Field of Drools

On a recent Saturday evening at Lauderhill Sports Complex, the westernmost baseball field is missing its leather base bags. A large white circle cuts through the orange dirt of the infield, extending into the lush green grass of the outfield. In the middle of the circle, about centerfield, is a rectangular bald spot with wooden sticks perched at either end. The wickets, old boy, the wickets. Don't you know your cricket?

The players are all dark-skinned men in bright yellow-and-green uniforms. Some have traveled from south Miami-Dade or north Palm Beach counties to be here.

It's a championship match for the South Florida Cricket Alliance, between teams representing Pakistan and Jamaica. Cricket is said to be the second-most-popular sport in the world (after soccer), though only about a hundred people, mostly friends and family of the players, have shown up to watch this game. It begins unceremoniously and for the uninitiated, it seems to progress as slowly as a caterpillar climbing a tree.

Batters take aim at a ball, hurled overhand, with a bat that looks like an elongated fraternity paddle. Occasionally, a solid hit elicits a cheer. Or a miss prompts a jeer like, "You weak, mon."

Of course, it's difficult to follow the action in the middle of the outfield from ground-level seats near the first-base line. How much better to have watched the match six miles away at Central Broward Regional Park's new cricket-capable stadium, where spectators could have gotten a bird's-eye view from tiered Crayola-blue seats 20 feet above ground and shaded by a red roof?

But, wait. That was the plan.

"All last year, I was telling people that we were going to have our finals at the new stadium," says Jeff Miller, president of the South Florida Cricket Alliance.

Then Miller got a price quote for the county-run Main Event Field. He says it would have cost $5,000 to play the amateur match at the field that locals have dubbed the "cricket stadium."

With the City of Lauderhill offering to host the match at one of its parks for free, the decision to play at the sports complex on Oakland Park Boulevard was a no-brainer.

So here's Miller, sitting on metal bleachers with a few dozen cricket fans, straining to watch the match through horizontal bars and a chainlink fence. His breath smells of alcohol, and his body language expresses disappointment. "Unfortunately, we local cricketers have fought so hard for that facility and we will never be able to play there. The fees are too high. We'll only be able to drive past it."

Miller came to the United States from Barbados in 1976 at age 16. Now 48, he speaks with a faint island accent. He works as a mortgage broker and lives in Coral Springs. His frameless glasses and short-shorn haircut lend him a bookish appearance. He lobbied hard for the county to include a world-class cricket field in the 110-acre county park north of Sunrise Boulevard and east of State Road 7 — in the heart of South Florida's sizable Caribbean community.

"A few years ago, I was out there taking petitions around, asking residents what they wanted in a park. I was pushing for cricket. I got hundreds of signatures. I went to county meetings at various locations — I attended those meetings because I wanted to see cricket in the park. But I didn't have to say anything because everyone was saying 'cricket, cricket, cricket.' "

The park cost $70 million, though the county has yet to break out the precise cost of the stadium. It has hosted four events since the park opened in November — two soccer matches, a cricket tournament, and a hip-hop concert — prompting critics to call the brightly hued structure a taxpayer-funded white elephant. Clearly, they argue, the facility's usefulness has been outweighed by its cost.

Give it time, insists Bob Harbin, director of parks and recreation for Broward County. "We've got people booking the facility right now. We just had a major event over Memorial Day weekend."

The event Harbin refers to is the MAQ T20 International Cricket Tournament, organized by the Boca Raton-based Cricket Council USA. According to park records, the event drew 3,500 visitors over three days, or a little more than 1,000 a day. The tournament's promoters, though, were anticipating attendance in the neighborhood of 10,000 per day.

But bad luck hounded the tournament. On the Friday of the event, it rained. On Saturday, it stormed. Finally, on Sunday, the weather turned favorable — there wasn't a cloud in the sky, and temperatures hovered around 80. The West Indies team, led by retired Antiguan cricketer Richie Richardson, won the tournament. The Cricket Council USA pitched players like Richardson as "cricket legends," and, in the end, they drew fans and autograph seekers — although critics argue that more cricket aficionados might have turned out had the council been able to book current international players.

