Commentary

A cricket mecca in an L.A. suburb

Woodley Park in Van Nuys, a nondescript park, is cricketdom's melting pot

Updated: March 22, 2011, 5:19 PM ET
By Amar Shah | Special to ESPNLosAngeles.com

In photographs: The Wicket World of Woodley Park on a March morning Photo Gallery


This is indeed a hallowed ground.

"We've had funerals with full-on bagpipes," cricket historian David Sentance said. "There are famous cricketers buried here. Of course, we don't make much noise about it. We certainly don't put plaques up. We don't want to make this place a cemetery."

It's a postcard-perfect March morning at the Leo Magnus Cricket Complex, also known as Woodley Cricket Field, in Van Nuys, Calif. While hobby airplanes buzz overhead and red-tailed hawks swoop down from willow trees, Sentance, 58, dressed in his cricket whites, stands in a makeshift queue waiting his turn to bowl to an awaiting batter in the nets.

[+] EnlargeAnzin Hossain
John Lazar for ESPNLosAngeles.comAnzin Hossain, who plays for the L.A. Bengals at Woodley Park in Van Nuys, suits up in whites.
"Slow-medium left hand over the wicket able to swing both ways on occasion," he said.

Standing in line with him are other immigrants and expatriates from all over the world. Sentance, who originally is from England, is here every Saturday to play cricket.

This swath of land located in the San Fernando Valley, 20 minutes northwest of downtown Los Angeles, next to an archery range and a golf course has become a Shangri-La to cricketers around the world.

"Cricket is my life," KCS Rao said. "I'm dedicated to it. On my wedding day, I played it before the reception. I come every Saturday because I love the game."

Rao, 77, also stands in line. Donning a Delhi Daredevils jacket, he tosses a high, arching googly. He had bypass surgery a few years ago, but his weekend cricket exercise is mandatory to help him in his recovery.

Rao emigrated from Kolkata in 1972 and helped establish the Woodley Field complex. "There were no trees," Rao said. "It was a dam site."

Cricket has a rich history in Southern California. The sport has been played there since the 1890s, but it wasn't until the 1930s that an elderly character actor named Sir Aubrey Smith formed the Hollywood Cricket Club with Frankenstein himself, Boris Karloff.

Karloff once wrote, "I feel quite safe in prefacing my remarks by the simple statement that cricket is the finest game in the world."

The Hollywood Cricket Club, which featured some of Hollywood's leading actors, such as Laurence Olivier and David Niven, was able to secure land at Griffith Park near Burbank, Calif. The grounds featured four fields and a grand pavilion. But in the 1970s, equestrians who had used other areas around the field decided they wanted the ground for training.

Every team has all kinds of nationalities. They're all playing here. The unity is there. Whatever may be the differences between two countries, that is not shown.

--KCS Rao, a fixture at the
Woodley cricket fields

The Southern California Cricket Association and other members of the cricket community joined forces and fought for a spot to call their own.

"Fortunately, the West Indian community was well positioned at the time," Sentance said. "For over five years, there was a lot of political groundwork."

In 1977, the SCCA secured land in the Sepulveda Basin. "It was a bare piece of land," Sentance said. "Over a four-year period, all the cricketers planted the trees and started putting in pitches."

Since then, Woodley has become a multicultural hotbed of cricketdom. Those from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Australia, New Zealand and other countries from the former British Empire call the four fields of Woodley home. There are nearly 50 teams in the SCCA in five divisions.

Near the batting nets, a man wearing a white Panama hat puts on knee guards. Shailesh Calib came to the United States from India five years ago. He's been playing at Woodley for three years.

"The pitches are perfect," Calib, 33, said. "It's very well maintained. So you can play high-quality cricket. You can enjoy batting, bowling and fielding. It's like playing in a different country."

[+] EnlargeMel Patel
John Lazar for ESPNLosAngeles.comPlayers come from all over Southern California to practice and play at Woodley, including Culver City Cricket Club's Mel Patel.

On this morning, the L.A. Bengals, most of whom are from Bangladesh, gather in a semicircle and practice fielding drills. Shouts of "Come on, guys, let's go!" echo in English and Bengali.

"Every team has all kinds of nationalities," Rao said. "They're all playing here. The unity is there. Whatever may be the differences between two countries, that is not shown."

In another area, a group takes a break in the shade and chats in the players' native Gujarati.

One of those players is Mehul Dave, who moved to the U.S. in 1998 for educational reasons. He was searching for a club to play cricket with and eventually heard about Woodley.

"U.S. cricket is very lucky to have a place like this," Dave said. "I don't think anywhere in the U.S. do we have four grounds that are turf wickets. Because most fields are played on AstroTurf. This is natural turf."

On its manicured fields and with its diversity and perfect weather, Woodley has hosted some of cricket's greatest. India played Australia in 1999, and Americans saw cricket stars such as VVS Laxman and Adam Gilchrist in action for the first time.

In 2007, India great Virender Sehwag played in a tournament at Woodley, and every year Woodley hosts the Hollywood Ashes, in which Tinseltown's expatriates come to play just like they did back in Smith's days.

Woodley also appeals to the next generation of cricketers, such as 17-year-old Shayan Abdulghani, who plays for the under-19 USA team. "It's great," said Abdulghani, who moved to California from Pakistan when he was 5. "In the whole USA, there's nothing like it. It feels like you're playing back at home."

As morning turns into early afternoon and the ice cream man pushes his jingling cart around the green lawns, something profound occurs. The proper gentleman's game is interrupted. A woman appears ready to play.

[+] EnlargeLA Bengals (Cricket)
John Lazar for ESPNLosAngeles.comWoodley's cricket grounds are where clubs meet, practice and play. But it's also a varied collection of several nationalities and religions, which in a way is like Los Angeles.

Two years ago, Sandra Ibarra had never heard of cricket. Ibarra, a Mexican-American woman from East Lost Angeles, was working at an architecture firm where Sentance was a financial adviser. One day, he was dropping off Galaxy tickets and noticed Ibarra had a soccer jersey draped over her chair. He asked whether she played soccer. She did. "But you're female," he retorted. Ibarra got defensive and gave him a litany of sports she played.

"He was picking my brain to see if I had mental toughness," Ibarra said.

Sentance asked her whether she was interested in playing cricket. Ibarra had no idea what the sport was. He explained the game and invited her to watch a match. Then he asked whether she wanted to try out. She went to Florida to try out for the U.S. women's cricket team -- and made it.

Two years later, she's dressed in cricket whites and all padded up to bat.

"I'm friends with everyone," Ibarra said. "I'm really comfortable. I'm proud to call this my home."

Ibarra steps into the batting nets. A bowler tosses her a pitch. She swings. A solid thwack, and she hits a line drive toward the trees.

It's a trend she will continue next weekend. Same time. Same place.

Amar Shah is a writer and producer living in Los Angeles. He is developing a romantic comedy screenplay set in the world of cricket. He can be reached at shahespn@gmail.com or on Twitter.

• Emmy-nominated and award-winning writer and television producer
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