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How Cricket, California's Unknown Immigrant Sport, Came to L.A.

You hear dozens of languages in California, and over the decades countless immigrants have arrived here and bought with them their own traditions, foods – and even sports – as a reminder of home.

While it’s easy to find a basketball court or a football field, locating somewhere to play bocce or boules is more difficult, and what if you’re a fan of a sport that was invented centuries ago and is played by many millions around the world, but unheard of in America?

Mention the word “cricket” to an Angeleno and they’ll think of the small, noisy insect or the strange game they saw played on “Downtown Abbey,” not a game that, even after baseball was “invented” in 1839, was the most popular sport in America until the Civil War more or less sent it on a slow walk back to the pavilion.

Though they’re more cousins than siblings in terms of their origin story, a first-time viewer will quickly see that the principles of baseball and cricket are similar: hit the ball hard, bowl (or pitch) accurately, catch everything, and field like your life depended on it.

Both sports are an encyclopedic nirvana for statistics, both have their own lexicon and jargon, and both have complicated rules, a debated history, and some notable scandals.

There are some real differences, too, though, most notably that in a game of cricket the score is often in the multiple hundreds, games can last five days, and you don’t have to run when you hit the ball because once a batsman is out, he or she is out for the duration.

In America, cricket first arrived and was played on the East Coast, with New York and especially Philadelphia a haven for immigrant fans and players, but it quickly moved cross-country, and by 1850 San Francisco was also a major center of the game.

Cricket in Griffith Park, circa 1950
Cricket in Griffith Park, circa 1950. Photo courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

By the late 19th century there were teams in Los Angeles and surrounding areas, though the occasional matches often took place on polo fields, agricultural parks and even the beach: dedicated pitches were hard to come by.

In 1913 the Santa Monica Cricket Club lost their ground, and the Los Angeles pavilion (clubhouse) in downtown was burned to the ground. It wasn’t until 1920 that there was a permanent cricket ground in Los Angeles, and by then many of the English people arriving in L.A. were hoping for a career in the movies.

One of them was named Henry Pratt, and he was already playing and coaching locally at UCLA. (It’s interesting to wonder what the rookies thought when they later saw him on the big screen playing Frankenstein under the name Boris Karloff.)

Everything changed when former professional C. Aubrey Smith arrived in town.

A sprightly, mustachioed 65, he played notable “English toff” roles in “The Prisoner of Zenda” (1937) and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 “Rebecca,” but his real passion was for cricket, and in 1932 he founded the amateur Hollywood Cricket Club.

A Boer war movie called “Cavalcade” was filming at the time, and it used hundreds of English extras – many of whom were keen to hear the sound of leather on willow, even if the California sunshine and the baked-hard pitches were very different to what they were used to.

Nicknamed “Round the Corner” for his unusual bowling style, Smith chose the club colors of white, green and magenta, upheld the rules of good conduct and fair play, and his eccentrically-dressed team were soon famous beyond the boundaries of the game itself.

Cricket in Griffith Park, circa 1950
Cricket in Griffith Park, circa 1950. Photo courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

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In 1932 Paramount made “Cricket Flickers” about HCC and the visit of the Australian national cricket team, who were on an exhibition tour of the U.S. and Canada. They faced each other at UCLA (Australia won easily) and the resurgence in interest saw new teams springing up in San Diego, Burbank, Ventura and Montecito.

Noted wicket keeper (or catcher) Karloff was a regular for HCC, novelist/screenwriter PG Wodehouse played when he could, and actors David Niven, Leslie Howard, Errol Flynn, Cary Grant, Nigel Bruce and Ronald Coleman were on the roster too. Famously, Laurence Olivier arrived at the Chateau Marmont in 1933 to find a handwritten note from Smith:

“There will be nets tomorrow at 9am. I trust I shall see you there.”

The sidelines were also star-studded, and Olivia de Havilland, Joan Fontaine and Merle Oberon might join the players for tea and sandwiches during the traditional mid-afternoon intermission (the equivalent of the seventh inning stretch).

By 1933 HCC had a fancy pavilion and four perfectly cut and watered pitches in Griffith Park – the grass seed was shipped by special delivery from England – and Sir Aubrey (he was knighted in 1944) Smith played well into his 80s, dying in 1948 aged 85 (and leaving the club his royalties from “The Prisoner of Zenda”). The HCC ground in Griffith Park gave way to an Olympic equestrian center in 1978 (built in preparation for the 1984 summer games), but cricket is played at all levels across America today.

In California it has been buoyed tremendously by immigrants from India and Pakistan, as well as Australia, New Zealand and the Caribbean.

Hollywood Cricket Club and many other teams now play at Woodley Park in Van Nuys. It’s a less glamorous venue to be sure, but the Southern California Cricket Association leagues have always been highly competitive, and former professionals on vacation (or newly arrived in California), often seek out what are the only pitches for miles around to be happily pressganged into playing.  

Cricket in Los Angeles, 1982
Cricket in Los Angeles, 1982. Photo by James Ruebsamen, courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

A team of diehard Brits formed the Los Angeles Social Cricket Alliance in 1999 to bring back a sense of Smith’s era, and that saw celebrities like Mick Jagger and Hugh Grant turning up to play in a more jocular atmosphere – and famous faces still turn up occasionally during the season.

The league also included Compton Cricket Club (also known as the “Homies and the Popz”), an all-American team from gang-related and homeless backgrounds, and whose founders saw cricket as a way to instill the spirit of fair play, sportsmanship and respect among the players, and challenge negative stereotypes in Los Angeles and further afield.

In November 2015, cricket attempted to break into America on a larger scale. A team of worldwide all-stars played several of the short, fast-scoring T20 exhibition matches at baseball pitches in three cities, and went on a charm offensive, talking to school kids, holding workshops and gamely having a crack at baseball.

New York’s Citi Field saw an audience of 36,000, and at Dodger Stadium 21,000 people came to watch. Bemused Dodger staff members were impressed by the big hitting (a home run is called a “six” in cricket, and a T20 game features multiple sixes), but also the endless, crazy enthusiasm of the crowd, the vast majority of whom were from India.

Cricket is close to a religion there, and the most famous players are like movie stars, unable to walk down the street without being mobbed. Here in Los Angeles, the home of the movie industry, they were largely unrecognized – except by those delighted fans. 

Every hit or throw of the ball was greeted with cheers, and many of the Indians and Indian-American spectators had happily driven for many hours to see their heroes. It was an experience they never thought they would have, and several said that money was no object: such was the power of a taste of home. 

Cricket at Dodger Stadium, November 2015
Cricket at Dodger Stadium, November 2015. Photo by the author.

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