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Something Wicket This Way Comes

Christian M. Chensvold last wrote for the magazine about a car collector.

Tea bags in Tinseltown

When a Brit goes outwardly “native,” his inner Union Jack seems to blaze all the more vividly. Aldous Huxley epitomized the legions of seekers who flocked to Los Angeles before World War II, yet he remained thoroughly British down to his argyle socks. No American has created more iconic images of Los Angeles than David Hockney, but his thorough Britishness is legend. And no Hollywood actor has squeezed more business and pleasure out of Southern California than Michael Caine--that’s Sir Michael to you, mate.

Despite the complicated nature of our relationship with our cousins across the Atlantic, you’ve got to love that they bring their sometimes eccentric idea of play with them wherever they go.

How else can you account for the fiercely competitive cricketers batting sixers in the San Fernando Valley, gardeners who have re-created the lushness of their native gardens in a desert climate, or the fiercely loyal fans of Manchester United who have transferred their social lives 5,500 miles from one pub to another?

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Yes, they’re slightly bonkers, but they deserve

their place in our sun. Why? Two words.

The Beatles.

*

From the center pitch to the edge of a cricket field is 250 feet. It makes for a long walk of shame for Derek Polley, who has just fanned out on a nasty delivery from an opposing bowler. Unlike in baseball, one strike in cricket and you’re out--for the rest of the game. “There’s one really bad time to talk to a batsman--when he’s just got out,” grumbles Polley, an information technology manager from Essex now living in Newport Beach.

Jimmy Pearce, a stout construction worker from East London now living in Hollywood, chides his teammate in his cockney lilt. “Come on, be a perfect English gentleman.”

On a bright Sunday afternoon, British & Dominion is playing the national sport of England in the shadow of the San Bernardino Mountains in Riverside County. Its home turf in Garden Grove is being reseeded, so the Division Three team--current record 3-3--is forced to share a park lawn with locals playing soccer. It is a droll sight, an athletic comedy of errors wedged between grandeur and folly. Temperature: hot (it’s Riverside). Score: losing by 71 to a mostly Pakistani team known as the Friends. Number of spectators: zero. Bottles of gin: many.

There was a time when the sun never set on the English empire. Alas, it may never rise on British & Dominion. Founded in 1982, the team for years was ranked dead last among a dozen or so teams (there are now 45) in the Southern California Cricket Assn. Here in the land of surf and skate is one of the nation’s largest cricket communities, with more than 1,000 league players anchored by the Leo Magnus Cricket Complex in Woodley Park in Van Nuys, one of the largest dedicated cricket facilities in North America. Though B&D; boasts the odd Aussie and Indian among its roster, it’s the only team of mostly British expatriates in a league dominated by Pakistanis and Indians.

The team begins racking up runs two and three at a time. B&D; must surpass the Friends’ 71 runs before 10 men are out. A batsman can keep hitting the one-bounce pitches until he’s out, and a top batsman can score hundreds of runs. Polley, still sulking on the sidelines, scored five.

Slouching indolently on a foldable lawn chair, William Armstrong of B&D; pours himself another gin and tonic. The last batsman in the lineup, he’s hoping the team wins before he’s summoned. In fact, he’d rather imbibe than bat. “Each team has a village idiot,” says the 51-year-old welder from Belfast, Ireland, who was a last-minute substitute. Now a Garden Grove resident, Armstrong loves the camaraderie, the verdant field shimmering in the sunlight and, of course, the excuse to drink at noon. He even loves the sport. “It’s a gentleman’s game, where you don’t argue with the umpire,” he says.

Or such is the ideal. Any cricket player from Bangladesh to Bermuda will tell you that. In truth, caterwauling appeals to the umpire are common and brawls are the rule rather than the exception.

But the ideal of the English gentleman, to paraphrase Robert Browning, is something more for a man to reach for than to fully grasp. B&D; members pride themselves on doing their best to be good sports, which has led organizers of the posh Philadelphia International Cricket Festival to overlook the team’s humdrum play and extend an annual invitation. The fairness ethic derives from their being older than most of their opponents, says Martin Brooks, a retired engineer from Essex now living in Garden Grove, from being more mature. “I’m what they call an all-rounder,” says Brooks, nipping at his gin, “which basically means I’m not very good at anything.”

But in Southern California, cheating is on equal footing with good sportsmanship, says Stephen Speak, a PE teacher from Long Beach and a former professional cricket player in Britain. His last B&D; game was against a team known for its “sledging,” or chatter designed to irk and roil opponents. “It was fierce,” he adds.

Cricket is the most popular sport on the South Asian subcontinent, something kids play in the street and see as a ticket to a better life. According to some B&D; members, it fosters a win-at-all-costs attitude prevalent among many Asian teams in Southern California. “But they haven’t been brought up to play the game right,” says Speak, “so you can’t really blame them.”

From a Yank perspective, cricket is the quintessence of Englishness: formal, eccentric, stultifyingly dull (Robin Williams called it “baseball on Valium”) and rife with unintelligible Anglo argot such as googly (a sort of screwball), and wickets (the stakes that form the strike zone). Locals strolling through the park “think it’s a weird Druid festival with guys wearing white in a circle,” Speak says. Others call it lacrosse or croquet.

Still, thanks to immigration, a professional U.S. cricket league has emerged. Another new hot spot is China, which isn’t even a former British colony, yet it has developed a national cricket program with the goal of making the world championships in 15 years.

British & Dominion plays in the desert of its adopted homeland purely for the love of the game. The ritual of this centuries-old shepherd’s game provides these expatriates with precious moments of idle, gin-soaked bonhomie--a bit of Old Blighty amid the raucous hullabaloo of life in L.A.

The score is 68-71. Pearce, team captain because no one else wanted the job, puts down his pizza and strides onto the pitch. The opposing bowler takes a 50-foot run and hurls the ball: It bounces off the ground and hits Pearce square in the chest. His teammates wince. Pearce shakes it off, raises his bat and digs in. With the very next pitch, he launches a towering “home run” to left field.

British & Dominion has won the game.

Amid the hearty congrats of his teammates, Pearce takes off his gear and lights a cigarette. Didn’t the ball in the chest hurt? “Nah,” he says in fluent cockney, “I’ve got plenty of blubber from years of drinking lager.”


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