Straight outta Compton: A cricket club?

By Sophie Gosper

COMPTON – In a nation where cricket is considered an emasculated version of baseball and in a neighborhood known more for gang violence than the gentlemen’s sport of tea breaks and ducks has found its way to this South Los Angeles County city.

The players wait patiently in their white slacks and caps, ignoring the sweat rolling down their necks, as they stand littered strategically across a grass lawn, waiting for the bowler to make his move. He stands out like a patriotic vision, dressed head-to-toe in red, white and blue; not exactly an ensemble one frequently sees in cricket. But today’s game is just for fun, and the bowler has opted to wear his nation’s stripes and a backwards cap rather than the traditional all-white attire. He straightens his arm and swings it around and around like a brightly colored windmill, attempting to throw off the batsman with his comedic routine.

Crack. The sound of the hard, red leather ball hitting the flat wooden bat echoes across the lawn. The fieldsmen cry out and scatter to catch it. The batsman makes his run, the players laugh, the match is over.

The team, formally known as The Homies & the POPz, is the only all-American cricket team in the world, sporting members from the African American and Latino communities. Their mission is to use the principles and ethics of cricket to curb the negative effects of gang activities amongst youth and address homelessness in Compton, South Los Angeles and all inner cities.

“The aim of playing cricket is to teach people how to respect themselves and respect authority so they stop killing each other,” says Ted Hayes, homeless activist and co-founder of the Compton Cricket Team.

Originally called the LA Krickets, the team began at the Dome Village community for the homeless in Downtown Los Angeles in 1995, initiated by Hayes and film producer Katy Haber.

It began innocently enough. Haber, a lifelong cricket lover and the secretary of the BAFTA/LA cricket team, needed an extra player for a weekend game. After exhausting several other options, she convinced Hayes, whom she knew through her work at the Dome Village, to volunteer.

“‘What’s cricket?’ he asked me,” Haber recalls. “‘Oh it’s kind of like baseball, but instead of running in circles you just run up and down, you’ll get it,’” she lied convincingly.

When Hayes walked out onto the lawn for his first game, centuries of stiff-collared British cricketers rolled over in their graves.

“He looked like a Jamaican ringer with his dreadlocks,” Haber laughed nostalgically.

After the game Hayes declared his epiphany to Haber: He loved cricket for it’s gentlemanly etiquette and sportsmanship, and wanted to bring these ideals into the homeless community and teach the people at the Dome Village how to play.

“I was like: Yeah, right,” Haber says.

Within six months Haber and Hayes had the first all-American, all homeless cricket team touring England to huge acclaim.

“Nobody could believe what we were doing,” Haber says. “It was easy to get funding for it, it was a sexy idea: homeless guys playing cricket from America.”

After their success, Hayes and Haber wanted to find out where else the civilized benefits of playing cricket could be useful.

“So we said, well, let’s go to Compton where kids are killing themselves over the color of their shoelaces,” Haber says.

In 1996, Haber and Hayes visited Willowbrooke Middle School in Compton and taught a workshop on how to play cricket.

“Some of the original guys that were there that day in 1996 are the grown up men you see now, still on this team,” Haber points out.

Among the children that day was a 15-year-old Latino boy, Emidio Cazarez; today he is the team’s vice captain. At first, Cazarez admits to not liking the sport, but was convinced by his friend Ricardo Salgado, who also played for the Homies and the POPz and went on tour to the UK with the team, until parole kept him from going on their most recent tour to Australia.

“So I kept going back, and then the competitive side of me took over and I realized – If you’re tough, you should be able to play this game. I can take hits [from the ball] in my bare hands, and that hurts.”

Cararez said the most attractive thing for him about cricket was, and still is; if you’re good enough you can stay in the game all day.

“I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m manly enough to do that,’” Cararez says with a boyish grin.

Today, the team is still focused on counteracting the gang influences on streets of Compton, having faced the same pressures when they first started playing cricket.

“I was just doing my thing, then the gangs came along, and I was still kind of picking a side. All you need is something to distract you. If you got free time you’re going to do something with it, and if the streets are out there then that’s where you’re going to go,” Cararez recalls.

“We want to get to the kids before they are heavily recruiting by gangs. They couldn’t play cricket on the weekend and gang-bang on the weekdays. If you want to be a cricketer you got to be a gentlemen,” says Theo Hayes, captain of the team and Ted Hayes’ son.

Over the years they have lost players, many moving on with their lives because of jobs or families. But at times the harsh reality of living in Compton has left its mark on these men. Sergeo Pinales, a batsman for the team, lost his 20-year-old brother and teammate in a motorcycle accident. Another team member died in a car crash and one was sent to prison. Cazarez’ younger brother, Jesse Cazarez, was killed in a drive by shooting. He, too, was only 20 years old.

“The gangster life can be really exciting, for the short term you’re alive,” Theo says.

Unlike more conventional and aggressive American sports such as hockey, football and basketball, the team embraces the moral standards required during a cricket match and promotes that lifestyle to the broader community. These standards include no swearing, no lashing out or damaging equipment, wearing a clean uniform, and above all treating the opposing team with the utmost respect.

“No one is allowed to scratch their balls and yell at the umpire in cricket,” Haber says.

During February, 2011, the team crossed the Pacific Ocean and took their message to the shores of one of the world’s greatest cricketing nations, Australia.

“These boys in Australia they breathe cricket, they eat cricket, they live cricket,” Theo says.

As the first all-American cricket team to travel to the land down under, The Homies and the POPz competed against local and university teams in Melbourne and Sydney, where the team was able to catch an international test between two of cricket’s biggest rivals: England versus Australia, at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

“It’s a humbling experience, just when you think you’ve got it down, you see some people who have really got it down,” Theo says with a laugh.

Now back on home soil, the team is already looking to the next step towards promoting cricket, becoming more competitive and addressing the instabilities within inner cities. The Los Angeles Police Department has already recruited The Homies and the Popz to teach them how to play and assist in their counter-terrorism program, particularly within Muslim communities.

“Cricket has always been that sport that kind of transcends culture, nationality and intentional borders, it’s a very popular sport in countries that our part of the community is from,” says Blake Chow, the assistant commanding officer of the LAPD counter-terrorism and special operations bureau.

As their international coverage has grown, the team is starting to become something of a sporting icon for inner city kids across America.

“I’ve had letters from schools in Milwaukee saying, ‘we saw your media from your Australian tour; your guys are heroes to my guys,’” Haber says.

“We want to go to schools and teach these kids, but we don’t have the funding,” Theo says. “Right now it’s coming from the sky, private investors. But without funding we can’t do this fulltime. What we really need is Nike or Adidas.”

It is an enticing thought, particularly to the Commonwealth folk in the U.S., that this team might be the beginning of the American cricket empire – although they still have a long way to go. But when this handful of men, decked out in their tattoo-styled ‘Cricket Outta Compton’ shirts, stride out on to the pitch and play for the love of the sport and the hope for a better life in their community, it is hard to suppress the urge to grab a bat and join their impassioned mission.

“We’ll keep recycling this gospel of cricket, and yeah, it takes time, but we’ve been doing it for 15 years and we’ll do it for another 100 if we have to,” Theo says.

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