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Thursday, September 28, 2006
Updated: November 14, 3:24 PM ET
The capital of cricket

By Jonah Keri
Special to Page 2

PHILADELPHIA -- Few cities can match the sporting history found in Philadelphia. From the Broad Street-bullying Flyers to Phillies greats Robin Roberts, Richie Ashburn and Mike Schmidt, from Dr. J's great Sixers teams to the Big 5 frenzy that is Philly college basketball, this city loves its sports.

Many people argue that Philly is a football town. Tailgating at the Linc, yelling at the squawk jocks on WIP or simply pleading to the heavens -- this city lives and dies with the Eagles. Want college football tradition? The annual Army-Navy game, arguably the biggest rivalry game in collegiate sports, usually takes place in Philly. And the oldest intercollegiate football game happened less than 60 miles away in New Brunswick, N.J. -- Princeton and Rutgers first took the field in 1869.

Haverford cricket team
Told ya the Haverford cricket team has tradition!
But there's one sport that has a longer collegiate tradition than Princeton-Rutgers football. If you drive from Philly's downtown core out to the leafy suburban Main Line, you'll find more fields filled with players of this sport than you will baseball diamonds. And one of the city's top colleges boasts a wunderkind player of this sport whose popularity in his native country rivals that of Michelle Wie, Freddy Adu or LeBron James.

The sport is cricket. And the epicenter of Philly's cricket craze is Haverford College, a tiny but prestigious school 10 miles west of the city center.

The first varsity cricket match in the United States took place in 1864, with Haverford taking on its Ivy League neighbor, Penn. From the third-oldest rivalry in American sports (only Harvard-Yale crew and Amherst-Williams baseball have longer histories), the sport grew throughout the city and surrounding areas. Cricket clubs sprung up everywhere, often in lieu of the usual country clubs found in areas like the well-to-do Main Line. Baseball took longer to get established in Philly than most other East Coast cities, thanks largely to cricket's popularity.

In recent years, Haverford cricket (the team calls itself simply "the XI") has gotten a big lift from an influx of immigrants. This isn't a giant football factory where players are student-athletes in name only, though -- anything but. A liberal arts college perennially ranked near the top of all comparable schools, Haverford makes its entrance requirements among the most stringent in the Northeast. The population of the student body usually totals around 1,100. The school's honor code places academic and behavioral responsibility in students' hands -- a typical assignment is a one-hour, closed-book, take-home exam, where students are trusted not only to not peek at any crib sheets or other materials but also to stop as soon as the hour is up.

Its cricket team also has a unique quirk: It's the only collegiate varsity team in the country.

"The old joke is that we win the national championship every year," said Greg Kannerstein, the dean of the college who also served 23 years as Haverford's athletic director. "But there are lots of cricket clubs that offer strong competition. Between the clubs at Temple, Drexel, Villanova and some of the city clubs, we have no trouble filling our spring and fall schedules, or finding good competition during summer leagues."

Fueling the rise in Philadelphia-area cricket talent has been an influx of top-tier players from countries as far-flung as Guyana, Jamaica and Australia. It's not uncommon to see teammates from warring countries such as India and Pakistan cheering each other on -- Hindus, Muslims and Quakers stand shoulder to shoulder on the pitch for every game. Those playing for university-based club teams are usually grad students a few years out of college. But Haverford also plays city teams that often sport players well into their 40s and beyond, including foreign-born stars who remain at or near the top of their games.

Munik Shrestha typifies the kind of player -- and person -- that makes up the Haverford cricket team. Born in Nepal, his mother Muna raised him and two older brothers in Kathmandu City after his father died of a liver problem when Munik was two. Shrestha's brothers, Monish and Monir, both played cricket on a national level in Nepal.

But the baby of the family gained the biggest measure of fame. After playing for local club teams, Munik joined the Under-17 national team at 14, making him the country's youngest player to ever crack the squad. Shrestha's selection was a century in the making. Playing in the 2001 Asia Cup Tournament, he became the first player in Nepalese cricket history to hit for a century -- scoring at least 100 runs in a single at-bat -- in international competition. The national team's coach was so impressed by Shrestha's performance that he added him to the team almost immediately.

Shrestha came to the U.S. in 2004, and first spent a year studying at McKendree College in Lebanon, Ill. After hearing from an English cricket player that Haverford had the only varsity team in the U.S., Shrestha contacted the school. With no athletic scholarships at Haverford, huge academic competition and only three international scholarships each year, it seemed unlikely that he'd get in. But Kannerstein, then Haverford's dean of admissions, quickly learned that Shrestha was also the top physics student in all of Nepal.

