A Worldly Pitch

Jarvis Francis, a broad man with sleepy eyes and a mop of black dreadlocks that looks like a petrified jellyfish, is penciling in a green grid to tally how badly his cricket team is getting shellacked. "Baby steps, Virgil!" the 34-year-old hollers across an Opa-locka schoolyard to teammate Virgil Francis,...
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Jarvis Francis, a broad man with sleepy eyes and a mop of black dreadlocks that looks like a petrified jellyfish, is penciling in a green grid to tally how badly his cricket team is getting shellacked.

"Baby steps, Virgil!" the 34-year-old hollers across an Opa-locka schoolyard to teammate Virgil Francis, a fellow (unrelated) Antiguan and Lauderhill resident. Actually, it sounds closer to "BEH-beh stehps, Vuhjuhl," in Jarvis' accent, but the pull it together message translates just fine.

Their Leeward Islands team is bowling (akin to baseball's pitching) and serving up runs against the Barbados squad, which, like the Leeward team, is stocked with men who years ago for one reason or ten left tiny Caribbean islands for the reputedly gold-paved streets of South Florida only to find asphalt on the roadways and damn hockey on cable.

Today, the men play under the auspices of the South Florida Cricket Alliance, one of the area's two sanctioned leagues. The setting couldn't be better-suited. It's a Sunday, noonish, and the weather is a plagiarized Corona ad: tranquil blue sky, breeze like a baby's sigh, and temperatures in the low to mid-beautifuls. The field is so broad, you could reenact Antietam on it; the eastern edge is chainlink fence, beyond which are cars and trucks with windows rolled down so that well-hit cricket balls will have only windshields to crush on the way to the surrounding neighborhood.

At the south end of the field, a red, yellow, and blue playground set is nestled like a sandtrap designed by Ronald McDonald. Along the west side of the field runs a crescent of orange cones, marking the boundary of the misshapen oval playing area, and along that rim, men and women begin to pool, sitting on coolers, knocking back Heinekens, and bitching about the Yankees assigning Alex Rodriguez to third when Jeter's just a so-so shortstop.

At the north end of the field, about 50 other spectators and players cluster in the shade of a gnarly old ficus tree, some munching peanuts while lounging on a huge steel roller that rests against the fence. Jarvis and another scorekeeper work on a rain-warped countertop while a couple of feet away, against the ficus, a man in a black ball cap and a purple shirt scrapes a whetstone along the blade of a dull machete.

"That guy there a crazy guy," Jarvis says, pointing toward the man with the blade. "He thinks he's in the field raising cattle."

Winston Miller, in fact, is sharpening his cutlass so he can carve the 50 coconuts he picked from the yard of the lady who lives next door to him. He smiles at the scorekeeper's joke, but Jarvis is back to screaming instructions at the field. For you to properly listen in, dear reader, you must know only that cricket resembles baseball, in that a man tries to throw (bowl) a ball past a fellow with a bat, who guards three vertical sticks called a wicket. The batsman, in turn, tries to clobber the ball through (and preferably over) the surrounding defensemen.

"Baca!" Jarvis yells to Robert Bascus, age 41, an Antiguan-born Margate plumber with a gold hoop in his left earlobe and a Lettermanesque gap in his smile. "Make a stump! Maykastump!"

Bascus is a fine player, an all-arounder who has a gaggle of league MVP trophies in his apartment and whose voyage from island village to suburbia exemplifies the lifeblood of the sport in South Florida. Since he was 5 years old playing with brothers and cousins among the avocado and mango trees in his yard, cricket has been his life. But at this moment, he can't stump (i.e., tag out) Carson Ifill, a Barbados batsman who sprays the ball around like a sprinkler -- to the shade tree for four runs, then to the fence for two more, and near the cones for yet another run. Not helping matters, a Leeward bowler throws a ball past Ifill, allowing two gimme runs. Jarvis slams down his pencil in disgust.

The Leeward Islands players need this game if they want to make the league playoffs. Cricket may be abundant in South Florida, but trophies are few.

