sports that are showcased," Austin says. "We have had basketball [PSAL final] at the Barclays Center and Madison Square Garden. We have our baseball game at Yankee Stadium. A soccer stadium is being built in New York City so why not cricket? Cricket is a big sport but I think a lot of people don't see it as a big sport."
Whether there is fanfare or not, Thompson is most proud of the opportunities the PSAL cricket league has provided to kids who otherwise might not have had a chance to experience high school sports. As a part of that, students have to maintain a minimum passing grade in five courses to remain eligible to play sports as an extracurricular activity, which Thompson says has acted as a motivator for kids to stay focused and commit to academics.
"All these kids want to play cricket, especially the ones who don't play any other sport," Thompson says. "You speak with the coaches and they say cricket makes such a big difference in the schools. All the kids do their best to pass to play cricket. I've had kids come up to me and say, 'Mr Commissioner, I thank God every day for PSAL cricket. If it wasn't for PSAL cricket, I know I wouldn't graduate high school.' They graduate on time, stay focused because they want to play cricket and it's a good feeling inside when they tell you that."
Thompson beams with satisfaction when recounting that anecdote, more satisfied than he is by the half-dozen former PSAL players like John Adams' Randall Wilson, Franklin D Roosevelt's Zahib Tariq, and Martin Van Buren's Amarnauth Persaud who have gone on to play for USA junior national teams, more satisfied than by the national and international attention the league has received for its unique place not just in New York City but in the USA. It's not something he could have imagined while attending Franklin K Lane High School after moving to New York from Jamaica at 15, but four decades later they are one of 30 teams in the New York PSAL cricket league. Now that it has arrived, Thompson can't imagine cricket ever disappearing from the PSAL fraternity.
"When I was in high school here, I was hoping it would happen but I didn't think it was going to happen," Thompson says. "Thank God it did happen and it's here to stay."

Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent. @PeterDellaPenna