US & Canada

LA cricket: Club helps tame Compton's mean streets

A group of former gangsters, homeless men and street kids from Compton, a Los Angeles city notorious for gang violence, is possibly the world's most unlikely cricket team - but it's now making history as the first all-American side to tour Australia.

When Ted Hayes was first asked to play cricket, he shrugged his shoulders.

"What's cricket?" the homeless charity worker responded to his friend, Hollywood producer Katy Haber, who was looking for an 11th man to play with a mostly British expat team from Beverly Hills.

Activist Ted Hayes thinks the etiquette of cricket can provide good life lessons

"It's the same as baseball but instead of running around in circles, you run up and down," replied Ms Haber.

He decided to give it a go.

"Ted didn't have a clue," says Alexander Rufus-Isaacs, the former Captain of the Beverly Hills and Hollywood Cricket Club.

"His style of playing was eccentric - he's certainly not a classical up and down player but what he doesn't have in style he makes up for in enthusiasm."

Mr Hayes became so hooked on the game that he decided to form his own team.

At the time he and Ms Haber were running an encampment for the homeless, known as The Dome Village, in downtown Los Angeles.

"We started training the homeless guys in alleyways, with rubbish bins as stumps, in the art of cricket," explains Ms Haber.

Metaphor for life

Within months they had established a team.

"We were so successful at teaching the homeless guys civility through the game that we lost a lot players," says Ms Haber.

"They grew up and got out of the Dome Village."

It was the start of what was to become a collaboration of former gangsters, homeless men and street kids, who now see cricket as a metaphor for living a purposeful and law-abiding life.

"The dance is great and the physical action is beautiful," says Mr Hayes. "Most important is the etiquette of cricket - what it means to compete and win but be a gentleman about it."

Inspired by their success with the homeless, they turned to the impoverished and violent neighbourhood of Compton. They took their recruitment drive to the local schools and set up cricket workshops in a city that has one of the worst reputations in California as a gang heartland.

"Kids were killing themselves everyday over the colours of shoe laces," says Ms Haber.

She recalled that the sport was so alien to some youngsters that "one of the kids' brothers told their friends that their brothers were playing 'grasshopper'."

"Ted and Katy came out to our school in 1996 and spoke at our assembly about cricket," says Daniel Castaneda.

Initially he said he did not pay much attention because he was simply glad to get out of class, but he was persuaded by his friend to get involved and discovered he had a talent for the game.

A year earlier he had considered trying to join a local gang.

Against the odds, the team flourished. Known as formally as the Compton Cricket Club - or informally as the Homies and the Popz - it has toured England three times and has partnered with a number of Australian charities for their exhibition tour Down Under.

"They're very good fielders - that's the best part of their play," says Mr Rufus-Isaacs, whose Beverly Hills team meets them regularly in the local league, the Los Angeles Social Cricket Alliance.

"Probably because of their baseball upbringing they're very fast about the field - they've got very good arms and get a lot of run outs."

Reviving the city

Many of the original members, including Mr Castaneda, are still on board. He never joined a gang.

"Local kids now look upon us as role models," he says.

One player, Ricardo Salgado, a gang member since the age of 12, was not allowed to travel to Australia, because he is on parole after spending four years in prison.

Now 28, he is no longer involved in gang activity and is married with two children. He says cricket has helped turn his life around, although a large tattoo across his chest and stomach acts as a permanent reminder of his former lifestyle.

"It's like a scar," he says.

"It's my past - it's what I used to live with and what I used to live by."

The team's success has impressed the law enforcement authorities in Los Angeles. It has been praised by the Los Angeles police Department and has won the respect of a senior prosecutor, who has made a career out of taking gang members to court.

"There is a ton of unmitigated violence, gang warfare, with innocent victims being slain every day, but that's not necessarily what defines the city of Compton," says Alan Jackson, a deputy district attorney.

He said cricket - as opposed to traditional American sports - was an "excellent starting point' in trying to revive the city.

Cutting edge

"Don't be mistaken, there are plenty of gangsters in Compton who play basketball, there are plenty of gangsters who played high-school football and were in gangs at the time that they played high-school football - I prosecuted a few of them," says Mr Jackson.

"I don't think there are any cricket-playing gangsters."

The team is still battling to raise funds to build a cricket ground on its home turf. There is a football ground but no cricket pitch in Compton, which means the players have to travel around Los Angeles to practice.

But Ted Hayes prefers to focus on the bigger picture.

"We'd like to go to places of conflict and teach the idea through cricket that we can learn civility," he says.

"We can disagree and compete to win, but let's not kill each other. The world is big enough for us all to live in peace and have fun competing while making ourselves better human beings."

Mr Rufus-Isaacs thinks the US potentially a huge growth area for cricket.

"There's not a lot of home-grown talent and the Homies and the Popz are really at the cutting edge of that. One hopes that they are going to be the standard bearers and that other teams are going to follow."

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