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Cricket: Fact and Fiction

[Piotr Redlinski, The New York Times]

I mentioned some time back Joseph O’Neill’s 2008 novel Netherland and my great regard for it. The novel’s narrator, a Dutchman working for a London bank, is assigned to its New York branch. The story centers not on his banking life but on his cricket life, as he joins Caribbean and South Asian teammates at Randolph Walker Park in Staten Island and befriends the astonishing character Chuck Ramkissoon. Here, five pages in, is the start of O’Neill’s description of the pitch:

By the standards I brought to it, Walker Park was a very poor place for cricket. The playing area was, and I am sure still is, half the size of a regulation cricket field. The outfield is uneven and always overgrown, even when cut (once, chasing a ball, I nearly tripped over a hidden and, to cricketers, ominous duck), and whereas proper cricket, as one might call it, is played on a grass wicket, the pitch at Walker Park is made of clay, not turf, and must be covered with coconut matting; moreover the clay is pale sandy baseball clay, not red cricket clay, and its bounce cannot be counted on to stay true for long; and to the extent that the bounce is true, it lacks variety and complexity.

Netherland is a wonderful novel. If you haven’t read it, be sure to. But also, be sure not to miss the article in the local pages of today’s NYT on a recent match at Walker Park. As author Alan Feuer explains:

On July 18, 1886, The New York Times — as it often did in those pocket-watch-and-frock-coat days — reported on a cricket match, a big one, played between the Staten Island Cricket Club and a visiting squad from Merion, Pa. The occasion was the debut competition at the Staten Island field, although, by all accounts, it was a miserable display.

Not one member of the Merion team managed to post a score in the double digits, and even by the end of one full inning, fewer than 80 runs — a disastrous performance — had been made. “Neither team,” the disappointed Times reporter sniffed, “was fairly representative.”

After that embarrassing exhibition, the field on Staten Island might have suffered the fate that would eventually consume more legendary ballparks, like the Polo Grounds in Harlem or Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. It did not; late last month, in fact, a remarkable, if quiet, blow was struck for the intransigence of Staten Island cricket. The same two teams, in their batting pads and boonie caps and ageless Slazenger field whites, stepped out again onto the pitch and reprised the historic game.

It was, as people said all day, approaching the 125th year of continual cricket at the field, once a portion of the Delafield estate but now owned by the city and known as Walker Park. The players who came out that day were not the British officers of yore, but Bangladeshi cabbies, Indian computer engineers and a Pakistani man who owns an auto-body shop. The Ladies’ Outdoor Amusement Club was not on hand to administer refreshments. Instead, there was D.J. Ralphie, of the so-called Chutney Bastards, blasting rowdy soca from a laptop.

The world described by Feuer is very much that of O’Neill’s novel. See also the accompanying slide show.

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