It’s an oval-shaped, bumpy field at the Harambee Park complex in Dorchester, lined with rusty lights that long ago stopped working. There’s a strip of dirt carved out in the middle of the ground, and two Little League cages encroach at its boundary.
Not many Bostonians could tell you that cricket, a sport that for most locals is as arcane and confusing as they come, is played here.
But for Denovan Blake, a lean and spry 50-year old who moved from Jamaica to Boston when he was 17, the cricket field pitch is something of a summer home each season, where friends and families from South Boston’s Caribbean community come together each weekend from May until October.
When Blake looks over the park he stands up and takes a step back, raising his arms in the air.
“This could be quite a ground with some work,” he said in a clipped accent. Still, in mid-summer, the height of cricket season, it’s teeming with activity. “The families are out, the barbecue is going, there’s not a parking space for a mile.”
Today, however, it is the middle of April, two weeks before the Massachusetts State Cricket League (MSCL) season begins and games are played here each weekend. Blake is sitting, looking out at the park with his teammate and fellow Jamaican expat Alexi Martin, and Guyana’s Sharaz Baksh, a friend of Blake’s who plays for the Lagaanteam. In the background, a woman chips golf balls onto their field. An elderly man searches through a nearby trash can, and walks away with a fishing rod.
Baksh’s team, Lagaan, which formed three years ago, won the league’s first division last year. (The league has three divisions.) It broke up a decade-long run during which Conway Cricket Club, founded by Blake in 1992 and sponsored through his real estate company, traded titles with the Commonwealth Cricket Club A Team, made up of mostly emigrants from the Indian subcontinent.
The three are engaging in friendly, if needling, banter about the cricket season. Baksh, who has played since he was a small child, is identified by Blake as an up-and-coming star for the league, but it’s an endorsement he gives begrudgingly.
“There’s a lot of trash talk that takes place on the field,” Baksh conceded. All parties agree that with teams mostly aligning around national affiliations, on-field rivalries are heightened. There are subcontinent teams, and there are Caribbean teams, but rarely are the rosters mixed.
“It’s never intentional, but people just want to play with who they are familiar with,” Blake said.
It took Baksh, 27, who works in a chiropractor’s office, a few years to discover cricket even existed in the US. But it was a big part of helping him adjust to life in America after he arrived in 2003. “If you play cricket, and someone finds out, once the season starts you’re no longer a stranger,” he said.
Blake serves as organizer and informal booster for Conway, and also manages public relations for the MSCL. He recruited Martin, who chuckles as he recalls the zest with which he was bought into the fold.
Cricket has a long history in America. It arrived with the British, nearly 300 years ago. The world’s first international cricket match was played between the US and Canada in New York in 1853.
But by the start of the 20th century it had been eclipsed here by the surging popularity of baseball. The two sports have only a bat-and-ball concept in common. Over-arm bowling, the flat, paddle-shaped bat, its two alternating batsmen, and marathon-length games are just a few of the ways that cricket differs from baseball.
Immigration reforms in the 1960s brought people into America from a greater array of countries, and as arrivals streamed in from the Caribbean, India, and Pakistan, cricket accumulated a base of players — and fans — again. The MSCL was formed in 1906, but it was only intermittently active until the 1960s, says its president, Manas Sahu.
Sahu joined the league a decade ago. There were only nine teams, he says. Now there are more than 30 teams, divided into three divisions. It is an increase that can be attributed to both a growing awareness of the league and to the number of international students and immigrants.
“The biggest struggle is to find grounds,” Sahu says. Currently, all teams that want to play can, but new additions to the league have to find a playing space before they can join. There are four parks within Boston’s city limits, and most teams share fields.
Despite the crush for park space, both the MSCL and Boston Parks Department speak fondly of the other.
“Those guys are so organized and enthusiastic about the game,” said Paul McCaffrey, director of the permitting division for the Boston Parks and Recreation Department.
Blake joined the league in 1989, more than a decade after he’d moved to Boston. He stuck to soccer, initially. It’s been 23 years of cricket now, and he has a Zen attitude about how long he’ll keep playing.
“I’ve never thought about the day when I wouldn’t play, but it will probably come,” Blake says. He sells real estate, and has moved his office to his home to keep costs down, but he says business is good. He has two sons, ages 13 and 7, who prefer karate and skateboarding to cricket, he says.
The cricket season is hard work for Blake, between his job, a game each weekend, three practices a week, and PR duties for the league.
“Every year I tell myself it is the last year,” he said, laughing. “But then April rolls around again, and I just get too excited.”
In 2004, Blake represented the US at cricket’s Champions Trophy in England, the only major tournament the national team has ever qualified for. The American side, an amalgam of first- and second-generation immigrants, was beaten by Australia and New Zealand in two one-sided matches. But it was an honor to represent his adopted country and play against the best in the world, he says.
Two weeks later, opening day arrives, and Blake is at bat. He plays with an assured athleticism and dexterity that sets him apart from some of his team. It’s a sunny, early spring afternoon and a cold wind whips across the park.
There’s a crowd of 20 watching the game. It’s not quite family-day-at-the-park weather. Blake’s Conway Cricket Club teammates are wrapped up warmly. They all name the New England cold as the biggest adjustment from Caribbean life.
Reggae music blares out the back of a van. A table has been set up, and four men are playing dominoes. The team is sitting on a stone wall that lines Harambee Park, chatting animatedly among themselves in Jamaican Patois. They yell advice good-naturedly. A batsman is out and there are hollers from the sideline. An old man watching in the distance mutters in disapproval.
Gladstone McClean, a bearded, laconic horticulturalist, is looking at the action, smiling. He came to America from Jamaica 14 years ago, and has been playing cricket here for five years. He’d heard talk about cricket in Massachusetts, but stumbled upon a game one day when he was out taking a drive.
McClean is relaxed and happy. “It’s good for the soul to be around these people.”