Oh, but there was music! All of the musicians who were scheduled to perform on the stormy Saturday evening — including Bob Marley's son Ky-Mani and soca queen Alison Hinds — instead graced the stage on Sunday afternoon. Exuberant West Indies fans were bumpin' and grindin' until nearly midnight. The council figures that 6,000 people streamed in for the concert.

"The teams that played gave the field rave reviews," says Nino DiLoreto, spokesman for the Cricket Council. "We got a taste of what the combination of cricket and entertainment can do for Broward County."

The Cricket Council also got an idea of the price tag for such an event. DiLoreto says that the tournament cost $1.5 million and that there was no profit to be had. DiLoreto blames the low turnout on weather, not disinterest. He adds, though, that the stadium's fees are "too expensive" and that there's a lot of bureaucracy to wade through to organize an event at the park.

"Not much is happening at that stadium," he gripes. Fortunately, the Cricket Council's sponsor, real estate and gas station magnate Mahammad "MAQ" Qureshi, has deep pockets. "We're going forward," DiLoreto says, "even though MAQ took a little beating. Just the fact that a cricket match was played there is historic."

The council plans another tournament at the stadium for the Fourth of July, with more music as well as a fireworks display courtesy of MAQ and the City of Lauderhill. The United States is the last frontier for cricket, the council thinks, and the stadium at Central Broward Regional Park is key to generating interest.

"Nationwide, nobody has built a cricket stadium in years," notes Jaime Plana, head of planning and design for Broward parks. "We had a series of public meetings and invited people from the surrounding communities to participate. We asked people to tell us what they wanted in a park, and they voted with Post-It Notes..."

The county Parks and Recreation Department refers to the stadium as a "multi-purpose field." But it's painted in the same festive color palette as the national cricket stadium in Grenada, which hosted games for the 2007 Cricket World Cup, and its aptness for cricket has gotten the most hype.

The "cricket stadium" moniker, though, bodes ill for the local cricket community each day the field sits empty. Skeptics argue that the tax dollars should have gone elsewhere.

"We need to ensure that the park is successful," says Dale Holness, a Lauderhill city commissioner who advocated a cricket-capable stadium in the park.

The park technically sits within the boundaries of Lauderhill, so the city lost a potential source of tax income when the county parks department bought the land in 2001. Still, Lauderhill officials and residents were stoked about the plan. The park, they reasoned, would serve the local community while also boosting revenue for nearby businesses such as restaurants. And struggling Lauderhill could use just that sort of economic boost.

The park itself is getting plenty of use. On weekends, families mob the small water park and rent pavilions for children's birthday parties. Throughout the week, local cricketers, soccer players, and Australian rules football players book all four of the park's basic fields for practices and matches.

On a recent Wednesday evening, the local Australian rules football team — the Fort Lauderdale Fighting Squids — was running drills on one of the park's soccer fields. Someday, they hope to play in the stadium as well.

"It just sits there, empty, teasing everyone," Cameron Pinnock, president of the Fighting Squids, says with a hint of an Aussie accent. "It's definitely something we couldn't afford as an amateur team... My theory is that it's better to have the fields used at a discount rate than empty. There are 3,500 to 4,000 Australians in the tricounty area — we could get a match going every month. I'm sure the Denver team would come."

Lauderhill is hopeful that county officials will lower the park's fees. In the meantime, it will continue to host events at its own city-run parks. At the Lauderhill Sports Complex, after Jamaica finally beat Pakistan on that Saturday evening to win the South Florida Cricket Alliance championship, Jeff Miller climbed onto a Lauderhill-owned portable stage, grabbed a city-owned microphone, and piped a congratulatory message out to the team. Lauderhill's mayor, Richard Kaplan, and Commissioner Holness joined him on the platform.

"Lauderhill has probably done more for cricket than any other city in the U.S.," Kaplan bragged.

Holness proclaimed Lauderhill "the cricket capital of America."

Then a tiny audience of tired cricketers and fans trudged toward home.

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Amy Guthrie
Contact: Amy Guthrie