• U.S.

In the Realm of Rap, Cricket Takes Root

4 minute read
Steve Lopez/Compton

Of all the challenges one faces in teaching the game of cricket to the lads in Compton, Calif., world capital of gangsta rap, one difficulty looms above all others. It’s not the rules or the etiquette or the language of bowlers and wickets. Katy Haber, 50, a British expatriate and team manager, sums up the matter thus: “It’s all we can do to keep them from sagging their pants.”

A style issue, in fact, has reared its head at a midweek practice on a raggedy field in the heart of Compton, a mostly black and Hispanic town south of Los Angeles. Two members of the Homies & Popz team–which includes a few ex-gangsters and a couple of homeless guys–have shown up in baggy jeans hung low around the hips. “Gentlemen, we practice in whites!” player-coach Ted Hayes laments. “We practice in whites!”

The players might be forgiven a little cockiness, having just returned from a tour in which they played on hallowed cricket grounds in London. They dropped in on peace talks in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and presented a cricket bat to Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams. (“It’s a little like presenting a menorah to Saddam Hussein,” Haber says.) And they took tea at Windsor Castle with Prince Edward. In a landmark moment of cultural exchange, they performed The Hip-Hop Cricket Rap for His Royal Highness. Says Hayes: “I don’t think they’d ever seen or heard the likes of us.”

There is cricket in Compton because in 1995 a Beverly Hills chap rang Haber in need of one more body for a Sunday match in the Los Angeles Social Cricket Alliance. Haber, who had ditched a movie-producing career to run a homeless village in downtown Los Angeles with Hayes, offered Ted. Hayes, now 48, had never played but practically had a British accent by day’s end. “The etiquette, the civility, the fact that no one is bigger than the game–I thought it was the perfect sport to teach homeless guys to be gentlemen,” Hayes says. A year after forming a team of street people, he and Haber took the concept to Compton.

“A friend of mine asked if I wanted to play cricket,” says Steve Aranda, 19, a hard-core gang member at the time. “I got a dictionary to look up what it was.” Aranda, who once watched a gunned-down friend die in his arms, says the punks tease him about this sissy cricket thing. “But this will take me places they’ll never go.” Former gang member Robert Saxton, 16, thinks of it as switching crews. “This is my gang now,” says Saxton, shagging balls at practice.

Hayes runs the Homies & Popz through a tight workout spiked with lectures on focus, attitude and respect. He leads a boot-camp jog, yelling out “Compton Cricket!” as they answer “U.S.A.!” For Hayes, the highlight of the trip to Britain was having young men “who grew up in all this violence” preach the gospel of peace to Adams and the wannabe gangsters of Belfast, who were planning a tribute to the violent rapper Tupac Shakur (gunned down in Las Vegas in 1996) until the homies told them that ain’t cool. One of their ex-teammates is doing hard time for a drive-by shooting. “Our brief engagement,” Adams later wrote to Hayes, “livened up an otherwise dreary set of meetings.” Namely, the peace talks.

You nod politely, hiding your skepticism, when Hayes rhapsodizes about his vision of cricket sweeping across America and rescuing inner-city kids. But you find yourself silently cheering when he trots his team out to a Sunday match in the San Fernando Valley against the Mayflower Club, a team of British expatriates with names like Winston and Trevor. “Thoroughly sporting group of lads,” observes Clifford Severn, 74, who has been playing cricket since 1933 and is by far the oldest member of the Mayflower Club. Trevor Roper, 47, captain of the Mayflower Club, says he and his British mates “weren’t used to all the cheering” and high-five gyrations coming from the newest team in the league. Says Roper: “At first they’d toss a bat in frustration, but they’ve learned respect.”

They’ve also learned how to beat the Brits at their own game. After a slow start, the Homies & Popz rally. “That’s what I’m talking about!” Hayes cheers after a good play. “Sport of kings! Thinking man’s game!” Steve Castaneda, 18, bowls four wickets–“He practices in his backyard with lemons,” Haber says–as the chaps from the ‘hood sink the Mayflower, 121-84. And the chorus of their celebratory rap goes like this:

From bullets to balls From gats [guns] to bats From streets of concrete To grass and mats We’re playin’ cricket!

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com