The sport gets a bum rap: monotonous, too slow, not enough action.
"Yes, I've heard all that," sighs Mike Dupigny. "Some people say that this is a boring game, that it's no fun to watch. But they don't see the artisty. They don't see how different types of pitches are used to get the batter out, or how the batter uses his bat to hit the ball a certain way.
"If you look closely, it's not boring at all."
The sport in question could easily be baseball. It's not, although heaven knows our national pastime has more than once been maligned as the biggest eliciter of yawns next to Sleep-Eze.
That sport Mike Dupigny defends -- one that has been quietly thriving in Washington since the early 1950s -- is not baseball, but rather its English cousin, cricket.
Every May, the 11 teams that make up the Washington Cricket League begin a new season of play at West Potomac Park and continue competition among themselves and non-league cricket clubs from Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York until early October.
Dupigny, an administrative assistant at Howard University and the public-relations director of the WCL, predicts that cricket in the area will experience the kind of popularity boom that soccer has enjoyed in recent years.
But so far, the seemingly countless softball games in West Potomac Park still outdraw the handful of cricket matches that take place there every Saturday and Sunday afternoon.
If some of these softball hangers-on only had the curiosity to straggle away from the diamonds and bases and over to the wickets and stumps, they might find themselves impressed with the skill and fine points involved in playing cricket.
They might also discover that some aspects of cricket Washington-style contrast sharply with the common conception of the game as played in England.
Take, for example, the two fields on which WCL teams play.
Americans with any knowledge of cricket think of it as a gentlemanly game played in a pastoral setting: impeccably trimmed grass, trees encircling the perimeter of the playing area, birds chirping in the distance. Although the fields in Washington are far from unpleasant, they don't exactly match that picture.
At West Potomac Park, both wickets -- the long, rectangular area on which the action is centered -- have been beaten bare by years of use. So before each game, a mat made from coconut husks -- "the matting wicket" -- is rolled onto the grassless playing surface.
Nor do stately oaks or maples border the West Potomac Park fields, which are instead surrounded by softball diamonds, trash cans and fire hydrants. And if any birds chirp in the distance or even nearby, no one could be able to hear them, thanks to the jets taking off every few minutes from neighboring National Airport.
"Those damn things," mutters umpire Rene Miroy as a 747 roars overhead just before a match.
"It's bad enough having that constant earsplitting noise, but what makes it worse is that it might affect a call during play," says Miroy, a native of England who works in electronics and officiates regularly for the WCL.
"Let's say a batsman tips a ball. If the wicketkeeper" -- similar to a baseball catcher -- "grabs the ball in the air, that's an out. But if a plane is going over the field at the time, I won't be able to tell whether or not the ball has been tipped."
Not the best playing conditions in the world, are they?
"Not entirely," Miroy admits, "but they could be a lot worse. Anyway, we make to rather nicely."
In other words, the games's the thing.
At least in that respect, WCL cricket equals the British version of the sport. Perhaps even surpasses it, some may argue. Many Washington cricketers hail from the West Indies, which for the last four years has won the international cricket championship over such stern competition as Britain and Australia.
(The two latter nations, incidentally, have been bitter rivals since the 1880s. Around that time, a team of Australia's best had upset England's finest twice. The British press printed an obituary announcing that cricket would be cremated and the ashes sent to Australia. Actually, some equipment was burned, and the ashes were put in an urn in England. To this day, whenever the two teams confront each other, they are said to be "playing for the ashes" -- that is, battling for cricket supremacy between the two countries.)
American players, on the other hand, have yet to reach the standard of play set by cricketers from other nations, even though the United States has been a member of the International Cricket Conference since 1965. And of the nearly 200 players in the league here, only five are Americans.
"But they're doing okay," says Dupigny, a Trinidadian who stars on the WCL's Windies team.
"You must remember that most of us in the league grew up with the game. The Americans have only recently shown an interest in cricket. Really, they're much better than when they started. They've come a long way."
One of those five Americans is Richard Andrews, a 1977 graduate of Haverford College, one of the few schools in the country that have a cricket club.
