Gibbons kids go to bat for sport

The Baltimore Sun

A former pitcher, Cardinal Gibbons senior Will Foy says the national pastime simply can't compare with the age-old sport of cricket.

"It's pretty much baseball, minus the boring parts," he said.

Despite its mainstream popularity in dozens of countries, cricket in the U.S. is largely viewed as a relic. More than a century after giving way to its American-born cousin, however, the sport is making a bit of a comeback, with Gibbons students such as Foy hoping to lead the way.

"There are a lot of people who might say: 'Oh, that sport is weird. ... I'm not interested.' But once they see it, they love it," Gibbons senior Justin Bruchey said.

Bruchey was among several students at the school who in April took part in a Civil War field trip to Richmond, Va. While there, they witnessed a live demonstration of the game.

Eager to form their own teams, 40 students signed up to play intramurally, paying $50 each. When the father of a Gibbons alum became aware of the interest, he went to a specialty store in Mumbai, India, while visiting relatives and had a pallet of cricket gear shipped to the school.

"Our boys were taught the game, and they all fell in love with it immediately," said Gibbons history teacher Jamie Harrison, who led the field trip. "The reason was that there were no balls and strikes, so you could just keep hitting and hitting. In baseball, it's easy to get outs and harder to get runs. In cricket, it's easy to score runs and hard to make outs."

First developed in England during the 1700s, the sport has some similarities to baseball, but there also are several striking differences. For one, the bulk of the action takes place in the center of a large grassy field, with no foul territory.

The pitcher, known as the bowler, uses a straight-armed, overhead motion to bounce the ball toward a wicket - three small wooden stumps placed in the ground - attempting to knock off a wooden crosspiece known as a "bail."

An offensive player, using a flat-headed bat, tries to defend the wicket by making contact with the ball. He continues to bat until he makes an out. Batters score by running back and forth between the wickets - which are 22 yards apart - while the ball is in play.

Contested under original rules, a match could go on for days, with scores in the hundreds. In more recent times, however, rules have placed limits on the number of throws taken by each team, making the sport more palatable for players and spectators.

Another reason for the sport's popularity among the students at Gibbons, Harrison said, is that cricket is more about skill and strategy than athletic ability.

"Kids who aren't your typical jocks - kids who aren't going to make it on the regular teams - can perhaps be very good cricket players," he said.

For example, Harrison said, a new player who wasn't particularly athletic recently joined the team. Within a week of learning how to play, he batted for a half-hour, an exceptionally long time for a beginner.

While students from a handful of private schools in the area have formed unofficial, and largely unorganized, cricket clubs, Gibbons is hoping its efforts eventually will lead to a full-fledged high school cricket league.

Last spring, the New York City Department of Education established cricket as a varsity sport, and more than 600 students participate. For many, it's a unique opportunity to continue playing the sport they grew up with in places such as India, Pakistan, England and South Africa.

At Gibbons, however, not a single member of the team had played before this year. Instead, players learned by watching hours of video on the Internet and were even tutored by members of the adult Baltimore Cricket Club.

Saturday, the best of the school's four teams - clad in white polo shirts and colored hats - played for their own school championship. After getting bumped to a practice field for much of their season, the teams finally took center stage at the school's football stadium.

"We consider ourselves a real team," said Bruchey, who had never played an organized sport. "We have the same trash talk; we have the same feelings as the football players, baseball players and soccer players. It's just that we're not an [official] sport."

Added Foy, who also plays varsity soccer and lacrosse: "If you look at the people who play it, I'd say probably about 60 percent of them are not athletes. It's a lot about strategy. Athletic ability definitely helps, but if you just play it smart, you can score a lot of points."

Gibbons is hoping to take the sport to the masses by issuing challenges to area schools in the spring.

"We're going to tell them: 'You can borrow our equipment. All you need is people who want to play,' " said Harrison, who believes just a taste will get others hooked, as well.

"Unless Gibbons kids are genetically different from other high schoolers, other people who get to sample this sport maybe will have a similar reaction," he said. "Kids who are left out of traditional sports - the kid that's not tall enough for basketball or big enough to play football - this is the sport for them."

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