"If we can contain them under 200 runs, with the kind of batting we have, we can do it," Miller says of his team. "We can't let it slip away at this point." He's a cheery 41-year-old whose face could pass for 16, were he to shave a few white chin whiskers. As he talks, a gaggle of sea gulls descends on the field, squawking, flapping, hovering. "I can stand up here in the hot sun for seven, eight hours watching a game," the Fort Lauderdale handyman says. "People say that's crazy."

Thousands of cricket-mad immigrants live in Broward County. They're cutting your hair and flying your planes and arranging your mortgage and, on weekends, heading to parks and schools to bullshit about cricketers and play dominoes on folding tables and stay young. In their numbers and their passion, they've become a force. The county has just begun work on a $59 million park with a multipurpose stadium that will be, to the best of anyone's knowledge, the first in the country built to accommodate regulation cricket.

With a proper venue on the way, the City of Lauderhill, which among its 60,000 residents counts more than 10,000 (mostly Jamaican) Caribbean immigrants, has applied to host games in the 2007 Cricket World Cup. Lauderhill was the only city in the United States to apply, and on July 4, it and 11 countries will learn whether they're among the eight host sites.

By summer, Broward may be the de facto cricket capital of the country. Your tax dollars are paying for the park where players will compete, so you may care to know why guys like Jarvis and Miller and Bascus are so infatuated with the travails of a little red ball.

A moment, briefly, to explain this game. It's not all coconut and Heineken. Or at least, it wasn't 500 years ago, when shepherds in the British Isles took swipes at rocks with their crooks (thus, perhaps, the suggestion to "crook it" became "cricket"). It had formal rules by 1700, and within a century, British soldiers had exported the game on their errands of world domination. Eventually, the peoples in colonized lands such as Jamaica, South Africa, and Australia shed the Brits but kept much of the language and many of the customs. Soccer spread this way, like a hands-free pox, and became the world's favorite sport.

Cricket, according to everyone who plays it, ranks just behind soccer in worldwide popularity. Yet chances are, if you're reading this in the United States, you have never seen the world's second-most-watched sport.

So picture baseball, which is how Americans condensed the acreage and time needed to play cricket. (Yeah, you heard right: Baseball improved efficiency.) In the center of an oval big enough to contain two football fields is a 22-yard strip of clay called the pitch, with batters at both ends who protect their wickets. A bowler runs perhaps 12 to 20 steps up to one end of the pitch and bounces a hard, baseball-sized leather ball at the batter.

Fast bowlers, like Jarvis, charge the pitch like a running back before fireballing that red meteorite at his opponents' ankles. Spin bowlers, like Boswell Jeffers of Lauderhill, pepper-step up and lob a dizzy squirrel at the clay in an effort to confuse the batter on the bounce. Picture a wind-up in which you don't know where the pitcher will wind up.

The batsman, though, has defenses. He wears puffy shinguards, a helmet, huge gloves. He wields, vertically, a broad club seemingly born of a tryst between a baseball bat and an oar. He takes a swing like a two-armed tennis forehand. He hits the ball anywhere in the oval, and when he does, he and the other batter have the option to waddle-sprint straight ahead to the other's wicket for a single run. Make a wicket-to-wicket round trip, that's two runs. Hit a ball to the fence (or right up to the ficus tree, where a guy with a beer will toss the ball back into play), that's four runs; over the fence (and into the yard across the street), that's six. He may bat until he's out -- that is, until he allows the opposing bowler to strike his wicket or one of the fielders catches his hit or throws the ball into his wicket while he runs. Once he's out, he's out for good, and if he's scored as many as 50 runs, it has been a fine outing.

Instead of trading offense and defense each inning, cricketers bat in gaudy lumps. The game is arranged by "overs," which consist of six pitches. On this day in Opa-locka, Barbados will bat through 40 overs, accumulating what's turning out to be too many runs for comfort, and then turn the match over to the Leeward team, which will have 40 overs to tie or surpass that total. A weekend cricket match, such as those rollicking in a neighborhood near you this Sunday, may last six hours or more. A sanctioned international match (called a test match) may see 500 combined runs across five or six days, with breaks throughout for lunch and honest-to-goodness tea. Thank you kindly, British Empire.

