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, 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.

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Sam Eifling
Contact: Sam Eifling