Playing Cricket in Compton

For those who believe that sport brings out the best in people, the past several months have been unsettling. The Olympic Games have been tarnished by allegations of bribery and corruption; the National Basketball Association season was shortened by a dispute over player salaries; Mike Tyson, the ear-biting former boxing champion, was cleared to go back into the ring, only to be convicted of another assault and sent back to jail. Here in England, Rupert Murdoch tried to buy the Manchester United soccer team for something like a billion dollars–amid claims that he would rig television schedules to make sure his money had been well spent.

Even cricket, the sport I play for a living, has endured its share of scandal. The international cricket establishment held hearings last winter to deal with charges that several senior Australian cricketers had taken bribes and placed illegal bets.

Back in the Victorian era, cricket and other sports were seen as a civilizing force, a way to encourage leadership, teach teamwork, and form gentlemen. Ungentlemanliness, let alone cheating, was considered almost as bad as treason. In a sense, it was: Britain needed honest civil servants to sustain its empire, and sport was to provide them. To bend the rules was to miss the point. Sport was about honor and duty; winning without them was not winning at all.

To sustain their self-image as carriers of law and decency to the darkest corners of the globe, the Victorians needed moral reassurance from the playing field. Sport was believed to forge national character, so if the boys were cheating in their games at Eton, what might the adults be up to with the tax returns in India?

Much has changed since then. Today’s athletes make money–often, lots of it. Now sport is a career: an end in itself, not just a way of becoming a better adult. Athletes, like doctors and lawyers, are “professionals,” but the rhetoric of professionalism has undermined sport’s moral purposes. Sport is now entertainment–and in entertainment, almost anything goes.

But many of us would like to believe that sport remains a force for good; as a result, we continue to have mixed feelings about its commercial excesses. Is it right, our Victorian conscience pipes up, for athletes who already earn millions to hold out for more? How should we weigh glory against honor? Has sport really become just another branch of the entertainment industry, subject only to the rules of the free market? Or can it still have a moral purpose?

In the crime-ridden Los Angeles ghetto of Compton, drive-by-shooting capital of the world, there’s a cricket team that would have delighted the strictest Victorian headmaster. Ted Hayes, a flamboyant social campaigner with graying dreadlocks whose exploits on behalf of the Los Angeles poor have made him a local celebrity, organized the team with the same civilizing intent. Educated and articulate, Hayes seeks to combine the radicalism of Malcolm X with the persuasiveness of Martin Luther King. Having lived voluntarily on the streets for 14 years, Hayes founded Dome Village: a colony of igloo-shaped huts in downtown Los Angeles where homeless people can find shelter, give up drugs, and learn everything from computer skills to the finer points of a complicated sport.

Introduced to cricket four years ago by the high society Beverly Hills team, Hayes liked it so much that he decided to set up his own team. He soon recruited enough local homeless men to found the L.A. Krickets, which went on to tour England. The Compton Cricket Club’s current team is called the Homies & the POPz (short for “people of power”). Its roster has expanded to include other Compton residents. Hayes says that “cricket is a civilizing force in the local community, even an ennobling one.” If he has his way, the chatter of gunfire in Compton will be replaced by the sound of leather on willow.

Although it is one of the world’s most popular sports, cricket still leaves most Americans unmoved. Some confuse it with croquet or lacrosse; others see it as baseball’s poor relation–needlessly long, in-tolerably slow, and socially exclusive. In fact, during the 19th century, cricket was a popular American sport. The first-ever international cricket contest was not a battle between England and Australia, as you might suppose, but the 1844 match between Canada and the United States. By the late 19th century, the Philadelphia team was good enough to play against the full-strength Australian sides. When the Australians toured New York in 1932, Babe Ruth entertained the legendary cricketer Don Bradman and his teammates in his private box in Yankee Stadium–so the two great hitters of a moving ball got a rare chance to compare notes.

By then, however, baseball–cheaper, quicker, easier to grasp–had captured the American imagination. Mean-while, cricket had retreated into the wealthiest pockets of American society. There are still leagues in New York, Philadelphia, and California, and the arrival of software engineers from India and Pakistan has triggered a small cricket revival in Silicon Valley; but cricket generally remains a game for expatriates and eccentric enthusiasts.

Until now, perhaps. For Ted Hayes is determined to make cricket a hit in America the second time around. He predicts that within his lifetime there will be a world-class cricket stadium in Compton, and test matches (the highest level of international play) in Los Angeles. Disney is set to make a film about his original Krickets team, and his son, Theo, has produced a rap record about cricket. Meanwhile, the Compton Cricket Club practices three times a week and has joined a new California cricket league.

When I met the Compton players on a Sunday morning just before Christmas, they were determined to play against a local expatriate team despite unusually chilly weather. When the pitch was deemed too wet for a proper match, they set up a practice session so that I could see them in action. Their enthusiasm is matched only by their eccentric form, which combines a studied antique Englishness with occasional baseball-style swings akin to Mark McGwire’s. But they hope to rid their play of telltale American influences. They talk animatedly about “keeping the left elbow up,” “rolling the wrists,” and “keeping bat and pad close together.” One Compton cricketer who used to be in the Killer Society gang now said he wanted to be “the W.G. Grace of the 21st century,” a reference to one of the great English stars of the Victorian era. A local “all-rounder,” a player who is both a skillful batsman and bowler (think hitter and pitcher), sees himself as “the new Ian Botham,” England’s dominant cricketer of the 1980s.

