Needham, Mass., the town where my family and I have lived for more than 25 years, is currently celebrating its 300th anniversary. On Sunday, one of the events connected with that celebration drew me to the same field where my daughters used to play soccer pretty well…and where I used to coach it badly. In the center of the field, half a dozen men were taping together several thin, rectangular concrete slabs. One of the men, Raja Tummla, who came to the U.S. from India 13 years ago, explained that he and the other fellows were trying render the soccer field temporarily fit for cricket.
“A cricket pitch usually needs a 22 yards and six feet wide surface which is hard,” he explained. “There should be no grass, and it should be hard enough so that the pitched ball bounces.”
The efforts of Raja Tummla and his colleagues were earnest, but he wasn’t promising success:
“You can see that the ball is not bouncing as much as we would like,” he said, after several tries. “We probably need more nails, to fix the concrete to the ground.”
I’d seen film of cricket matches and even part of a live match once near London, so I understood that the fellow called the “bowler” needed a hard surface off which he could deliver the ball on a bounce to the fellow who would try to hit it.
What I didn’t understand immediately was why anybody needed to prepare this soccer field, which, incidentally, has always been known as Cricket Field, fit for cricket. For an explanation I turned to Charlie Wright, the man responsible for the attempt at transformation. He began his explanation at the beginning:
“Cricket is a predominantly English sport,” he said. “It was invented in England in the 1600′s, and the early citizens of Needham were all of English descent, so they brought the game with them. They had other pitches in town, but this is the only one that’s actually stayed as it was, and it has kept the name, ‘Cricket Field.’”
Cricket was so successfully transplanted that for a time, Needham Heights was known as “the Cricket Capital of Massachusetts.” Those days, as Charlie Wright acknowledged, are long gone, but no less worth recalling for that.
“This is rare,” he said with a smile. “You never hear of any fields called ‘Cricket Field’ anymore. The majority of the residents in Needham still think it’s named after the insect.”
Once Wright and his colleagues on the committee planning the commemoration of Needham’s 300th birthday decided that a cricket match should be part of the fun, all they had to do was find two cricket teams. Wright discovered the existence of a cricket league operating in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, which is part of why he got to introduce the two sides on Sunday afternoon.
“They’re one of the largest teams in the country,” he shouted through a bullhorn…”in red, Boston Gymkhana. And in blue, their opponents, The New England Royals.”
Which team bats first is customarily decided by a coin toss…and once a coin had been located, Needham Selectman Dan Matthews tossed it.
The New England Royals won the toss and elected to field, rather than bat.
At that point it occurred to me that in at least one respect, cricket must be similar to baseball. Sure, the former only has two bases whereas the latter has four, and, sure, in cricket there seems to be no such thing as foul territory, and nobody in baseball is called left silly leg. But in both games, the team fielding first and, hence, batting last, has an advantage.
By the time Gymkhana and the Royals were set to begin play, a crowd of perhaps 100 people had gathered beside the pitch. I asked Raja Tummla how many people a regular league game might draw:
“Not many,” he said. “If it’s a good Sunday, we can count on 30, 40 people. Not more than that.”
“So it’s for love,” I said.
“Yes,” he said with a smile. “It’s for love of the game. Absolutely.”
So Sunday’s game could boast a better-than-average turnout, at least by Gymkhana Club standards. But how much did the people on these sidelines know about what they were watching? If Needham resident Cliff Hayden was representative, not much.
“I know nothing about the sport,” he admitted cheerfully. “So I’m just gonna learn and watch and enjoy, and see what it’s like. I’ve read a few of these English novels, so I sort of know the story of cricket, but I’ve never watched a game in action. It’ll be fun.”
And Cliff Hayden was right. It was fun…albeit sometimes a little mysterious…
An announcement indicating that the action had stopped because the batter had stepped out of the crease, at which point the wicket keeper had failed in his attempt to dislodge some bales, had fans turned to each other for explanations they were unlikely to find.
I was among those who didn’t know a bale from a wicket, but even I could see from the scoreboard that this game had become hopelessly lopsided. I mentioned that unfortunate circumstance to one of the Gymkhana players who was helping the guy with the bullhorn to explain what was happening.
“It’s 24 to nothing,” I said. “This is terrible.”
“No, it’s a very good start,” I was told.
And then something happened on the field and the player told me I’d jinxed his team. I apologized, and he graciously accepted my apology.
“It’s okay,” he said.
The bowling, batting, and wicket-keeping went on throughout the afternoon. Some cricket matches are designed to go on for days, and some end without a result. This one lasted a matter of hours, and the result would be close: Gymkanna 101, New England Royals 100.
As the game was winding down, I asked Sai Yammada of the winning side whether all the Gymkhana players were from India:
“Yes,” he said. “Almost all of us are from India. Last year we had a couple of guys from Australia, and one guy from England, which are cricket-playing nations. Occasionally we have some players from the West Indies. They play pretty good cricket.”
I wondered if there were no players in the league who didn’t come from cricket-playing nations because perspective players born in the U.S. had too many other sports from which to choose.
“Yes,” he said. “Also there’s no business yet in cricket in this part of the world. In India, two billion people watch cricket, but here the audience is less, sponsors are less, and the game has to me more popular in order to draw players.”
It was impossible to tell whether Sunday’s contest resulted in any progress along that line. But the two teams put on a fine display of the game under circumstances that must have been challenging: a pitch they’d had to cobble together with tape and nails, and an audience that had very little idea of when to cheer. Still, it seemed safe to assume that Charlie Wright and the rest of the people who’d organized the match were probably pleased. On the occasion of the town’s three hundredth birthday, they’d managed to arrange the re-creation of a bit of Needham’s history, even if it hadn’t involved anybody who was English, and some number of the citizens who’d dropped by to watch probably understand now that Cricket Field wasn’t named after an insect.