Test matches are kinetic events for which families loiter for eight hours at a stretch, sometimes preparing meals in the stadium. Dozens of players! Hundreds of runs! Thousands of intricate strategic moves!

Five. Freakin'. Days.

"You've got a sport in which you play a game for five days and you may have a draw," says Gladstone Dainty, aptly named president of the sport's sanctioning body in this country, the United States of America Cricket Association. "Americans will never have that much time. Wars finish faster than five days." Still, nationwide, USACA boasts about 700 registered cricket teams.

Other countries are far more enthralled. The Indian cricket team's tour of Pakistan this month -- the first in more than 14 years -- is being hailed as a step toward political reconciliation in the battle of the nuclear powers. Cricket reigns in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, and throughout the British-settled Caribbean. Haiti and Cuba aren't hot cricket spots -- but lo, Antigua, Barbados, St. Kitts, Grenada, Dominica, St. Vincent, Trinidad, Guyana, and Jamaica love the stuff.

Kids in those nations shave the broad, rigid leaves of palm trees with cutlasses to fashion bats. They create balls by wrapping a rock with strips of inner tube or rubber bands and paper, or burning the fuzz off a tennis ball with matches, or holding found plastic over a fire and squeezing it into a sphere, or scavenging sour oranges and unripe grapefruit. They play games in the frantic 15-minute breaks during school and dream of perhaps making it to the pro leagues in England or Australia. The players in South Florida remember as kids taking radios to bed to listen to cricket matches from around the world.

"I always say that cricket is like the religion in the Caribbean," says Jeff Miller, a player on the Barbados team that is competing in Opa-locka. "It doesn't matter what political philosophy you have: When our national team plays, we all rally behind the West Indies team."

Or, as Winston Miller explains, recounting the weeklong picnics that grow around the test matches: "Cricket is food, man, it's food."

Far from bowlers and batters and sunny Sundays on schoolyards, Lauderhill Mayor Richard Kaplan walks into his cluttered Coral Springs law office, picks up a can of Diet Coke, and rattles it. It sloshes. "I live on cashews and preferably Diet Cherry Coke, but it's hard to get," he says as he sits. He has round glasses and a shock of graying hair.

In his shirt pocket, he still has the card of a London Sunday Telegraph sports reporter who the previous night attended a shrimp-and-Perrier reception for civic honchos and the cricket-adoring public at Lauderhill's City Hall. After the reception, legendary bowler Lance Gibbs, the chair of Lauderhill's World Cup host committee, presented to the city commissioners the official, encyclopedia-sized book of bid guidelines he had accepted from the International Cricket Council a few days earlier in Antigua. Gibbs told the commissioners, "I see the USA definitely getting games."

The city's bid for a slice of the third-biggest sporting event on the planet (after World Cup soccer and the Olympics) has made news on the BBC and in the New York Times, Time magazine, and Australian and Pakistani papers, among others. The subsequent Telegraph story on February 29 read, in part: "In a few months' time, that Lauderhill effort could well revolutionise the landscape of international cricket. Unlikely as it may seem, this unremarkable dormitory town, indistinguishable as a separate entity amid the urban sprawl that stretches from Fort Lauderdale in the east to the Everglades in the west, is bidding to host the 2007 Cricket World Cup."

As if anyone cares where London is either.

Lauderhill's World Cup dreams began in summer 2001, when Kaplan and five other Lauderhill officials visited Trinidad to explore a sister-city status with Chaguanas. At a test match there, the mayor recalls, he was asked whether the United States would submit a bid to host World Cup games. "Sure," he replied. "Why not?"

Upon his return, the Michigan-born mayor adapted his tennis and golf skills to become a passable cricketer and later started a winter cricket tournament in Lauderhill. He notes with some pride that the Lauderhill-Broward delegation is the only noncountry left in the running among Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Kitts-Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago.

"Those guys," says Chandradath Singh, executive director of Lauderhill's World Cup host committee, "are the giants of cricket. We are the newcomers. We are the bastard child of cricket."

