Missing the Wicket in Search of Cricket

Missing the Wicket in Search of CricketOn our recent honeymoon, my wife and I spent seven nights on the island of Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos islands, about 575 miles southeast of Miami, Florida. Anyone who has been married can attest that–by the end of a perfect wedding weekend and the months of sometimes agonizing planning that made it that way–lying on a warm Caribbean beach enjoying the sun and a few strong rum drinks, is in tall order. A trip to Providenciales seemed the perfect way to set aside thoughts of the bustling world behind us. But to avoid becoming completely detached, I was eager to take in some of the local culture, which coincided with my obsession with all things sporty and British. My chosen activity was the game of cricket, and I wanted to join the locals in a rousing match of it. Of course, I knew little of the game, but I felt an afternoon on the cricket pitch would round out my honeymoon experience and complete my transformation from simple American tourist to island legend.

The Turks and Caicos cover and area of about 193 square miles, composed of a series of 40 islands (only eight of which are inhabited) just 30 miles south of the Bahamas and 90 miles north of the island of Hispanola. Although a British Territory, the dollar is king there attracting scores of American tourists, mostly from the Northeast and the South.

The country (roughly two-and-a-half times the size of Washington D.C.) has a small local population of less than 20 thousand, made up of “Belongers,” who are mainly descendents from the New World’s slave trade. With such a small population, the many resorts and other businesses in the Turks and Caicos depend on immigrants from islands such as Haiti for their work force

Turks and Caicos The islands were part of the United Kingdom’s Jamaican colony until 1962, when they assumed the status of a separate crown colony upon Jamaica’s independence. The governor of The Bahamas oversaw affairs from 1965 to 1973, but with Bahamian independence, the islands received a separate governor in 1973, and although independence was agreed upon for 1982, the policy was reversed and the islands remain a British overseas territory today.

This combination of diametric cultures, economic status, and the often sweltering Caribbean climate has given rise to a decidedly unique way of life in the Turks and Caicos that melds notions of “Britishness” (of which the local affinity for cricket is but one example) with the ever-present “island time,” when the simplest task might take all day to complete simply because no one is in a hurry to do much of anything.

In terms of sport, the national soccer team is ranked 203 in the world (out of 204 teams), playing at a national “stadium” that would be surpassed by most American city parks: there’s a field and lights, and that’s it. There is a golf course on the island, at the rather lovely Providenciales Country Club, but what interested me most was the frequent mention of cricket as the national sport. I liked my chances of finding a game.

I already stated that I have a tad of an anglophile streak in me. The truth of the matter is, I think I want to be British, or perhaps I want to be a cool American with British “tendencies.” It’s all very confusing and something I’ll need to examine in the future; however, whether it’s watching Merchant-Ivory flicks, paying exorbitant cable prices so I get can Sky Sports to learn about the latest transfer to West Ham, or defending Oasis as the greatest rock’n’roll act of the past 20 years, this Yank has become obsessed with offerings from our nation’s former masters. If I could have ice in a glass (yes, I know that’s a cliché), a constant supply of Heinz ketchup, baseball on the dish, and acceptance from a loving British public, I think I could call myself a half-baked Brit. So it should come as no surprise that I found myself chasing a cricket ground on my honeymoon, instead of soaking in the rays next to my wife. For some reason I had a romantic notion of donning tasteful white attire as I struck the ball, before heading off to the clubhouse to enjoy a well-deserved Pimms. I envisioned my maiden voyage into the world of cricket resulting in comments on my natural athletic ability, social grace, and sportsmanship; it would earn me praise and admiration from island locals and holdovers from the former empire alike. In my mind’s eye, I would later accompany the Turks and Caicos’ finest and join the West Indies team at the Cricket World Cup where we would upset giants Australia, South Africa, and mother England. And considering I was a decent baseball player, how hard could cricket be? I could just step on the pitch and knock the tar out of the ball. For years, the legend and tales would build of that graceful, athletic, handsome American that came to the island and dominated the cricket pitch that hot July afternoon. Never had anyone seen a foreigner pick up a game so quickly and make it his own.

Cricket, I should explain, is the summer game of England and its former colonies, and it is almost impossible to illustrate the rules clearly in a short space (many have tried, few have succeeded). However, I will make an effort here. Essentially, the game is played outdoors with a ball and bat, between two teams of eleven players. The ball is slightly smaller than a baseball and, I’m told, hurts like hell when it hits you. The cricket pitch is about 450 feet by 500 feet. In the center of the pitch, parallel to its short ends, are two wickets that are 66 feet apart. Each wicket consists of three wooden stumps placed equidistant in a straight line so the distance between the first and third stumps is 9 inches. On top of the stumps there are two strips of wood, the “bails,” placed end to end in grooves on the top of the stumps. The wicket is centered lengthways in a white line known as the “bowling crease.” Another white line is drawn in front of and parallel to each bowling crease. This is called the “popping crease,” or simply “the crease.” The central action of the game takes place between the batsman, who stands behind the crease, and the bowler, who delivers the ball from behind the opposite bowling crease, trying to get the batsman out.

There are 42 rules or laws of cricket. They outline everything from when a batsman is out, to when the pitch should be thrown. One team bats first and the other bowls and fields first. This is decided by the toss of a coin, of which the winner decides how to play in the game. The team that bats first sends two batsmen out on the field, one player to each wicket. The opposing team sends a bowler to one wicket, a wicketkeeper to a position behind the other, and the remaining nine to the field. There are two umpires on the field who control the game.

