In the spring in the Bois de Boulogne or Hyde Park an American can pick up a softball game, in autumn touch or flag football. Likewise in Washington, where our parks are filled with folks from other countries playing their own games.
One can see cricket, rugby or men's field hockey. Stop by and soon someone will explain it to you. The players are passionate amateurs eager to share their game.
Learning about these sports has a practical application. Last summer's baseball strike would have been a lot easier to bear if one knew about the cricket. If the NFL strikes this fall, as seems likely, rugby will be the major-league contact sport in town.
Some notes from a weekend of spectating on the Mall:
During the week West Potomac Park belongs to thousands of softball players, but every Saturday and Sunday it belongs to the 11-team Washington Cricket league.
Cricket is an antecedent of baseball and the skills on display are close to those of our national pastime. The game is the one part of the Anglo-Saxon cultural canon that has a touch of Zen: long periods of seeming nothingness interspersed with flourishes of action. Its languid pace is a perfect complement to the mood of a summer afternoon. The matches at West Potomac Park are day-long affairs, and before we go any further its time for technical details:
Cricket is played 11 men-a-side on a field that is circular in shape with a diameter of approximately 150 yards. In the center is the playing pitch, 22 yards long; baseball fans will note that it is approximately the same length as the distance from the pitcher's mound to home plate. At either end are three sticks balancing two little bails. The team in the field tries to "bowl them over." At any given time two batsmen are up, one at either end of the pitch, trying to bat the ball. If it is hit far enough, they run from one end of the wicket to the other. Thus are runs scored.
A bowler throws six balls at one set of sticks; this is called an over. At the end of an over, the bowler switches positions and throws at the other set of sticks in the field and bowls to the other end of the wicket.
When a player's stumps are knocked over by a bowler, or he is caught out on the fly, or his sticks are knocked over while he is running from one end of the wicket to the other, he is out. Unlike baseball, an inning is not three outs; each team bats straight through. In the case of these weekend games each team has 40 overs, 240 balls, in which to make runs.
That's it. Simple, right? Well, yes and no. Earl Weaver would love all the opportunities to place fielders and remove and replace bowlers (pitchers). Cricketers make decisions on the obvious things (does a batsman hit a certain kind of bowling better than others?) but also on the weight of the ground, the condition of the ball (only one is used during the course of a match), and atmospheric pressure.
Ted Williams would have been awesome with so much extra room to hit, and Richie "Foulball" Ashburn would be in the Hall of Fame if all those line drives into the upper deck behind the dugout had counted.
The game, exported by colonial Britons, was taken up with a passion in places like Australia, the West Indies, Pakistan and India. Most of the Washington league's players come from these places.
Wandering down to the park one recent Saturday a spectator found two matches about to start: the Caribbean Sports Club vs. Jamaica and Metro vs. Windies. The pitches were being rolled smooth and hemp mats laid down on them to insure a smooth bowling surface.
On one field, the Jamaican team had brought a large tape recorder and the reggae beat thumped out while the players warmed up, moving their bodies sinuously.
Some of the players are quite good. Herman Jacobs of Guyana, a spin bowler, played for a West Indies youth team that toured England. Jerry Wallace, from Jamaica, where the sport is a religion and the national team probably the best in the world, played for the Jamaican Army team but gave it up because it was so time- consuming. "I mean the weekend, you need time to go enjoy yourself. And your girl she gets jealous wondrin' where you are."
Peter Whiteman, from Trinidad, says "I never knew they were playing here before I came to Washington." One day, driving through the park, he saw some people playing, got out to watch and was recognized by an old friend from the youth team who asked him to join in. The game is serious now. "It's so serious they go back home and recruit players. They say, 'Hey Mon, come up and get a job and play for us.' "
Of the two games, the action is heavier at the Metro-Windies contest. The Metro side is out of the box fast. Tariq Nabi, a naturalized citizen born in Pakistan, walks over to the only spectator not wearing cricket whites and begins to explain the action. Unlike championship cricket, where the matches can go on for three to five days, in 40-over matches the idea is to accumulate runs like there is no tomorrow because there is none. The Windies captain, according to Nabi, chose a spin bowler because of the "heaviness" of the air. The Metro Club is slicing the bowler up.
After several hours of concentration, a break is needed to stretch the legs, so the spectator decides to take a walk. This is perfectly all right, not rude at all. The players themselves break for tea around 4:30.
Wandering beyond the Polo Field toward the Lincoln Memorial, you can hear the final thudding grunts of the Washington Irish Rugby Football Club's victory over the Richmond Area Touring Side. Over the meadow come the cheers of the winning team. "Three Cheers for Danny Keegan: Rah-Rah-Rah!" or "Three cheers for Ben Gay: Rah-Rah-Rah!"
The sidelines at the rugby match are busier than those at the cricket. They are crowded with beer coolers, women, and men with plaster of Paris on their arms and legs.
A precis of the rules of rugby: Played by teams of 15 on a field 110 by 78 yards. The object of the game is to advance the ball over the goal line and score a try, or kick it through goalposts as in American football. Other objects are to spend no more than a quart of blood and come away with all your digits. The game is full of fierce, loose plays aptly called rucks and mauls.
On the sideline most of the voices heard are American. Are there any Irish playing for the Washington Irish?
John Mulligan, a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, and presently employed at the Australian Embassy, says yes, "There are two bona fide Republic of Ireland passport holders." The Irish were formed two years ago, an outgrowth of a club at American University. They have worked their way up the club league into the first division. They field three full teams of 15 men.
While the third team begins their game and the A team plunges into the beer, Mulligan explains that other nations represented on the club are Nigeria, France and Peru. During the hostage crisis there was an Iranian on the team; for the duration they introduced him as Pepe O'Malley of Mexico.
There is even a club song about the polyglot ethnicity of club members. "I don't know why I play with Irish / Me ma's Italian and me pa is French," it begins according to Mulligan. "The chorus goes something like this: 'We are the Micks and Mex and Frogs and Afr-i-cans / Some people call us half-breeds but we prefer cosmo- po-li-tans.' "
The spectator turns down an invitation to join the club for the postmatch party because he is consumed with curiosity about the outcome of the cricket matches, where play has just resumed following tea. The teams that were at bat are now in the field. Nabi's Metro club has set a daunting total of 158 runs for Windies to catch up.
Settling under a tree, the spectator begins to slowly drift into the game's rhythm. The sky is ominous over Virginia. There is a loud crack and the ball is hurtling straight at him. He ducks as the ball whizzes by for an automatic four runs. The bowler bowls again. Crackkk. Same place. This is getting interesting. A fielder is moved over and the batter takes a short swing for two runs. Then crackkkkk! another four.
The sky explodes, drenching the players and the field and the match is abandoned. No result for four and a half hours of play; it's entirely cricket.