The Old Town Trolley Tour Bus is stopped in the middle of Ohio Drive NW, causing a congested line of cars and coaches to wrap all the way around the Jefferson Memorial. The passengers lean out the windows, digital cameras in hand, capturing the foreign spectacle set against the tableau of postcard familiarity.
Here in West Potomac Park — in the shadow of the Washington Monument, under the watchful eye of Thomas Jefferson and nestled amongst the most enduring icons of Americana — is the home pitch of the Potomac Cricket Club, the oldest member of the Washington Cricket League.
Members of the Potomac Club arrived at the pitch just before noon on a recent sun-splashed Saturday to begin another long day of wickets, innings and overs.
The Potomac Club was formed in 1967 when a group of young men, mostly sons of Indian and Pakistani diplomats, gathered in West Potomac Park for a match. The WCL was established seven years later and currently boasts 27 teams and 10 different fields in Virginia, Maryland and the District. Potomac’s stomping grounds remain the league’s oldest and most popular site.
Near the water and with adequate shade, it is one of the better grounds, said Amit Gill, a graduate student at George Mason University who travels from Leesburg each weekend to play. With the baseball fields nearby and with all the people walking by, the pitch tends to get a little scruffed, but overall I would say it is one of the best places to play.
Potomac has more than 20 members, ranging from the inexperienced like Gill — who is in his fourth week playing for the club — to the salt-and-pepper haired Munish Pathak, who has been patrolling the Potomac pitch for two decades.
The teams vary in skill level — the Washington Tigers Club, Potomac’s opponent on this particular Saturday, are led by Imran Awan, who played on the U.S. national team that barely missed qualifying for the 2007 World Cup.
“As long as you know the basic rules, you can play in this league,” said Awan, a real estate salesman from Reston. “We have guys in this league from all the former British colonies — all the Caribbean Islands, England, Scotland, Ireland, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh. We try to find as many people as we can to play on our team because a lot of the time people can’t make it because of family commitments.”
Cricket indeed is a time-consuming activity. The Tigers and Potomac play through the hot sun of afternoon and into twilight of early evening, stopping only for brief water breaks or to answer the occasional question from one of the countless tourists who stop and stare.
“A lot of the time we have visitors come and stop and ask, ‘What is this game?’ ” said Rajit Passey, the Potomac team captain, pointing to a group of fanny-packed Midwesterners gazing intently from the far side of the pitch. “Once the game starts, lots of people will stop and sit and watch what all these guys in white are doing.”
Many ask Deepali Nanda, the sister of Potomac player Dhruv Nanda and the club’s No. 1 fan. Nanda, a grad student at GMU who attends every Potomac match in its entirety, sits near the pitch under a tree, cheering heartily and fielding questions from passers by while her brother fields balls.
“Cricket is something that is very close to all Indians and Pakistanis also — we feel very connected to this game,” said Nanda, who can remember days during her childhood in India when life stood still for World Cup matches. “The way baseball is to the United States, that is the way cricket is to India.”
The summer softball league provides an anthill of activity just a short dribbler away from where Nanda watches her favorite team, providing a stunning cultural contrast — the juxtaposition of two national pastimes separated by only a few feet. Every so often, a fly ball gets past the young professional in the outfield and rolls onto the pitch, causing a brief stoppage of play and an acknowledgment from both sides of the other’s sport — and culture.
“When we were playing Boston College last week, I was playing center field, and all of a sudden this cricket guy just comes running right in front of me,” said one member of the CalBerkeley softball team who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We just stopped playing and let him get the ball.”
For the most part, the two pastimes play side by side peacefully, but sometimes boundary disputes cause friction.
“Sometimes we have an issue with the baseball guys. They tend to have the same permits as we do, and they don’t realize that this is our field as well as theirs,” Gill said. “Last week the baseball guys called the cops on us, and the cops told them they had to leave because they had the wrong permit.”
Members of the Cal team said they saw outfielders from another softball team taunting the cricket players with racial slurs during a recent match. But for the most part relations remain smooth.
“Washington, D.C., is a very vibrant and diverse community, and the National Park Service is happy, delighted and pleased that the National Mall offers such a wide variety of diverse recreational setting for many types of people,” said Bill Line, spokesman for NPS, which oversees West Potomac Park. “I think that the [Washington] Cricket League supports this notion.”
For Gill, Nanda and the rest of the Potomac contingent, cricket in West Potomac Park is a familiar reminder of home in their new environment.
“It’s my connection to the past — I used to play a lot of cricket growing up in India, and so when I came here and I found this league, I was very thrilled to be a part of it,” said Passey, the captain.
Pathak, fielding grounders nearby, added: “I didn’t know a lot of people when I first moved here, so cricket helped me make really good friends.”
As for the many who stop to watch these men in white with wonder, the action on the pitch provides an international element on their National Mall tour.
“This is so interesting,” said Pat Rouse, who happened upon the match during her and her grandchildren’s visit to the park from Cheltenham, Md. “I have always heard about cricket, but I have never seen it played before.”