Cricket draws eclectic group

Tuesday, December 16, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:32 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Once a week, a small group gathers on Stankowski Field, and at first glance, the group doesn’t look as if it could get any more diverse.

Pakistanis and Indians joke, Brits and South Africans chat and Aussies and Sri Lankans mingle. No, it’s not a model United Nations club. And it’s not a diversity-training course.

For the people from myriad countries, it’s cricket.

The MU Cricket Club, to be exact. The group is out at Stankowski every Friday, weather permitting.

“Most of the players come from Commonwealth countries, where they grow up playing cricket,” said Vairam Arunachalam, an MU accounting professor and the club’s faculty adviser. “A lot of people grow up playing the sport on almost a daily basis, so when they come to Missouri, there’s the need to keep on playing it. It’s become a pretty diverse, eclectic group. And a lot of people return to play. There’s a British-style of elegance to the sport that isn’t found too many other places. “

Things didn’t get this way without some work. The club started informally in the summer of 1999, when a group of about five or six began to meet, albeit infrequently, and used whatever it could find to substitute for cricket bats and balls. The players also had to modify the rules because cricket requires 22 players for a full game. They began raising money for equipment and to buy important international matches on pay-per-view, even if that meant watching the matches in the middle of the night.

By November 1999, Missouri’s Student Organization Allocation Committee recognized the group. The committee granted enough money to help the club buy equipment and a pitch mat, which gave the club a home at Hinkson Field. Soon, it had all sorts of participants, from students and professors to the occasional native-born American who wants to try the game. Most didn’t speak English as their first language, but it didn’t matter; if you were interested in playing some cricket, you were more than welcome.

The club began playing intercollegiate matches in 2000, but flooding at Hinkson last year destroyed the club’s mat, so the team is resigned to playing on the artificial turf of Stankowski again this year. And there are not always 22 players, meaning rules sometimes have to be changed. Either way, it’s not a big deal for most of the people out there.

“It’s not so bad,” Arunachalam said. “We play with a tennis-cricket ball, which is just a tennis ball that’s designed to play like a cricket ball. It’s more about the game and conversing and socializing than it is about where or how we play the game.”

The game is what keeps a core group of players coming back each week, said club president Vijay Davuluri. India and Pakistan might be locked in an escalating nuclear arms race, but when the players get together, they care more about who will bowl first or the coming weekend’s big test match. Who will play deep fine leg, third slip, long off or gully (all cricket positions) takes precedence against the Hutton Inquiry.

That’s a stark reversal from the international scene, when countries will cancel cricket tours to prove a political point. Last week, after President Robert Mugabe pulled Zimbabwe out of the Commonwealth, British Prime Minister Tony Blair called for the national governing body to cancel the national team’s planned cricket tour of Zimbabwe in October.

When you’re just playing to have a good time, Davuluri said, politics seems like a distant thought.

“There’s never any politics going on, just cricket,” he said. “Politics never seems to get in a way of having fun and playing cricket. And that’s what we’re all about.”

Scott Fontaine’s columns appear Tuesdays.

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