Heading out one Saturday morning to try my hand at this game, I was told that I could catch the local bus about two blocks from the Ocean Club West, the resort where my wife and I were staying. There were no bus stops, per se, but all I needed to do was wave and the bus would stop for me. After a couple of minutes, a small van picked me up, and I began my journey toward the Leeward Highway (the island’s main drag) into downtown “Provo” in search of the Downtown Ballpark. Coming from Boston, journeys down Leeward–with its maze of potholes, dust, and ongoing construction–put my daily frustrations back home into perspective.

As the bus headed down Leeward running along the crest of the island, one could see beautiful beaches on both sides of the island. Along the way we picked up a young Belonger taking a battery from a broken-down car to his place on the other side of Provo for a replacement, while a rather large woman and I, along with her basket of exotic fruits, snuggled up in the van’s second row of seats. After minutes of putting my “game face” on and wondering if I was about to make a complete fool of myself, we finally reached our destination, the Providenciales Downtown Ballpark.

One could justify the name “Downtown,” but calling it a “ballpark” made for a very generous portrayal. What I found was a vacant dirt lot, the size of your average American high school football field with a string of lights and a covered set of bleachers. Also present was a chain-link fence for what I guess served as a backstop for errant cricket tosses. I could not believe that the community had spent money on some rather nice lighting but couldn’t put fork over one cent for a single blade of grass. Wearing my white polo shirt, shorts, and tennis shoes (my attempt at proper attire), I foresaw a long, dirty, exhausting afternoon in the hot sun. Quickly, thoughts of a rum punch, my lovely bride, and perfect white sands seemed like a better way to spend my day, but I pressed on intrepid as ever.

To play the game of cricket , or any game for that matter, above all one needs some players to actually start a match. Throughout the week I was told from numerous reliable sources (the employees at the Ocean Club West front desk, various bartenders, gardeners, etc.) that every Saturday the local police department plays the “other” team from 9 to 12. Who or what made up the other team was never really determined, but I figured some sort of game would take place. As I crossed Leeward toward the Ballpark, I found neither team was there and the field was empty. I half expected to see a tumbleweed roll by, as in some long-deserted Wild West boomtown. Looking at my watch, I saw it was 10:30 A.M. and figured it was going to be a late start for the boys, and that I should kill some time and wait awhile.

After trips to local stores and other establishments, I headed back to the ballpark and found three gentlemen sitting under the one tree enjoying a few bottles of Red Stripe beer. I thought to myself, “Now’s the time to ask a) if they are there to play cricket, b) if I could join in the match, c) when does the match start, and d) may I have one of those Red Stripes, because it’s so damn hot?”

After investigating each of these points with the trio, I gathered that this was the “other” team, and there would be cricket this day, although the exact time was not exactly clear and whether I would be involved was still to be determined (the mix of snickers and shaking of heads did little to bolster my optimism). I imagined the three men were thinking, “Why in the hell would this sweaty, grimy American get on a bus from a nice, comfortable resort, head downtown wanting to play cricket, and think he could actually play the game?” After pressing on when exactly the game would begin and enduring further snickers, I was told to relax and that all would fall into place– “Island time, mon,” was all they would offer. Considering I might be stuck in downtown Provo on the next to last day of my honeymoon, and that my bride might not understand why I would spend five to six hours embarrassing myself and my country, I tactfully bid “Team Other” adieu and got back on Leeward Highway looking for the bus back to my resort. I rationalized, since these guys didn’t even offer me a Red Stripe, my decision to leave was that much easier.

I made my way up Leeward for half an hour following the hot, dusty road, looking for a bus and cursing myself for wasting three hours of my day in an unsuccessful bid to play some stupid game. After another 15 minutes, this tourist was quite dehydrated and cranky, so I headed to the local Texaco for water and a couple of minutes of some sorely needed air conditioning. The women in the store looked at me mystified, wondering why a crazy American, caked in sweat and dust, would be walking along the road and not at the beach deciding when to have lunch and reading a trashy novel, as was the norm. I was wondering the same this, and after over an hour trying to track down a bus and enduring a series of incredulous looks from islanders in their air-conditioned cars, I gave up on public transportation and found a taxi back to the resort. The beauty of such island taxi travel, of course, is that one can barter, and for five U.S. dollars I found myself at the doors of Ocean Club West. Never had a taxi ride felt so good.

Off came my “cricket attire,” on went the swimming shorts, and after grabbing a towel and that trashy novel, I headed to the beach where I found my lovely wife wading in the water on a three-dollar flotation device happy as a new bride can be. The ocean seemed more refreshing and welcome than ever before as I plunged my dust-caked body into the turquoise water meeting my wife at her floating flotilla. She asked how I did, I gave her the highlights of my morning. She shook her head, and we both agreed that planning for meals, soaking in pools and the sea, cocktail hour, and preparing for my trip home would make a better, if less adventuresome, schedule for the weekend. Her point was well taken, but it was not without its downsides. I am still obsessed with all things British, and I have yet to play a game a of cricket. Of course, it may prove even harder to find a match back in my State-side home, so if anyone is looking for an extra on their team, I may not be good, but I’m willing.

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