Montgomery College cricket team to defend national title

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 14, 2010; A01

Last March, the Montgomery College men's team handily beat four other schools to win the first American College Cricket championship.

There was only one problem: The school had no idea it had a cricket team.

Despite the college slogan, "endless possibilities," national titles are hardly commonplace at Montgomery, which has more than 60,000 students on its campuses in Rockville, Germantown and Takoma Park. But officials didn't realize that their own school was a cricket powerhouse until some weeks after the tournament, when English professor David Lott read a newspaper article about the championship. He alerted the administration, which didn't exactly shower the team with support, leading Lott to agree to serve as the team's faculty adviser.

The cricketers were accustomed to doing things on their own. The 11-man squad -- business and computer science majors who had played the game as kids in India and Pakistan, countries where cricket is followed with near-religious devotion -- resolved to go to the American College Cricket Spring Break Championship in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., after learning about it on Facebook. The students paid their own way.

Captain Adil Bhatti, 22, had to borrow money to cover his expenses and the $400 registration fee. Most of his teammates had played together or against one another for years before enrolling at Montgomery College's Rockville campus, starting with pickup games on county tennis courts and in parking lots around Rockville and Gaithersburg.

After beating the University of South Florida team to win the title, the Montgomery teammates celebrated at an Indian restaurant near their hotel. Dessert was on the house. The three-foot-tall trophy rode home in the back seat of a Honda Accord, with players taking turns holding it on their laps over the course of the 20-hour ride.

The cricketers will return to Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday to defend their title. This time, they will represent Montgomery as an official school club against a field of 18 other colleges.

On a campus where the students hail from more than 175 countries, in a region with enough cricket-loving immigrants to support several well-established leagues, Montgomery is a natural to produce a competitive team, and cricket may yet prove to be a source of school pride and cohesion.

The college doesn't supply a coach, uniforms or even a field, but over the past year, word of the cricket team has slowly spread across campus. Community college athletics is a far more modest endeavor than the big-time sports found at four-year schools, where a winning team can mean huge crowds, big bands and hefty gifts from alumni.

But Bhatti said he was surprised when a cashier at the campus bookstore told him she had heard about the team's win in Florida.

A second championship title could raise the team's profile on campus even more, said college spokeswoman Elizabeth Homan. And perhaps ensure more school support. Cricket still doesn't qualify to be an athletic program because the sport is not affiliated with groups such as the National Junior College Athletic Association.

The school didn't kick in for uniforms, but the players will sport the college logo on their crisp shirts and trousers, along with a plug for an energy drink for cricketers.

Last year, team members had to make do with pairing the official tournament T-shirts with black pants.

A British import

Cricket first arrived on U.S. college campuses in the 19th century. But the nation long ago lost the stamina to play or watch the legendarily long game, preferring its American offshoot, baseball, which managed to trim each contest to a few hours.

Cricket matches can go on for days, and the game's rules and British jargon can easily confound the uninitiated. Throwing the ball, for example, is called bowling, not pitching. The batter stands in front of something called a wicket, which is made up of three wooden sticks poking out of the ground called stumps, topped with two pieces of wood called bails.

The sport's boosters have tried to broaden its appeal with a truncated version called Twenty20, or T20, which lasts two to three hours.

This year in Fort Lauderdale, the defending champs must face other Washington area teams, including George Mason University, George Washington University and the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. Bhatti said he was briefly worried that GMU might add a ringer or two to the squad by having some of the top players in the Washington Cricket League audit classes at the college for a semester.

The captain was relieved to learn that tournament organizers had tightened eligibility requirements enough to prevent such manipulation. But by necessity, the organizers strive to be more inclusive than, say, National Collegiate Athletic Association standards for Division I basketball teams. The college cricket championships, for example, allow a limited number of alumni as well as graduate students to play on each school's team.

If the Montgomery squad survives its regional matchups, it will go on to play teams from across the country, including the University of Southern California, a tournament newcomer but a longtime cricket powerhouse that has recognized cricket as a team sport for 17 years.

Another advantage: The Southern California climate ensures ample practice time, whereas Montgomery's team has been hit hard by this winter's record snowfall. The cricketers have been practicing intently for more than a month, Bhatti said, mostly indoors at a batting cage in Gaithersburg. A few times, they ventured out after 10 p.m. in freezing temperatures to play pickup games of "tape ball" -- using a tennis ball wrapped in electrical tape -- in the empty parking lot across from the college's main entrance.

Let's go bowling

Last Wednesday evening, 10 players, wearing their brand-new black-and-gray uniforms for the first time, took turns catching ground balls in a corner of the football field while a school photographer snapped pictures. The other end of the field was occupied by the men's lacrosse team. Even if the cricketers had the field to themselves, they would not practice there because the ground is uneven and covered in grass. T20 is played on a level surface covered in Astroturf. Unable to properly bat and bowl, the team soon moved over to the adjacent tennis courts, spreading across all four courts on one side of the net.

They took turns bowling and batting, as Bhatti stood to the side, arms folded. The banter slipped into Urdu or Hindi, peppered with the occasional "dude."

Bhatti wanted them to focus on bowling, instructing the batters not to go for runs. His teammates ribbed one another over bad bowls and hooted at good ones. Their chemistry, Bhatti explained, is as important to their success as any training regimen.

It was Suchit Laheri's turn to bowl. He took up position at one end of the tennis courts, then started to barrel toward the batter at the other end, winding his arm before stopping a short distance away to hurl the ball. It hit the ground, as intended, in front of the batter, then ricocheted up, eluding the batter and smacking the wicket. The impact sent a 10-inch shard of wood flying off one of the stumps. Hoots went in the air. Laheri threw his arms up in celebration.

"Now that's what I'm talking about!" shouted teammate Adil Latiwala.

Practice wound down. The players said they would try to get one more in, weather permitting, on an actual cricket field in College Park. Until then, it was back to late-night pickup games in the parking lot.

"Not for practice," said Bhatti. "For fun."

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