Rey Sasaki, 12, of Lutherville runs after batting a ball in the Lutherville-Timonium Recreation Council's youth cricket program on June 30. (Photo by Steve Ruark / June 30, 2012)

On fields where baseball has been played for decades, young athletes last Saturday were unpacking bats and balls for a friendly game on the diamond.

But it wasn't America's pastime.

Youngsters in the Lutherville-Timonium Recreation Council were playing a game better known to athletes from other parts of the world: cricket.

And the sport is already taking hold. In June, the rec council welcomed 20 players to its first session at Ridgely Middle School. Two weeks later, nearly 30 young athletes showed up for the June 30 session.

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"This is the first time that cricket has been attempted in this area," said Jamie Harrison, founder and president of the U.S. Youth Cricket Association.

"In the LTRC program, we're getting three or four more kids per session," he said.

Harrison first got involved with cricket when he was teaching U.S. History at the now-defunct Cardinal Gibbons High School. On a field trip to Richmond, he wound up as a participant in a cricket demonstration.

Now, it's one of his main missions in life to make cricket more accessible to young people, and for the association, Maryland is fertile ground.

"We distributed approximately 500 sets of cricket kits to schools in the state," Harrison said. "Our goal was to get kids who had been exposed to cricket in school physical education programs involved in their local youth sports programs."

That strategy seems to be working at Ridgely Middle. The LTRC program meets twice a week, gathering on Tuesdays, 6 to 8 p.m., and Saturdays, 9-11 a.m. Most players are between the ages of 8 and 12, and few had any previous exposure to cricket outside of a physical education class.

But several have been influenced by parents, such as Richard Ugarte, who grew up with the game. The Anneslie resident played the sport in England, where participation in cricket and rugby were mandatory.

"It introduces them to a game that is played a lot in the rest of the world," Ugarte said as he watched his 9-year old son, James, at his first formal practice. "This is a World Cup and Olympic-level sport in places like England, India, Pakistan, the whole British Commonwealth.

"It's basically like baseball, except for a little more action," he said.

Shielded from the sun by his New York Yankees cap, James seemed to enjoy the game he and his father had played informally on several occasions.

"I like whacking the ball as hard as I can," James said. "If the ball is in the right spot, I can get a six-pointer (the cricket equivalent of baseball's home run). It's a lot more fun here because I get to play with more people."

While James got his first cricket tips from his father, he also credited his friend Raja Herman for raising his interest in the sport. Raja, whose family hails from Trinidad, was introduced to the game during beach vacations and began playing cricket a year ago.

"When I started liking it, my grandfather got me a book on the history of the West Indies," said the 10-year-old, who lives in North Baltimore. "I started playing more, and I've become an "all-rounder' — that's someone who can bowl (pitch) well and bat really good."

While cricket has been compared with baseball, there are noticeable differences. Instead of bases, there are two "wickets" or stations.

Batsmen take their place at each of the two wickets. The bowler (pitcher), who is much closer to the batsman than in baseball, throws the ball overhand without bending his elbow. As the ball bounces toward the wicket, the batter chooses to hit or take the pitch.

Even if the batsman strikes the ball, he does not have to run. But if he believes that he can make it safely to the other wicket, the batsman takes off. At that time, the other batsman also must run from his wicket.