Andrews was born in England but has lived in this country since he was two. Ironically, his British background had nothing to do with his foray into cricketing.
"I was a freshman at Haverford," explains Andrews, who's working in Washington this summer before returning to Berkeley Law School in the fall. "I heard about the cricket club, it sounded like it'd be fun, so I decided to join up."
His coach at Haverford, Kamran Khan, was a regular player on the Pakistan team in the WCL. It was Khan who persuaded Andrews to play cricket in Washington. This summer marks his second season with the Pakistan squad.
"I guess you could say I sort of broke the color barrier on the team," laughs Andrews, the only non-Pakistani on the team. "The Jackie Robinson of the WCL."
American cricketers are indeed a rare commodity. Still, you'd think more people in the sports-crazed United States would show an interest in cricket.
Anyone familiar with baseball, in fact, shouldn't have too much difficulty following a cricket match, though a rudimentary knowledge of the sport and some of its rules will come in handy:
There is a team at bat and a team afield, each squad numbering 11 players. Standing at either end of the 66'-long, 10'-wide wicket is a "stump" -- three 2' stakes upon which rest two small sticks called "bails."
The intention of the bowler (American translation: pitcher) is to make an out by throwing the ball past the batsman and knocking the bails off the opposite stump.
The batsman's aim is to protect his stump by slapping his 3' paddle-shaped bat at the ball. If he hits the ball far enough and runs to the other stump, he scores a run.
He may keep dashing from stump to stump, making runs, until the fielding team gets the ball back to the wicket. (In a typical WCL contest, each team will score approximately 150 runs.)
While international-style cricket matches last two innings, WCL games are played for one inning, with each team getting a turn at bat. An inning is completed when 40 "overs" (a total of 240 pitches) have been delivered, or when 10 batsmen have been put out.
Since one half inning in the WCL takes about 3 1/2 hours to finish, each seven-hour match is customarily punctuated by a 20-minute tea break.
Tea breaks notwithstanding, the summer pastimes of the U.S. and Britiain share many traits. Conceivably, baseball-mad Americans could go for cricket in a big way once they catch on that their game is not the only one that features strategically aligned fielders, bat control, pitches of various speeds and locations.
Cricket, like baseball, has its own colorful patois of strange and poetic expressions, some of which have blended into everyday language. These include: BOWLED FOR A DUCK -- This happens when a batsman is put out without having scored a run. Very embarrassing, worse than "getting the collar" or "going 0-for" in baseball. HIT A SIX -- That is, hit a fly ball completely over the boundary or the playing field. Counts as six runs. A close relative of baseball's "grand slam." A STICKY WICKET -- This refers to a rainsoaked wicket. The soft wet turf, or "sticky wicket," makes things difficult on the players; by extension, the term is used to mean any tough situation. THE YORKER -- A ball thrown close to the batsman's feet. Almost impossible to hit. Much akin to a Nolan Ryan fastball low and outside. This is when the batsman finds himself in "a sticky wicket." A MAIDEN OVER -- This occurs when the bowler has thrown an over (six pitches) without allowing a run, an accomplishment of considerable accuracy. Possibly as arduous and unusual a feat as a baseball "no-hitter." THAT'S NOT CRICKET -- As in, "That's not proper or fair." Dates from the early 20th century, when cricket authorities were mulling over rule changes. One player, reflecting the view of those who opposed any desecrations of the game, remarked, "Why, that wouldn't be cricket."
Eventually the authorities agreed, and the rules were left unchanged. You don't tamper with a sport that's been going strong since 1700.
"Yes, it's a great game," says Mike Dupigny. "A lot of people enjoy watching it, and we love playing it. That's why the league was formed in the first place."
The Washington Cricket League, 30 years on, should go right on prospering for at least another three decades. The only possible deterrent, according to Dupigny, is the National Park Service.
"They keep telling us that if we don't make regular use of the cricket fields," he says, "then they're going to take them away and turn them into softball diamonds."
Now that wouldn't be cricket.