That sounds about right. The U.S. cricket team barely cracks the top 20, but South Florida, at least, has perhaps the nation's healthiest cricketing community outside of New York City, with dozens of formal and informal teams. According to the 2000 Census, more than 80,000 people from cricket-playing Caribbean countries live in Broward, including 70,000-plus Jamaicans, the largest foreign-born population in the county -- and far more than in Miami-Dade or Palm Beach. The county's infrastructure -- airports, roads, hotels, security -- is worthy of handling Super Bowls, one of which will swallow Pro Player Stadium on the Broward-Miami-Dade county line three months before the World Cup begins. County Commissioner Joseph Eggelletion Jr. has made the point that Broward itself has never before hosted a world championship event.

The only thing pending is the stadium. In 2000, Broward voters passed a $400 million parks referendum that among other things has allowed the county to buy 110 acres of earth in Lauderhill, bordered by State Road 441 and Sunrise Boulevard. The county so far has plunked down about $19 million for land and has budgeted $40 million more for construction, which would make it the region's most expensive park of the past ten years. If all goes smoothly, it should open around the end of 2006.

When the county held meetings to gather suggestions for the facility, the usual stuff came up -- exercise trails, basketball. One man asked for a grassy knoll. "I didn't know where this guy was coming from," county parks Director Bob Harbin says. "All I could think of was President Kennedy." Cricket, though, was the top request. On September 16, 2003, the county commissioners unanimously approved a rough plan for the park that will include -- among pools, a library, and a man-made lake with a boat dock -- a stadium with 5,000 permanent seats and room for perhaps 25,000 temporary seats.

A mid-March U2 concert would guarantee that many butts in seats, but no one really knows yet how many cricket fans will show for matches.

"If XFL couldn't make it in the U.S. and even the Marlins have to struggle for some time and you go to a Heat game and you think it's a practice session, it would interest me to see how cricket is going to be financially viable in Broward," says Jerry Kolo, a Florida Atlantic University urban planning professor who grew up watching cricket in Nigeria. "If you don't have people buying tickets, if you don't have people marching to the field, then you need to rethink the fiscal viability of your sport."

The county is exploring sponsorship deals to defray costs. A couple of years ago, Global Cricket Corp., a jewel in Rupert Murdoch's media chandelier, paid $550 million for the right to broadcast cricket through the World Cup. The trick will be commercializing cricket for crackers.

Fans' long-term hope is that the World Cup will nudge cricket toward becoming the next soccer, a sport that 40 years ago was as foreign to Yanks as the metric system or universal health care. If their cricket-on-the-brain predictions come true, this place may explode with cricketmania, man, crickehtmehnia.

By 1 p.m. in Opa-locka, the Leeward Islands team could use a stop, what with Barbados conking long balls over fences, into yards, and into the shade tree. In the 35th over, Jeffers makes a fine catch, springing to snag a chip shot with a quickness his paunch should prevent. Another ball nearly reaches the cones, but Bascus runs underneath it, dives, rolls, catches, and bounces up with the ball. He throws it in the air and pounds his chest with his right hand. Minutes later, a Barbados batter golfs one to the sand around the playset. On the final ball Bascus bowls, he serves up another four-run shot.

He wipes his face with a cloth as he walks off the field. Barbados would have liked to score 250 runs. But its 245 ain't bad.

On the field, Leeward captain Hamish Anthony gathers his sweat-soaked teammates. "They did it," says the former West Indies test match player, "so we can do it. I know you're tired, but every bat counts."

Back at the perimeter, Miller sits in the back of Virgil's van. He's ankle-deep in green coconut shells, which are piled like skulls outside a dragon's lair. Each has a quarter-sized hole where someone has hacked off the top and guzzled the semi-sweet water inside. Out of an enormous black pot and onto paper plates, Miller scoops homemade seasoned rice, a mélange clogged with chicken, thyme, beans, and spinach.

