United States | Bowling (New) Yorkers

The long innings of the Staten Island Cricket Club

Clarence Modeste is president of the oldest continuously running cricket club in the United States. DW GIBSON FOR THE CARAVAN
01 June, 2011

ON A RECENT SUNDAY MORNING, Troy Danilo grabbed his bat and headed out to his stepfather's blue Honda. The 17-year-old emerged from his house with his slender frame draped in several layers: various coloured T-shirts; a baseball-style hat, covered by a bright blue hooded sweatshirt; and lastly, a white, long-sleeve T-shirt, barely tugged down over the bulk beneath. The calendar said it was mid-April, early spring, but the earth wasn't in agreement. The wind was cold and unkind. The sun was gone, stolen by a grey sky, scattering fat raindrops. This was not cricket weather. But Danilo was determined, and there was a friendly match just minutes from his front door.

It was his first day playing for the Staten Island Cricket Club at Walker Field, a mere 25-minute ferry ride from the southern tip of Manhattan. A batsman originally from Australia, Danilo used to suit up regularly with friends back in Sydney. But when his family immigrated to the US six years ago, he discovered none of his new classmates knew about the game.

Though the United States played host to history's first-ever international cricket match, a 23-run loss to Canada in 1844, and the first overseas tour (a British visit in 1859), by the end of the 19th century, baseball had all but vanquished wickets from the American landscape. Today the game enjoys isolated pockets of popularity, mostly in immigrant communities throughout the country. Among these cloisters of action-starved batsmen and bowlers, cricket not only survives but thrives.

The Staten Island Cricket Club is no exception. Troy Danilo joined a roster of fellow immigrants: Majid Arab from Peshawar, Pakistan, who runs a bagel shop and gas station; Prashanth Nandavanam, a financial services consultant from Bengaluru; Joseph O'Neill from Cork, Ireland. O'Neill, a London-based lawyer turned New York City novelist, wrote The New York Times bestseller Netherland, which features a Trinidadian immigrant and his quixotic pursuit: building a cricket stadium in New York City.

The majority of the club's players come from four countries: India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Trinidad and Tobago. Many now live and work on Staten Island—one of New York City's five boroughs—which possesses a distinctly suburban feel, particularly by comparison with the bright nights and tall buildings of neighbouring Manhattan. Since some players only stay for a brief while—many moving to other cities for work—there is a fairly consistent rotation of active club members.

Clarence Modeste, the club's president, is the first point of contact for every new player, including Troy Danilo. "He was really open to me," Danilo said. "I felt like I was one of the teammates on my first day. I thought, this is the right place to be…it felt like home again."

Soon after Modeste introduced Danilo around, everyone took the field, racing against the darkening sky. The opposing team, King's Bench Walk Cricket Club of England, had come a long way. Everyone was determined to get this one in: they had waited all winter, and now it was time for cricket.

As the action got under way, Walker Field managed to absorb the early drizzle. The park is wrapped in a leaning chain-link fence, surrounded on all sides by middle-class homes and cars crammed into every last parking spot along the sidewalks. A bit drowned out by the modern world, the park unassumingly holds significant history: The Staten Island Cricket Club has occupied the mat-covered pitch since 1885. The club itself dates back to 1872, making it the oldest continuously running cricket club in the US.

"Just about all the cricket in this country is played on mats and it's played as limited overs," Modeste said. Twenty20 is the standard format in the United States, but on the soggy afternoon of Troy Danilo's debut, the players were willing to settle for as many overs as the weather would allow. While Danilo opted for a motley uniform, most of the players put on whites, which were soon browned and grass-stained and mostly soaking wet.

Fielding alongside Danilo was Keerthi Bala, who is originally from Hyderabad. Bala, 28, moved to New York with his family in 1996. Like Danilo, Bala immediately discovered cricket was hard to come by—no sight of the game, no talk of the game, no general knowledge of the game among his classmates. "There are so many other sports in the US to pick from," Bala said. "To find cricket players is extremely hard."

Always searching for cricketers, Bala eventually stumbled onto occasional games of tape ball. And three years ago, he was invited to meet some of the players from the Staten Island Cricket Club. "I showed up," Bala recalled, "and they said, 'you look like you can play—do you want to play a game?' I happened to play good that day, fortunately."

Bala, like most members of the club, kept an admirably sleepless schedule during the recent World Cup. "I was waking up at three or four o'clock in morning," he said, and watching the matches on his computer. Despite the early hour, Bala's family—his mother, father and older brother—gathered at his house to eat breakfast and watch the action together.

The Staten Island club's face-off against King's Bench Walk, however, lacked the glorious resolution of India's World Cup campaign: the match was called between innings as the skies opened up and a downpour soaked the field. Everyone was forced into an adjacent Tudor-style building, where the teams sat in an erstwhile classroom with walls covered in brightly coloured Easter eggs cut out of big sheets of butcher paper. The effervescent decorations were somehow congruous with the grass-stained, grown men talking about their favourite game. Hospitality overshadowed the lousy weather.

Club secretary Rajadurai Bavanandan set out some Sri Lankan sandwiches provided by his wife, and warm tea was served while Joseph O'Neill braved the elements to fetch beer.

Clarence Modeste offered a few remarks, thanking the visitors for making the trip to play at the start of the cricket season. "There is always weather and it's one of those things we learn to live with. Don't we?" The blunt question was softened by an infectious smile.

It is hard not to be taken by Modeste's calm, bright demeanour. He welcomes everyone to Walker Park with immediate warmth, and he's been doing so since he joined the club in 1961. Originally a strong bowler, he admits that age—he's 81 now—and a few injuries have slowed him down over the years. "I do a lot of cricket umpiring these days," he said.

As club president, Modeste's duties include everything from arranging matches—both friendly and league—to looking after the field. "We do the work on the pitch ourselves," he said, laughing as he added: "The city doesn't know how to fix a cricket field."

"It's not so easy to lead a team for so many years," said Keerthi Bala. "And he does it perfectly."

But the effort is ongoing, and maintaining an enduring tradition won't be easy. "Here the game has been played mostly by adults." Modeste said, adding that he doesn't think this bodes well for the future. Though cricket in the US can be sustained by a constant replenishment of immigrants, Modeste argues that the game can really only begin to grow when it is embraced by a new generation of young players brought up in the culture of cricket.

Just last year, Modeste formed a committee to organise a youth league. "We've been thinking for some time that the future of the game lies in having young people attracted to it—just as we ourselves were as children," he said. In its first year of operation, the league signed up 17 participants—both boys and girls—between the ages of five and 17.

Many of the club members, like Keerthi Bala, agree with Modeste: cricket has the potential to grow in the US, if given the chance. "There has to be some kind of influence for people to want to play the game," said Bala.

For the Staten Island Cricket Club, the influence is Clarence Modeste. "You have the kind of sense that he's going to be there," said Bala. "He's like a father to all of us."