“Keep it up, boys! Just inside!” come the yells from the sideline of Jordan Field. It’s half past six on the first truly cold Saturday night in October, and Harvard is beating Yale, 100 to nothing.
“Go Crimson!” one muted voice cheers from the stands. A few other spectators take their hands out of their coat pockets to clap.
“So…what exactly is going on right now?” I ask the man standing to my right, my Internet-encyclopedia knowledge of the sport having failed me. Cricket, I’ve realized, is a complicated game.
“That one’s a four,” he tells me about whatever has just occurred. As it turns out, the “four” is in reference to the number of runs the batter has just scored by hitting the ball to the edge of the field, no running involved. Cricket seems like a quainter version of baseball at first: a batter runs when he hits the ball, and whichever team gets the most runs wins the match. But the vocabulary of the sport—bowlers who bowl the ball to strikers, strikers who attempt to hit the ball before it hits the wicket, non-strikers waiting, bat in hand, to make runs for the striker, not to mention overs and innings and leg byes—has proved a tough language to learn.
It’s Freshman Parent’s Weekend, but it is clear that my translator, Vijay Kuchroo, would be here at the Harvard Cricket Club match anyway. “I taught him to play cricket in the driveway,” he says, smiling and pointing out his son, Manik R. Kuchroo ’15. Kuchroo’s father played cricket in India and Australia during his university years, before he had a driveway in Newton, Mass. In both places, Kuchroo says, “Everybody plays.”
Ibrahim A. Khan ’14, the captain of Harvard’s team, echoes Kuchroo’s sentiments when speaking of his own youth in Pakistan. “Cricket is big in Lahore, where I grew up. I think I started playing at three or four with a plastic bat and ball,” Khan recalls. Most cricket players begin with a tennis ball or a plastic one. The real thing, made of hard cork wrapped in red leather with a seam of white thread running across its middle, tends to be dangerous when it comes in contact with a player’s head.
Even so, cricketers start early. Tyrel C. Dat ’14 describes the sport as a constant presence in his hometown of Queens, NY, where large numbers of West Indian immigrants have brought the game to the city’s parks. “It’s either you play baseball or you play cricket,” he says. Dat remembers going to watch his older cousins play the game before picking up a bat. “I wasn’t necessarily the biggest fan of cricket at that age, but I was the biggest fan of my cousins,” he explains. “Eventually, watching turned into participating.”
Dat played in a cricket league in high school, but he did not expect to continue in college. “I figured that once I left Queens, that would be it for cricket,” he says. By chance, though, he arrived at Harvard the same year as Khan, who was looking to reactivate a dormant group that used to play in the Malkin Athletic Center. “The first challenge was to get a critical mass going to get people interested in cricket,” Khan remembers.
As Khan got the word out and Harvard approved the new club team, attendance grew and practices became more regular. By Khan’s sophomore year, the team began to outgrow the confines of the gym. “At the end of last year, I said, ‘Look, we can take this to the next level,’” Khan explains of the impetus behind his search for a proper competitive league.
The Harvard team received confirmation over the summer that they had been accepted to American College Cricket, the only formal league for university cricketers in the United States. Being a part of a league meant getting more serious about the sport, especially with the qualification tournament of the ACC North East Championship looming in early October. “We knew we only had a month to prepare for it after we got back from school,” Khan explains. In the fall, the team began practicing regularly seven hours a week, and scheduled matches with Boston University and Williams College.
They won both games. And when they headed to New York for the ACC tournament, they defeated Princeton and Long Island University to land a spot in the tournament’s final four, qualifying for the televised semifinal and final rounds that are set to take place during the last weekend of the month.
For the members of the Harvard Cricket Club, the success is unexpected. “It’s surprising that we haven’t lost a game,” says Londoner Yaaser Vanderman, a one-year master’s student at Harvard Law School. “I didn’t know at what level we would be,” says Kuchroo, who took a gap year to play cricket in India. “Evidently, we’re very good,” he observes.
According to members of the team, being “very good” at cricket is as mental as it is physical. “There’s talent involved, but there’s also a lot of brainwork,” Kuchroo explains. “You bat until you get out, essentially. It takes a lot of focus,” he says. Khan agrees that a good player must be quick to adapt to an ever-changing game. “You’re always on your toes,” he says.
The other side of brainwork is “sledging,” the breed of trash talking that’s integral to cricket matches. With the referee far off in the field, it’s easy for the wicket-keeper to pester the striker. “You’re just trying to get into their minds to make them to concentrate not on their batting,” Vanderman explains. He also points to another purpose: to combat boredom on the pitch during long games. “Otherwise, you’re just standing in the field for ages,” he says. As for the Harvard team, he continues, “We’re quite good at it.”
Like everything else about cricket, sledging is designed to be clever, not crude. Largely developed within eighteenth century England, the modern sport has lost many of the class implications of the “gentleman’s game,” but it still carries the rules—written and unwritten—that speak to its history. “On the field, you never swear. You always have your shirt tucked in,” Dat says of pitch decorum. He continues, “You don’t wear black shoes or black socks—that’s just disrespectful to the game.”
Back at Jordan Field, my crash course in cricket continues. “Dad, watch what happens now,” Kuchroo calls up to his father as the next batter practices his swings on the field, showing off for the small crowd.
The bowler sends the ball his way, and the batter goes for it. The ball flies and makes hard contact with the window of the press box before clinking down the metal bleachers and onto the ground. The assembled parents and friends let out a collective guffaw. On the bench it’s whistling, back-slapping, howling.
“He chipped the bat!” a voice calls out among the clamor as the striker heads over to the side of the field to exchange it for another. Apparently, it’s a borrowed one.
“Your bat’s done!” he says, shrugging and handing the chipped willow to a teammate.
The bystander who rushed under the bleachers emerges, ball in hand, and runs it back to the field. “Cricket is not like baseball. You have to give the ball back,” says Kuchroo’s father, his eyes still on the game. “As it gets older, it spins better.”