Howzat? It's Cricket : Popular From Karachi to Kingston, the Sport Is Also Alive and Well in the Southland

Times Staff Writer

"Howzat?" cries the bowler, flinging his arms up in appeal as he spins around to face the man in the long white coat standing behind him.

The umpire pauses for a second or two, then lifts his right hand, the index finger extended. The verdict has been given: "Out."

Twenty-two yards away, the batsman turns disconsolately from the wicket and walks off the pitch. His innings is over. He is out, leg-before-wicket, for a duck.

Batsman at the Crease

A new batsman comes to the crease, surveys the field and takes his stance. The wicket-keeper and the half-circle of slips inch forward in anticipation as the bowler returns to begin a new run-up.

Gobbledygook?

No, just cricket, a game that was already 500 years old when somebody with the unlikely name of Abner (or was it Alexander?) tinkered with the established English game of rounders and called his "invention" baseball.

Today, the "new" game's fans flock to Chavez Ravine and Anaheim Stadium, but on any given weekend during spring, summer and early fall, there are cricket matches being played from Santa Barbara to San Diego and from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.

The sport is alive and well hereabouts. In fact, Jean Wong, president of the Southern California Cricket Assn., says there are 26 teams playing in regular league competition during the March-to-October season. More than 500 cricketers from around the world are involved in the game locally.

And all because of one man.

Somewhere in Coldwater Canyon there is--or at least there used to be, it's difficult to tell with such things--a house with a rather unusual name.

The Round Corner, as it was called, had a couple of other odd characteristics. Its weather vane, for instance, consisted of a bat and ball, while elsewhere atop the roof were three cricket stumps.

Those who visited the house regularly--men such as Errol Flynn and Boris Karloff, Nigel Bruce and Basil Rathbone, P. G. Wodehouse and David Niven--knew what the rooftop eccentricities meant. They too were cricketers, though they had never reached the starry heights of the home's owner, C. Aubrey Smith, one-time captain of England and leader of Marylebone Cricket Club tours to Australia in 1887-88 and to South Africa in 1888-89.

Sir Charles, knighted in 1944 for his work in improving Anglo-American relations, was one of those empire builders who carried the grand game to the colonies so that today the sound of willow bat striking leather ball is instantly recognizable from Karachi to Kingston and from Cape Town to Christchurch.

A gifted athlete as well as actor, he managed to enjoy both careers to the fullest. Although he was a talented soccer player, it was cricket that was his true passion.

Benny Green in his admirable "A History of Cricket" (David & Charles, c/o Sterling Publishing, 2 Park Ave., New York 10016; $35), describes Smith as: "A bowler with a delivery so eccentric that all England knew him as 'Round-the-Corner' Smith." Proud of the nickname, Smith later used it in naming his Hollywood Hills mansion, the one in Coldwater Canyon.

It was his acting, however, that brought him to Los Angeles in 1930. By then, he was 68 and a household name among London theatergoers. In Hollywood, his oh-so-proper accent and his silver hair and mustache quickly earned him parts as the quintessential English gentleman in a string of movies such as "The Four Feathers," "Rebecca," "Lives of a Bengal Lancer" and "The Prisoner of Zenda."

Between pictures, he founded the Hollywood Cricket Club, stocking its ranks with other expatriate Britons who had come to make their fortune in the movies. Some, like Laurence Olivier, resisted Smith's efforts and seldom played. Others were keen cricketers and even went on tour with the Hollywood club.

Despite Smith's efforts and the glamour attached to his "star" players, the game never really caught on in Los Angeles. It was then, and remains now, a club sport played for the enjoyment of its participants, most of them immigrants from Commonwealth countries. To those not brought up with the sport, it appears baffling.

"Trying to describe cricket to someone who has never played the game," a local player once said, "is like trying to describe bridge to a novice card player. You cannot explain the intricacies of the game and the challenge it provides to someone who has not played it."

Americans Ignore It

Americans, by and large, therefore ignore it, and writers, when they are handed the task of "doing a cricket story" by their editors, invariably wind up poking fun at the sport's admittedly curious nomenclature (an easy thing in a game where fielders are called "silly mid-on" or "square leg," and bowlers send down "googlies" and "chinamen").

But cricket is filled with far better anecdotes, stories that seem to grow more bizarre the farther one gets from Lords, the London headquarters of the game.

There is the tale, for example, of the Englishman who tried to get his cricket bat through French Customs several years ago. Failing to grasp the visitor's explanation of the bat's use, the inspector simply handed him a form listing dozens of descriptions and asked him to check the appropriate one. The cricket bat eventually entered France as an engine sportif sans movement mecanique.

Or what about this one from Germany, where cricket is played in Munich in the Englischer Garten, a public park where, as one writer put it, "the German penchant for cavorting about naked prevails."

This habit has necessitated a slight altering of the rules of the game as they are observed in Munich: A batsman cannot be dismissed if, in the opinion of the umpires, he was hopelessly distracted by an unclad Fraulein jogging in the outfield. That, it is felt, just wouldn't be cricket.

Or there is this delightful tale involving C. Aubrey Smith himself.

A Dropped Catch

It seems that Smith, the team captain, was fielding in a match in Los Angeles one day when he dropped a catch. He immediately stopped the game and called for his butler, who was instructed to bring Smith his spectacles. The butler returned with the spectacles and the game continued. A few minutes later, Smith dropped another catch, and, so the story goes, was heard to curse: "The damn fool brought my reading glasses."

Lastly, there is the story of the Rev. Elisha Fawcett, an English cleric who, early last century, devoted his life to teaching the natives of the Admiralty Islands Christianity and cricket, perhaps not in that order.

The islanders were not wealthy and, when Fawcett died, they cast about for a suitable monument to place over his grave. They chose the good clergyman's wooden leg. Well, what with a nurturing climate and plenty of rain, the leg took root and, in the years ahead, the resultant tree produced a whole harvest of new bats for the islanders.

Now that's a cricket story.

Those curious enough to want to see a game in person can best do so by heading out to Woodley Park in Van Nuys between now and Oct. 22, when the current season ends.

There are three cricket fields there, with matches being played simultaneously starting at about 11 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

Allowing time for the traditional break for tea, the games can last until dusk. If the action seems a bit baffling, ask a player what's going on. You might even learn that a duck is zero, and the trip will not have been for nought.

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