June 2011

Something Wicket This Way Comes

To the many things for which Compton is known, add a competitive cricket team

LUCY
BROADBENT

PHOTO: MARK HANAUER

It’s Sunday in Compton, one of the world’s most notorious and violent drive-by capitals. Sergio Pinales pulls on a white vest, leaving starkly bare the tattoos that indelibly coat swaths of his skin. He positions a baseball hat atop his shaved head, grabs the leash of his pit bull and leaves his house, slamming the front door behind him.

There’s a look of purpose about him as he climbs into his father’s Pontiac, which has been loaned to him for the outing. On this day, there is only one thing on his mind—cricket. “I guess you could say I switched my gun for a bat,” says Pinales, 32, breaking into a smile that transforms him instantly from tough to teddy bear. “I mean, s--t, what would I be doing with my time if I wasn’t playing cricket? I probably woulda ended up in jail. Or in some kinda bad situation. Cricket really turned things round for me.”

For the last 14 years, Pinales has been scoring runs for the Compton Cricket Club (CCC)—known locally as the Homies and the POPz—a team from the hood that happens to play cricket in a country that has barely heard of the sport.

This world’s most unlikely cricket club has toured England three times, met Prince Edward at Buckingham Palace, played at Windsor Castle and even crossed paths with Australian cricket legend Shane Warne at the famed Lord’s field in London. In February, the team traveled Down Under for a series of games in Melbourne and Sydney.

“Man, I loved going to Australia,” Pinales says with a distinctly East L.A. accent. “I mean, cricket is my passion. To go there and play cricket, I mean, that was really something.”

“What we are trying to do now is raise money to make our team the Harlem Globetrotters of cricket,” Haber says. “In other words, to spread the word of cricket in America.”

He pulls up to Woodley Park in Van Nuys, some 30 miles from Compton. One by one, the other players arrive, all swagger and strut and in a ragtag assortment of whites.

There’s Theo Hayes in his do-rag, Isaac Hayes with his knotted dreads and brothers Emidio and Ricardo Cazarez, whose younger sibling, Jesse, was killed in a drive-by in 2009. And arranging a foldout chair in a shady spot is Katy Haber, a British film producer and the team’s cofounder. She has also been its manager, van driver, scorekeeper, cheerleader and substitute mom since 1996, when she began touring Compton schools to recruit kids for a game they weren’t even aware of.

The petite brunette in her sixties barks into her phone. One of her players, Steve, not long out of jail, hasn’t turned up, and she is mad. “I quite often have to ring round for subs,” she explains. “It’s not easy getting a full team together every time.” Today’s game is against a group of Indians and Bangladeshis, who are easy to pick out by the neatness of their whites compared with those of the Homies.

Back in 1995, Haber was secretary for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts’ Los Angeles cricket team. She got a call from the captain of the Beverly Hills Cricket Club (consisting largely of British expats), who was looking for an 11th man. Unable to find anyone, she asked a friend, Theo and Isaac’s dad Ted Hayes, a social campaigner and homeless activist.

“Ted said, ‘What’s cricket?’” she explains. “I told him it’s the same as baseball, except instead of running in circles you run up and down. The first ball they bowled to him, he hit but dropped his bat and ran, just like in baseball. But he fell in love with the game. He loved that it was so ethical, so well behaved. He said, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could start a cricket team among the homeless?’ I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’”

But that’s just what they did, recruiting expat cricketers to build a team called the LA Krickets among the homeless and, beginning in 1996, in Compton schools. They were never short of expat volunteers, because Los Angeles is home to significant numbers of former residents of cricket-crazed countries.

On any weekend at Woodley Park, scores of Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Brits, Australians, South Africans, New Zealanders and folks from the Caribbean can be found politely clapping as wickets are delivered during cricket season, which runs loosely from April to October.

They have found enough players to sustain two leagues: the Southern California Cricket Association (SCCA) and the Los Angeles Social Cricket Alliance (LASCA), both of which play a form of the game known as one-day. The Homies are unique because they are the U.S.’ first all-American cricket team. Unlike all the other teams, the Homies contain no expats.

“If the British never did anything right, they did right when they invented cricket,” says Hayes, 60, whose work on behalf of the poor has now made him a household name among L.A. philanthropists. “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. Cricket teaches you to play a game in a humanly respectful manner. It teaches you discipline. And I believe that when the players go beyond the boundary of the oval, they live a better life with their family, their siblings, even the police. Then when someone mad-dogs them or shows an attitude toward them, instead of mad-dogging back, which ends in violence and death, they have the discipline in their soul to say, ‘Nah, I’m walking.’ ”

Whether the game truly has that effect, or has simply provided a distraction to keep teenagers out of trouble, doesn’t really matter. The players—all now grown men—credit the game with their salvation. And having proved the theory works, Haber and Hayes want to raise funds so they can go back to recruiting kids from gangs, this time all across the country. “What we are trying to do now is raise money to make our team the Harlem Globetrotters of cricket,” Haber says. “In other words, to spread the word of cricket in America.”

And not without good reason, either: “At the 2012 Olympics, they are going to announce that in 2020, cricket will be an Olympic sport, so America had better get themselves an all-American cricket team. And where better to find it than among inner-city youth? Our mission has always been to use the game as a gang-prevention tool.”

The Homies have raised a good deal of awareness about the sport already, as a result of the tour to Australia, but there is still much to be done. “If cricket becomes an American sport,” she says, “there will be money that will come into towns and cities. It’s a no-brainer.”