"When the admissions committee heard about him," Kannerstein recalled, "they said 'This kid is fantastic, we have to have him.'"

After gaining admission, Shrestha showed up that spring, expecting to play in cricket tournaments and have housing waiting for him. When told he'd have to wait until fall for most of his college perks, he got a job with the school's housekeeping crew to support himself, renting a room for the summer. By the time school started in September, Shrestha was friendly with half the incoming freshman class, having exchanged hundreds of e-mails with them over the summer.

In his first semester, Shrestha made a big impression on both his teachers and his teammates. Carrying a course load stuffed with killer classes, he also worked on Haverford's Atomic Force Microscope project as a freshman, helping to improve the microscope's resolution. Meanwhile, the Haverford XI steamrolled through the season, as Shrestha teamed with senior captain Sartaj Bhuiyan to lead the team to a perfect 8-0 record. The XI recently completed another undefeated season, going 8-0 again in Shrestha's sophomore year. The competition hasn't been quite as tough as mastering carbon latitudes, but it has provided an interesting spectrum of playing styles, Shrestha said.

"The style of play is a little bit different here," he explained. "U.S. cricket is a mixed bag of everything, since so many different people have emigrated here from different countries. I've seen some fastballers. There aren't as many spinners here [bowlers who spin the ball toward the wicket], though."

Shrestha has taken on something of a Viktor Krum role on campus. A learned few know of Shrestha's cricket feats at Haverford and back home. But despite the team's success and his own accomplishments, Shrestha rarely gets recognized as a top cricketer while walking around campus. Even if he did, those close to him say he would never get affected by it.

"I had heard a lot about him before he came, so I knew he was going to be incredible on the field," said Bhuiyan, last year's team captain who now works as a financial management program trainee at GE Commercial Finance. "There were not too many of us surprised at how he dominated opponents.

"What was really mind-blowing was how humble he was about it," he continued. "We found him to be extremely down-to-earth, and really fit into the team as another Haverford freshman rather than an international cricketer. He is still so young that some parts of his development need guidance. But there really is no doubt he will get there, because he has the vision of where he wants to be."

The XI is in the midst of one of its all-time high points. But those who know Haverford's cricket team well can attest to a long history of traditions and success. The school has a British officers club that runs up that nation's flag and follows all the old customs, with the college providing the requisite tea and refreshments. Haverford operates one of the few cricket pavilions in the country. The team plays its matches on Cope Field, named after Henry Cope, whose family members played in the first match in 1864. When the family gave Haverford the deed to the field, it made the school promise that nothing else could be played there. Touch-football revelers gathering for a game are told politely -- but firmly -- to find somewhere else to play.

One of Kannerstein's favorite stories involves players' efforts to hit 6s -- balls hit out of the field of play that are the equivalent of a home run. With bigger, stronger players taking the field now, Kannerstein says some students have hit balls that have come perilously close to hitting some professors' houses on campus; the school has had to reimburse several profs for dented cars. A former president of the school is said to have offered a case of beer to anyone who could hit the ball on his roof. Current Haverford president Tom Tritton has offered dinner, with no winners so far.

In 1954, one player turned the trick. This wasn't a member of the Haverford XI or a rival cricket club, though. That year, Richie Ashburn, Del Ennis and some Phillies teammates came to Haverford for a friendly game. Taking aim at the roof, the Phils players took huge cuts, with one shot finally landing on the president's roof. In the rules of cricket, though, the bowler need only knock down the wicket once to record an out, making a swing-from-the-heels approach a bad idea. The Phillies were routed that day, scoring few runs.

That's no surprise given the team's history of beating better-known opponents. Kamran Khan has been involved with Haverford cricket for 33 years. Now 52, he serves as Haverford's coach and also doubles as its best player during summer league competition, when the XI battle more experienced city-league clubs. A former all-Pakistan player who also played on the U.S. national team for 20 years, Khan has worked hard to keep Haverford's cricket legacy going strong. When he perceives that an opponent may be underestimating his team, he pushes all the necessary buttons to get the XI ready to play -- and usually win.

"There was one significant tournament in particular that we played in 1989 and 1996," Khan recalled. "We went to Britain and were undefeated both times. This was against top club teams in Oxford and Cambridge. After the game, they couldn't believe they lost.

"But our team believed in itself, that was the key. Once you believe in yourself, then you can be something that not many people expect you to be."

Like the surprise princes of the Philly sports scene.

Jonah Keri is a regular contributor to Page 2 and the editor and co-author of "Baseball Between the Numbers." You can reach him at jonahkeri@gmail.com.