An American tale: Cricket in New York

The John Adams Spartans celebrate their first Public School Athletic League cricket title. Benjamin Lowy for ESPN

The first thing they did was grab the flag.

The American flag.

The players were born in Guyana and Bangladesh, their coaches in Uruguay and Jamaica. They were playing a game much better known in many of those faraway places, a game many of their John Adams High School classmates have never heard of, let alone played or watched.

But the Spartans were city champions -- New York City champions. And what could be more fitting in this city than a bunch of immigrant kids celebrating that title by waving the Stars and Stripes?

What could be more appropriate than a 17-year-old named Derick Narine Jr., whose family moved here just nine months ago in hopes of securing him a better education, standing in the middle of the celebration and saying he dreams of someday starring for Team USA ... in cricket?

You may not know that there is a Team USA in cricket. You may not know there's a New York City schools cricket championship.

You may not have any idea that cricket is anything but an insect known for chirping.

But in a month when many sports fans are fixated on a World Cup in a sport that was mostly mocked in the U.S. (and sometimes still is), lovers of the sport named cricket ask why their game can't make the same journey.

They dream of a day when the U.S. becomes a world cricket power, a day when there's a professional cricket league here that would match the best anywhere in the world.

"My hope is that cricket gets to the point there's a draft," said PSAL cricket commissioner Bassett Thompson, who oversees a sport played in 30 schools by about 500 kids. "I don't know if I'll ever see that, but that's my hope."

It's hard to see it. Then again, back when Thompson's family emigrated from Jamaica and put him in high school in New York, the idea that there would be school-sponsored cricket teams was every bit as hard to see.

Now there are. And on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in June, the city's cricket establishment gathered at Brooklyn's Spring Creek Park, hidden between a shopping center and the Belt Parkway.

In Saturday's final, the Spartans from Adams were meeting the Hawks from Hillcrest, and the storyline was one that could have played out in any sport in any town. Adams coach Alex Navarrete had brought his team to the finals for the fourth time in the past seven years, but was still looking for his first title.

But this wasn't football. This wasn't basketball. This wasn't even soccer.

This was cricket, a game played with bats and balls but a game still almost totally unknown to most Americans. It's a game where the batters -- batsmen, in cricket terminology -- are the ones wearing the masks and pads, looking almost like hockey goalies. It's a game played on grass, on a round field where the wicket -- the scene of most of the action -- sits in the middle.

It's a game that originated in England and spread through its empire, even to the American colonies. George Washington supposedly played cricket. And John Adams supposedly once said that if the leader of a cricket club can be called "president," why not the leader of a new nation.

But the few native-born Americans on the John Adams High cricket team were the sons of immigrants, and the unquestioned star of the team was living in his native Guyana at this time last year.

Narine, who played for Guyana's under-19 national cricket team, showed up at Adams last fall, but it wasn't until this spring that Navarrete even knew who he was.

"One of my captains said, 'Coach, you have to meet this kid,'" Navarrete said.

Narine would go on to score almost 900 runs this season, an extraordinary total in the version of cricket played by high schools in the city (called Twenty20, because each team can bat for 20 overs, which means 120 balls). Narine had four centuries (when a batsman scores 100 runs in an inning). He scored 49 runs in the championship game, and also took two wickets as a bowler.

When it came time to hand out the trophies, Narine was handed five of them.

"He's a contender to go pro, no doubt," Navarrete said.

If Narine were equally accomplished in football, basketball or baseball, he'd be the best-known kid on campus, maybe the best-known kid in the city. But when I asked Narine if he gets noticed in class, he just smiled.

"They call my name on the speaker," he said. "But the kids don't know who I am. They don't know what cricket is."

He'd love to see that change. He'd love to become an international cricket star -- an American international cricket star.

"I see a future over here," he said.

Who knows if it can happen? Narine isn't even eligible to play for the U.S. under-19 team, because current rules say that a player must have lived here for four years to be eligible.

American cricket remains on the fringes. Even in New York, the only city in which cricket is an official high school sport, Saturday's final attracted few fans other than family members.

"If we were in the basketball finals, Madison Square Garden would be full," Hillcrest coach Hunter Brett said.

Brett is a baseball, basketball and soccer coach -- and admittedly a cricket novice -- committed to his players and his school but not to the sport.

It's up to others to dream the dream.

"I want cricket here to be where it is in the IPL [the India Premier League]," said Rudy John, who coaches for Cricket Let's Play USA, a program geared to introducing the sport to Americans. "I want it to be that way here, and it can be. We're going to get there. We're going to get there."

So far, they've gotten here: to a sanctioned high school tournament and to a group of mostly immigrant kids, playing a sport that feels foreign to many Americans but which has these kids running around a New York park and celebrating.

With an American flag.