Back on the field, play is a modification of antique gentlemen’s cricket, punctuated by polite clapping and baseball-style bat swipes and high fives. Pinales bowls a mean off-cutter (fast, spinning delivery) and takes five wickets before lunch (sandwiches from Subway, courtesy of Haber).

“My friends laughed when I started playing,” he says, taking a break in the shade. “They know about baseball, but cricket doesn’t come up in their vocabulary. When they saw me go to England and Australia, they were like, what?

“Man, I loved going overseas. I mean, that’s the thing about cricket—it’s taken me lots of places I never would have been. It was a life-changing experience. I remember coming back from England and thinking, S--t, I’m special. I mean, damn, it’s a one in a million chance to have a person from the ghetto goin’ to England and meetin’ royalty. And then there are the fans. I mean, we’re just average people, but all the girls were going crazy. They were screaming at us. I was like, ‘This is nice.’”

“It’s hard to find anyone who is not gang affiliated growing up in Compton. Did I carry a gun? Of course I carried a gun,” he says with a deep belly laugh. “But cricket helped me grow up the right way.”

Pinales, who is single, now works as a mechanic and credits cricket for getting him to that place in life. “I was an angry young man. All of us were gang affiliated one way or another. It’s hard to find anyone who is not gang affiliated growing up in Compton, because that’s the way it is. Did I carry a gun? Of course I carried a gun,” he says with a deep belly laugh.

“Everybody has a gun in Compton—s--t. And I used to beat people up all the time. That’s what we used to do. We’d always be acting the fool, s--t like that. But cricket helped me become more of a gentleman, made me grow up the right way around other people. It’s hard to explain. But I love the way everyone carries themselves in cricket. For a person like me, who’d never seen people behave that way, it was special. I try to imitate it. I try to act in a sociable way.”

Over the years, many of the team members have come and gone. Pinales’ brother was on the team but was killed in a motorcycle accident seven years ago at age 20. Another died in a car accident, while others dropped out. Two did some time in jail. Twenty-year-old Jesse Cazarez was showing promise as a first-class batsman when he died.

Older brother Emidio, 30, a tall Latino with the signature shaved head and pencil-thin moustache, still mourns him. It had been Emidio who brought Jesse to practice because he saw how it was turning his own life around. “At first, Jesse hadn’t wanted to get involved,” he says. “I told him, ‘Just stay with it, man. Trust me.’ And he got it. He thought cricket was fun. What makes me mad is he was just calming down from being a knucklehead when he was killed.”

With that, Emidio reflects on the day Jesse was taken. “He was talking about the Super Bowl, and these guys drive by,” he says. “I don’t know how many bullets they shot, but they weren’t even meant for him. I still don’t really believe it. Sometimes I come home, and I forget, and I think, Where is he? But that’s how it is in Compton. Compton’s real crazy.”

He pauses and stares straight ahead, pain clearly embedded in the silence. He is a plumber now and still lives in Compton, though it’s been several years since he dodged bullets himself. Cricket was responsible for that. As a youth, Emidio was into fighting. He even cautiously admits that when he first started playing cricket he used his bat to beat someone up. But he soon got the hang of its real purpose.

“At first I wasn’t so sure about cricket,” he says. “I remember thinking it sucks that you’ve got to give all authority to the umpire, because what if he messes up? Especially with my attitude back then. I was like, Oh yeah, you think I’m gonna bow down to him and do whatever he says? Yeah, right. But after a while, you get to thinking about it. And it helps to use those rules in real life. You can’t go arguing and fighting about every bad decision that’s ever made. Sometimes you gotta learn to live with it.”

Isaac Hayes concurs. “It’s not just a sport, and it’s not just a game. It’s like chess—it makes you think. It makes you focus,” says Hayes, 33, who was raised by his mother in Riverside, where gangs were a serious problem as well. He was sent off to join the team when he became too much of a handful. “I was into things I shouldn’t have been.Let’s just say, at 17, the police knew my first, middle and last name. I was on a path to nowhere. And then my father took me on, taught me cricket, took me to England and showed me something different. I’ve been playing ever since.

“Now if I say to anyone that I play cricket, it shuts up the whole room. People are in awe that we’re American cricket players. But we’re not just playing cricket—we’re guys from the inner city, trying to get other kids to learn the sport and hopefully take it mainstream.”

To that end, Hayes and his brother Theo, who is the captain of the team, are writing some rap songs about cricket, one of which has already been performed on TV during the Australian tour. “It’s about putting down the gat [a word that derives from the Gatling gun] and picking up the bat,” says Theo, 38, who works in building maintenance. “We are all choosing not to be gangstas. But a lot of kids like us, they’re just born into it. We go into gangs for confidence, for protection, for loyalty, kinship. And cricket is an alternative. We’re trying to show kids with our songs and with our game that there’s other things they can do in life.”

The essence of that message is important for all of the Homies. Appreciation of international cricket is minimal here—even the most avid sports fan in the U.S. struggles to name a famous cricketer. The standard of play varies from the U.S. version as well, although the Homies did win the league in 2004 and 2005. But that isn’t really what the CCC is all about. Having been together for more than 12 years, the team members have come to regard one another as family, and together they have seen what can be achieved. They are, in a sense, a gang of their own.

LUCY BROADBENT is a freelance Brit journalist who writes for the London Times from L.A. She grew up watching cricket played on village greens in rural England.