Englishmen, perhaps flattered by the team’s anglophilia, have been keen supporters. The Dome Village notice board is covered with congratulatory letters from Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing Street, and the British consulate-general in Los Angeles. Hayes treasures these acknowledgments from the English establishment even more than the note he received from the White House.

Hayes now hopes to promote cricket in protest against the dominance of commercially oriented U.S. sports. “There have been player strikes in every major American sport over the past five years,” Hayes points out. “Cricket could benefit from a reaction against the commercialism that has ruined our national games.” Even when these millionaire sports stars do manage to play, he adds, “I see them spitting, jeering, and taunting. What kind of message does that send to American kids?”

Muhammad Ali, Hayes unfashionably states, undermined the ethical basis of sport. “Ali was the first famous athlete to legitimize arrogance and materialism. Now, most black sportsmen are braggarts.” Cricket can provide better role models: “In cricket, you don’t argue with the umpire, you don’t show dissent, you don’t ridicule your opponents if they lose, or your teammates if they make a mistake.” Even the rules breed humility: “Because a batsman only has one chance at the wicket, even the best player is bound to fail sometimes. Learning to cope with disappointment is built into the game.” In other words, Hayes believes what every English schoolboy used to be told–that cricket builds character. Now he hopes to use it to prepare people for adult life in the ghetto.

Many people in Compton, of course, never make it that far. With as many murders annually as San Francisco, a city seven times its size, Compton is the birthplace of gangsta rap and the inspiration for John Singleton’s despairing 1991 film, Boyz N the Hood. Contrary to its wild reputation, it seems at first sight remarkably normal. Most families have a detached house, a small garden, and at least one car. But Compton’s bourgeois living conditions are not complemented by middle-class careers. Local businesses have fled to safer communities, leaving Compton stripped of employment and almost devoid of commercial life. For those who are not independent-minded, there is simply nothing to do during Compton’s long sunny days.

The problem, then, is cultural nullity as well as economic decline. Compton’s inhabitants look not so much angry as vacant, and entrenched boredom has devalued the currency of human life, making violence a favorite hobby, at least for some. If you can kill the boredom, Ted Hayes thinks, you can stop the killings. He is not rhyming flippantly when he urges his team to “swap the gat”–L.A. slang for a gun–“for the bat.” By introducing kids to cricket, he is trying to protect them from the superficial glamour of riskier entertainment. It might even work.

But machismo is far from dead in Compton. Hayes has had to make sure that cricket is not seen as “the sissy’s choice.” At one practice, he threw a cricket ball in the direction of a surly-looking spectator: “If you’re so tough, catch that without a baseball mitt.” When the boy sidestepped, Hayes quipped, “I thought you were hard, I thought you were from Compton!” The spectator eventually became the team’s wicket-keeper and star batsman–both crucial roles. Hayes has tried to make cricket both fashionable and ethical; he has translated old-fashioned English manners into street slang. He Rollerblades, listens to rap music–and respectfully quotes the Queen Mother. He is a surrogate Englishman dressed in baggy African American clothes. He is an advocate for the homeless but hates the “nanny state.” He claims to be a capitalist, a monarchist, and an anglophile. His conversation moves freely from common sense to the outer extremities of eccentricity.

Perhaps you need to be a bit mad to live on the streets by choice, build a synthetic igloo colony, and then come up with cricket as a solution for L.A.’s social problems. But there is something inspiring about Hayes’ audacity. “Just think of the irony,” he says. “A group of homeless people are bringing the noble English game of cricket to the notoriously gang-infested ghettos of L.A. If we can do that, it shows that anything is possible.”

There is another irony, too. As Compton’s cricketers evoke the genteel spirit of the British empire, English cricket is looking to U.S.-style razzmatazz to win more fans. Colored clothing, big-money sponsorship, television advertising, and animal mascots have been grafted onto the modern game. In this professional era, cricketers are encouraged to be surly, not polite or articulate; still less gentlemanly. Being tough is the highest accolade. It is a business, after all. Amateur is a term of abuse, a synonym for sloppiness and self-indulgence.

In fact, when paying spectators watch professional sport, they increasingly want Compton street drama. They want “shoot-outs” and eyeball-to-eyeball action; they want “throat balls” and “sledging” (verbal intimidation). Sport today is mass voyeurism, and the domesticity of modern life has made its melodrama even more exciting. As the standard of living has risen–ironing out life’s discomforts–we have projected our fascination with physical hardship and heroism onto the playing fields. In this peaceful age, sport fulfills our need for tribal conflict.

Tribalism is a daily reality for Compton’s cricketers; they see no reason to recreate it. Like the armchair fan who loves a good on-field brawl, they too see sport as escape from the monotony of their daily lives. But escape for them means gentility, not conflict. English cricket has for them the same romantic appeal the world of gangsta rap has for white middle-class boys. Our sporting obsessions offer up the inverted reflection of our souls.

Meanwhile, the sports industry should think twice before abandoning its heritage of self-improvement. If professional sport is overrun by cheats and show-offs and is no longer seen as a civilizing force, parents eventually will stop buying those replica jerseys and taking their families to games. Perhaps the industry has something to learn from Compton.

Edward Smith plays cricket for Kent and reviews books for the Sunday Telegraph. Adapted from Prospect (March 1999). Subscriptions: £59.90/yr. (12 issues) from Freepost RM 1406, Romford RM6 5BR UK.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.