By Annamarya Scaccia
Overnight rain showers have thoroughly soaked St. Gabriel’s Field but after an hour delay the cricket match gets underway — with one side designated off limits. It’s late April, just two weeks into the season. Today the Lower Providence Township, Pa., field plays host to head-to-head competition between the Knights and Collegeville cricket club. The occasion is the Turbo Cup tournament, created in honor of their late friend and Knights teammate Terrance “Turbo” Bernard.
From the stands, Manish Mandelia watches the teams make the best of it in the mud. Mandelia co-founded the Knights club with treasurer Ravi Gunaratne in 2005 but Mandelia is sitting this game out to spend the rest of the day with his wife and daughter. Plus, he’s already played a game in the Turbo Cup against the day before, which his Knights won.
A native of Bombay, India, the 35-year-old IT professional moved to Philadelphia 12 years ago to pursue an M.B.A. in information systems from Temple University. He’s often busy with family and work, but he makes time for the game he grew up on. Cricket, he says, can bring people together, and does so often. Nearly 60 years of border tensions between Pakistan and India could melt away for a match (of course not without some political bickering, he adds). After soccer, cricket is the second most-played sport in the world.
At one point, cricket was commonplace in America, and Philadelphia was the hub. Even as the popularity of the sport waned, Philadelphia produced the largest number of players in the United States. A 1903 New York Times editorial marveled: “It has long been a problem for the psychologist or sociologist … why Philadelphians play cricket and why they are the only Americans who do play it.” Today, there are about 20 clubs keeping the game alive in Philadelphia, including 13 in the Philadelphia Cricket League, which Mandelia helped establish in 2006. Some, like the Philadelphia and Haverford cricket clubs, have been around for 174 years.
And for the past 16 years, the city has been home to the Philadelphia Cricket Internat—ional Festival. This year’s installment, which the Knights did not participate in, took place last weekend, May 1 to 4, on the grounds of the Germantown, Merion, Haverford and Philadelphia cricket clubs. This year, says Tom Culp, festival organizer and captain of the Philadelphia Cricket Club, they raised money to support youth cricket in Philadelphia, as overseen by Haverford College’s C. C. Morris Cricket Library.
Mandelia is much calmer than his days as a young jock playing in the fast bowler position; he was the type of guy who always wanted the next ball to be “faster and more dangerous.” He figures that’s just a stage everyone goes through when they’re young, thinking they could “win it all.” But now, as a wicketkeeper, Mandelia can study a player’s body language, deciphering their emotions and how he could change the game’s momentum in his team’s favor.
The positions of batsman, bowler and wicketkeeper are not so different from a baseball’s batter, pitcher and catcher. However, in cricket, a bowler can bounce the ball on the pitch before it reaches the batsman (the ball is easier to hit if it doesn’t bounce). While each position requires different skills, the bowler position is more physically straining than the others, says Mandelia, and since he’s getting older, he just can’t do it anymore.
But there’s someone else in his life that’s changed his attitude — his two-year-old daughter, Aarushi, whom he had with his childhood sweetheart/wife of 12 years, Rujuta. “I try to be calmer and react less so that my daughter can learn to be calmer,” he says.
Cricket’s also played in one’s head. As Mandelia puts it, if a player lets emotions rule them, their skill can go down “very, very quickly.” “The best players are still not in control of their emotions. So, it’s very important for somebody a little more mature to be present to be able to keep the emotions in check,” he says. “It’s important to have passion … but only in so much as it keeps the game in your favor and of course, more importantly, keeps it ‘gentlemanly’.”
The sport, after all, is know as “the gentlemen’s game.” Historically, cricket has not been beset by the dirty politics, game fixing and brawls that have plagued other sports.
It’s an image, though, that’s being tested by the misdeeds of some key international players. Recently, the Pakistan Cricket Board banned controversial Pakistani bowler Shoaib Akhtar for five years after a string of disciplinary breaches, including hitting teammate Mohammad Asif with a bat days before the 2007 Twenty20 World Cup. According to Mandelia, these indiscretions are primarily on the international scene; incidents in the Philadelphia Cricket League tend to be minimal and are dealt with quickly. “You can’t be abusing people or throwing tantrums on the field,” he says.
But why has this once popular activity fallen to the wayside in mainstream America? Some say it’s a matter of social status. Cricket once had a reputation as the preferred sport of the privileged, while its rugged offspring, baseball, was for the working class. It’s an idea both Mandelia and Culp say is simply untrue. “The elitist thing is history. It’s past. We’re all middle-class common people,” says Mandelia of the Knights and their Sunday competitors.
“When it first started in this country, cricket was played by all classes,” says Culp, 60. “What I think happened at some point is that the nicest grounds were owned by what others would call ‘elitist clubs,’ and therefore that’s what people thought. “
Both Mandelia and Culp think the decline in popularity is due to the length of the matches. Typically, a cricket match is played over three to five days. Slimmer versions were introduced in the early ’70s, like the One Day International (ODI), which can be completed in one day, and the Twenty20, introduced by the England and Wales Cricket Board in 2003, which is a form that can be completed in five hours — still long by U.S. sports standards.
“The fact of the matter is people in the U.S. don’t have time to play cricket five days a week or even watch cricket five days a week and even the Fifty50 version of the game lasts a whole day,” says Mandelia.
He predicts cricket’s popularity will pick up in America over the next 10 years, mainly due to the Twenty20 match version, already popular internationally. It all depends on the next wave of players. “Games are made more popular by kids actually growing up playing the game, so it’s going to take a generation before cricket becomes mainstream again,” he says.