"If you were to eat this three times in a week, then go to the bathroom, you would be very pleased with yourself," he says. (Note: One dose provides this result.) Five bucks gets a spectator a heaping plate of the stuff. Leeward's players partake while their first three batters score all of five runs in the first four overs. Jarvis sets down his coconut and digs into a cooler for a bottle of Hennessy.

Bascus walks over to the table to assess the damage. "What's the score?" he asks.

Forty-nine measly runs. In the 15th over.

"Good God," he says. A couple of vultures glide over the field.

Bascus enters the game in the 18th over and, after the 20th, returns to check the score. "Sixty-nine?" he says. "Gol-ly, we need some things going on here, boy."

Mercifully, the actual match is almost secondary to a Sunday at the field. You may find a row of Guyanese Muslims silently bowing eastward in prayer. Or you may have men scream at each other, rattling sabers over whether the current West Indies cricket team could possibly be worse than those in Kenya or Bangladesh. Or they might bray about who-can-tell-what, pointing and shouting in accents that thicken until subtitles are needed.

"This looks like a fight, right?" Jarvis says, pointing to one such spittle battle. "Never happen. This is what we do in the islands when there's nothing else."

Or you may see an entrepreneur like Leeward's Trevor Garvey, age 37, of Miramar by way of St. Kitts, as he hawks bootlegged tapes of god-like West Indies batsman Brian Lara of Trinidad and Tobago scoring a record 375 runs in a test match a few years ago.

"This tape sells for $59.99," he shouts to his friends as he waves a stack of Maxell cassettes with "LARA" scribbled on their labels. "I'm selling it for $9.99. Don't regret not taking this offer! The last time Christ came here and spoke, you ignored him! Now he's here again to save cricket!"

Bascus keeps a few cricket tapes on hand at his tidy Margate apartment like a stash of sports porn. A favorite is his highlight reel of legendary Antiguan batter Viv Richards. "Almost every Antiguan has one in the house," he says. "This is a guy who drinks his rum and smokes his weed, and he's not afraid to tell you that in an interview.

"He put Antigua on the map," Bascus adds. The son of an Antiguan senator, Bascus learned the sport on that 108-square-mile island and was quite good by 1980, when he moved, at age 17, to New York City. There, he rarely got to play cricket and, he recalls, the more unpleasant locals would jeer him. "I talk with an accent," he says, "but I still talk English." He studied business and computers and worked odd jobs until 1991, when a plumber friend in the Virgin Islands called. Hurricane Hugo had recently made kindling out of the Caribbean. New Virgin Islands homes needed pipes. And like that, Bascus became a plumber.

When the plumbing jobs ran out, he helped build a Hess oil refinery. The stint in New York "took ten years of my cricketing life away," he says, but the Virgin Islands revered cricket. Although he never was able to crack the elite test match teams, he played high-level cricket, traveling throughout the islands, meeting prime ministers and governors, and losing wages when he missed work to do so. When the refinery was finished in 1995, Bascus moved to Lauderhill, got his green card, and requested time for cricket from his first job with a Boca Raton plumbing company.

"A few of the guys were saying, 'You're going to take off to play your girly-girly game in your whites and drink some tea?'" he recalls. "They made some fun of me, man."

At home, Bascus has two dozen cricket trophies, most of which date to the late '90s. The past couple of years have been thinner. Skills erode, after all. Bascus has eight kids in New York, the Virgin Islands, and Florida ("I'm a true island boy," he says sheepishly) and a girlfriend. He expects to eventually return to Antigua, where he'll likely grow sweet potatoes and bananas in his backyard and, of course, play cricket.

"Retirement is nowhere in the Bible, not even for work," he says. "So why would I retire from my sport?"

Bascus and Peter Anthony, Hamish's cousin, have finally found Leeward's expected rhythm. The two batters take turns belting balls -- Peter to the playground for four runs, Bascus straight into the flat for another, Peter a tee shot over the barbed wire fence, then another through the wire -- and by the 29th over, Leeward has 120 runs to 245 for Barbados. At the end of a tense match, the painful reductive math of the over system takes control. Two countdowns begin: the balls remaining and the runs needed. After a slow start, the Leeward players need to close with about 12 per over, and they're finally starting to get it.

