By far, the hardest thing for the roughly 30 kids to execute was bowling.
Not with lanes and pins, but rather a ball the size of a baseball and an overhand motion with no bend in the elbow. Because what kid throws a ball without bending their elbow?
But on Monday afternoon in Bowie, children from across the region gathered on the tennis courts behind Samuel Ogle Elementary School to play this odd game where you bowl without bending your arm, as the Bowie Boys and Girls Club youth cricket program held its third practice.
Some were naturals. Others were afforded second, third and fourth opportunities to perfect the arm action. Only a handful had heard of the sport before. But lines of children ages 6 to 15 practiced bowling, batting and fielding while program director Sham Chotoo and a number of other volunteer coaches and parents lent a hand.
“I think so far the response I've been getting has been good,” Chotoo said. “I'm glad that all the kids are so excited about the game.”
Along with soccer, cricket is one of the more popular sports worldwide but does not yet have mainstream appeal in the United States. Chotoo is hoping to plant the seeds that will change that.
“I had a little kid Tobias, who was about 6, ask his mom after practice if they could buy a cricket set that night,” Chotoo said. “He was all excited, so I let him borrow one of my bats and he took it home to practice.”
The session began with eager children and parents filing into the tennis courts. Those who had not yet attended a session received a white hat and shirt and soon Chotoo explained the rules of cricket. Similar to baseball, there is a batter and a bowler (pitcher), and the object is to score runs by hitting the ball where the fielders aren't.
But there are differences in the gameplay that stand out. Two wickets replace baseball's home plate and batters aren't required to run if they hit the ball.
“A lot of people know it as the British baseball,” said Jeffery Archer, 15. “I love the game. I find it more fun than baseball. It's more interesting with the different ways to bowl and stuff like that.”
The United States Youth Cricket Association was formed in 2010 to develop interest in the sport among children and is the main backer of Bowie's program. Chotoo, who already had been teaching the game to his neighbors and his own children for a few years, was asked to lead the charge. Roxroy Anderson, an assistant coach and veteran of the Washington Cricket League, said he was happy to help Chotoo teach cricket. He said the program has better attendance than any of the others in the area where he has taught.
“Each time we come, there are new kids. They are going to tell their neighbors and friends and keep on coming,” said Anderson, who originally is from Jamaica. “Kids enjoy anything. The biggest thing is to get the parents involved. If they thought it was too boring and it would take too long, they wouldn't enjoy it. But every time we have meetings and talk about it, the parents seem interested.”
After dropping their kids off at the tennis court, a number of parents sat in lawn chairs and watched the action. Others volunteered to chase balls or set up wickets. There was a genuine excitement among the kids and parents as they discovered the game for the first time. One parent, whose daughter was called out after the bowler hit the wickets during a scrimmage, smiled and yelled to her, “You gotta protect the wickets, baby!”
“We would like to see it take off just as soccer took off,” Anderson said. “I remember soccer in the United States. Nobody wanted to play. Then Pele played for New York and he took over. Kids started chasing soccer balls and getting interested. Now there's a lot of soccer going on.”
The equipment for the program was provided by the USYCA and Washington Cricket League, and included plastic wicket sets, plastic bats (as well as wooden bats) and plenty of cricket balls.
“It took a lot of people a long time to get the concept of how you have to hold the bat and how you have to bowl the ball, but now everyone's getting pretty good at it,” said Chotoo's daughter Julia.
At times, the pace of play was choppy. Kids didn't run when they could have scored. They did run when they shouldn't have. But Chotoo, who decided to hold the league in July to minimize competition with other sports, said Bowie's program will be in position to play a match against another area youth league in roughly a week.
“Our kids are progressing faster than I thought they would,” he said. “For kids who knew nothing about the game, and they didn't see it on TV or anything like that, I think they're learning really quickly.”