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State cricket league offers a home away from home

Everton Holder bowled the ball to batter Vasu Ram while umpire Cecil Butcher watched during a cricket match between Star Cricket Club and Trinidad and Tobago International on Aug. 15. Everton Holder bowled the ball to batter Vasu Ram while umpire Cecil Butcher watched during a cricket match between Star Cricket Club and Trinidad and Tobago International on Aug. 15. (Maisie Crow for The Boston Globe)
By Brian R. Ballou
Globe Staff / August 23, 2009

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Curious onlookers turned from their basketball game at Roberts Playground in Dorchester as a small white ball sailed over the heads of men in bright-white slacks and matching polo shirts at a nearby field.

This was cricket, an ancient national pastime in India, the West Indies, and the Caribbean that has found a home in parks throughout Eastern Massachusetts.

For players, most of whom arrived in the United States in adulthood, cricket is much more than a game. It has become a social networking outlet, a way to connect with countrymen, build lasting relationships, and tighten the bonds of community thousands of miles from home.

Raja Ananda, a 27-year-old financial administrator from Waltham, emigrated from India to the United States about six years ago and found a home away from home in the Massachusetts State Cricket League. “When I arrived here, I had only a few acquaintances. But I Googled cricket in Boston and found this league. Now, I have many friends, all of whom have come from cricket.’’

Ananda said his team, the MIT Cricket Club, is composed of players mostly from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. “We have our political problems back home, but here, everybody gets along,’’ he said. The club is also a tremendous professional networking opportunity, Ananda said.

Since most players on the team come from communities outside Dorchester, only a handful of fans make the trip from cities such as Waltham, Malden, Somerville, and Cambridge.

“We’re scattered around, so unless we’re in the playoff season, families and relatives and friends do not make the trip,’’ he said.

Some acknowledge that the community’s reputation for violence keeps people away. But it has not stopped residents from coming out to watch, the players say. “We get people all the time coming up to us asking how the game is played,’’ Ananda said. “They’re very curious because cricket is not something that most Americans understand.’’

League treasurer Lall Balgobin, who arrived in the United States from Guyana in 1990 and lives in Dorchester, has explained the sport to curious onlookers. “They try to understand it by comparing it to baseball. Our equivalent of a home run would score six runs instead of one.’’

Unlike baseball, hitting the ball out of the perimeter scores six points, the highest possible. Hitting a grounder that sails past the perimeter is four points. In the center of the field is a “pitch,’’ a narrow strip of dirt where the bowler pitches the ball to the batter. If the team on the field catches the ball before it hits the ground, the batter is out.

There are approximately 30,000 registered cricket players in the United States, according to Donald Lockerbie, chief executive officer of the Miami Beach-based United States Cricket Association. “And we know there are about 15 million cricket fans in the US,’’ he said in a phone interview from Brooklyn, N.Y., where he watched the US 15-and-under national team take on Canada. The sport is played by 104 countries and dates back to the early 1700s in the United States, he said.

Its history here notwithstanding, Stanley Herbert, the league’s vice president, said Americans have minimal interest in the sport. “Those who have no ties to the sport, who haven’t come from a country that plays it, they may have some interest in how it’s played, but that’s about it.’’

Most of the games in Dorchester are played at Franklin Field and Roberts Playground, two areas ringed by so-called “hot spots’’ - neighborhoods plagued by violence.

“We know there are shootings around here, but we’ve never heard gunfire while we’ve played,’’ Ananda said of Roberts Playground. “There was an incident a couple of weeks ago when a couple of guys on a scooter tried to steal a backpack with a player’s wallet in it. We chased the scooter and they ended up just dropping the backpack.’’ The players decided not to call police on the matter, and simply returned to playing.

Kapil Kulkarni, another immigrant from India, who plays on the Star Cricket Club, said some of his teammates who have played for 20 years or so say they have heard shots while playing. “Since I’ve been here, in the last five years, I have never experienced anything like that,’’ said Kulkarni, 31, a materials engineer from Waltham.

The Star club, made up of players from various countries, beat the Trinidad and Tobago Cricket Club last Saturday at Roberts Field, about a minute’s walk from where gangs armed with AK-47s engaged in a shootout on July 27 that left homes riddled with bullets and sent a 12-year-old girl to the hospital with a gunshot wound to her leg.

But according to Kulkarni, during weekend game times “it’s been peaceful. If you come down to Franklin Field, it’s the same. It’s like a get-together, with people grilling food. I’ve never seen any fights at either park. I feel comfortable there.’’

Kulkarni said he had no friends when he moved from Orlando, Fla., to Boston in 2004. He has lived in the United States since 1990. “Honestly, I didn’t expect to play cricket in the US,’’ he said.

The league obtains permits from the city’s Parks Department every year, Herbert said. Because the field of play, 350 feet in diameter, is so large, squabbles can erupt between cricket players and softball players where the fields intersect.

“The police have come a couple of times to settle things, but it’s never gotten to the point of fighting,’’ he said.

Balgobin, who arrived in the United States from Guyana in 1990, said he immediately sought out the league, which has been around for almost 100 years but exploded beginning in the 1970s with the influx of immigrants who learned the sport in such places as Australia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the Caribbean islands. There are 26 teams, divided into two divisions.

“It was a way for me to make friends, even though I already had relatives here,’’ Balgobin said.

Balgobin, 47, said that all but one of the players on his team, the Guyana Cricket Club, are from Guyana and that they all live within walking distance of Roberts Field. “It just happened that the community has grown around the field. We often see young guys come here from Guyana, and they join the team. The games on the weekends are like family day.’’