"Kahnt ketch a fookin' coold," someone yells at a bumbling Barbados fielder.

You could sell this. Any baseball-bred, football-fed American can feel the bristles on this moment. What cricket contains, inherently, is a chase. The second team to bat is always behind, and if it pulls ahead by one run, the game stops. This is where crickehtmehnia blossoms for people like Dale Holiness, CEO of All Broward Realty, who at 17 years old moved from Jamaica to New York and who now, at 46, sees World Cup as a landmark for Caribbean culture in South Florida.

"It's a powerful statement that you are a part of this culture," says Holiness, who by the time of this printing will know whether he has been elected a Lauderhill city commissioner. "And that while you may have some difference, you fit in, that the culture is embracing enough to pick up cricket, which they may not understand.

"When I came, I expected -- you could probably say Utopia, more or less. And it's not, but it is a great place, and the opportunities are what draw people here. When people go back to the islands, they often exaggerate their accomplishments, the cars they drive, and the homes they live in. And you figure, wow, you're doing so great. You come and you think you get all of that, and it's easy. But it's hard work. Because people come here expecting to do something with their lives, they dedicate themselves to that. With or without cricket to play."

The Leeward players, at least, dedicate themselves to cricket. They practice every Tuesday and Thursday evening in the park just east of Lauderhill's City Hall, welcoming anyone who cares to join them. But an understanding of the jargon is critical. Some key terms:

Monkey: A foolish person worthy of ridicule.

Monkey man: See "Monkey."

Monkey team: An entire team of monkeys.

Catch him!: What everyone yells when a batter makes contact with the tennis balls they bowl at practice, even if the ball is hit over two fences into the adjacent vacant lot.

The houses nearest the field are protected by a 20-foot net at the fence, but during games, balls sometimes clear the net, explaining why Steven Perkins, whose house is on the other side, leaves his hurricane shutters up at odd times. The Florida Turnpike howls just beyond a little gulley on the east side of the field, and it is said that at least a couple of balls have been walloped there, clacking across the tollway like a pool ball on a barroom floor.

No one for Leeward pounds the pellet better than Hamish. After a Barbados fielder finally catches Peter away from the wicket, Hamish enters and jacks six-run shots over a high fence and through the tree's leaves. Under the shadow of his maroon helmet, against his dark skin, only a luminescent white smile is visible. Bascus continues a water torture of singles. The two batters rack up a gaudy 24 runs in the 31st over, and it's a contest again.

Hamish is in a groove, unstoppable, unflappable. He clips a double behind him, then -- ah, a high flare straight ahead! Too short! Caught! The Barbados fielders hug. Hamish strides off the field, with 183 runs on the board in the 35th over.

"If I'd have bat even five more overs..." he says, even as Bascus and Virgil continue scoring in gobs. The runs pile up to 190, now 200.

"This is excitement, man, this is excitement," Jarvis says. Before the final over, he checks the score and steps onto the edge of the field.

"Bascus!" he shouts. Bascus looks up from the far end of the pitch. Jarvis holds up five fingers on his right hand, closes his fist, then holds up five more fingers, then five more, and five more, and five more for measure. Bascus' shoulders start to shake, as if he's laughing. He replies by making an oversized "OK" sign with one huge glove. Twenty-five runs on six balls. Sure, man, no problem.

A couple of runs later, the game ends on a Bascus pop-up. As the batter trudges back, Jarvis walks onto the field with a drink in one hand. He throws his free arm over Bascus' shoulder.

"Look how close, man," Bascus says as he checks the final score of 222 to 245. "Son of a bitch."

It's past 6 o'clock. The sinking sun peeks out from behind some clouds, splashing the field a shade of pink. Garbage bags appear, to gather the remains of the merrymaking. Virgil begins tossing spent coconut shells into the back of Miller's truck. Miller marks down his plates of seasoned rice to a very reasonable $3 a plate, with a sheet of foil included, for easy carriage home, to eat later, now, whenever, man, whenever.

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