Walter Bonatti

Port explores the legacy of Italian climber Walter Bonatti, one of the greatest mountaineers of the 20th century

Italian mountain climber Walter Bonatti, who crouches with caution in a rock cave before continuing his climb on the side of Grand Capucin. © Getty Images

“The magic of mountaineering has died with the disappearance of the ‘unknown’ and the ‘impossible’. Progress has deleted these words; one of man’s fantasies has been extinguished, his poetry destroyed.” 

So declared the Italian mountain climber Walter Bonatti in February 1975. Ten years earlier, at the age of 35, after four days of solitary climbing at -30°C, Bonatti set foot on the summit of the Matterhorn in the Alps, becoming one of only a handful of mountaineers to have scaled the challenging north face in winter.

Born in Bergamo in 1930, Bonatti died in 2011, but remains one of the greatest mountaineers of the 20th century. Were he alive today he would explain how, on his many successful first ascents and solo climbs, he never used mechanical equipment – no expansion or pressure nails, no drills, no pulleys or fixed lanyards. He used nothing that would have been unavailable to the great climbers of the past, such as Edward Whymper, the English mountaineer who made the first ascent of the Matterhorn a century before Bonatti’s climb, and the Italian, Riccardo Cassin. It is only by using the same basic equipment as them, Bonatti would reason, that it would be possible to compete on the same level, and attempt to pass where everyone else had stopped.

Grand Capucin, red-granite obelisk of the Alpi Graie, photographed in a lateral view. © Getty Images

Many would say this made Bonatti a fool, but he would have preferred to have described himself as honest. Eschewing the lightweight advantages of modern kit, he would take on the rock, ice and frost, foothold after foothold, pitch after pitch, with a huge backpack that threatened to pull him back into the valley, at times even carrying a climbing partner on his shoulders. While his fellow climbers were increasingly dependent upon technical clothing, energy bars and safety equipment, he would achieve his incredible feats encumbered by old heavy boots, ropes soaked with water and frost, sustained only by bread, water and a canteen of wine.

Bonatti’s solo ascent of the Matterhorn would mark the last act of his brief, 17-year career, but his achievements are still as remarkable now as they were then. Though he would be plagued by tragedy and controversy – accused of attempting to jeopardise the 1954 Italian expedition to K2 by his fellow climbers, it later emerged that Bonatti, the strongest climber of the group, was the victim of a conspiracy to prevent him from making it to the summit first – today, in an era where no climb is off limits to those with enough money and equipment, Bonatti continues to be conspicuous as an icon of great talent, strength and determination.

This is an extract from issue 21 of Port, out now. To buy or subscribe, click here.

The Judoka: George Kerr

In this exclusive short film, one of the world’s top Judo champions, George Kerr CBE, recounts travelling from Edinburgh to Tokyo in 1957 to attend the ultimate training academy

In this short film, we meet one of the world’s top-ranked Judoka’s, George Kerr CBE, who invites us into his home and dojo in Edinburgh, Scotland. Created by Richie Georgie – a film making collaboration between Rich Round-Turner and George Daniell – the mini-documentary forms part of a wider series called In Their Time – a collection of vignettes that capture a day spent in the company of retired athletes and former national champions, who each reflect on their experiences on the competitive world stage.

“George is regarded as one of Judo’s greatest competitors,” Daniell tells me. “In 1957 he ventured from Edinburgh to Tokyo, taking over a month to travel by train and ship. It’s a story of adventure.”

george kerr feature
George Kerr in his Edinburgh dojo – film still taken from ‘In Their Time’

The film’s charm stems from Kerr himself as he recounts his journey from working-class life to spending four years in a top Japanese Judo academy, before becoming one of the most important Judoka’s in the world.

“The excitement for us was the discovery of little-told stories, some which have been forgotten and some which were never told,” explains Daniell. “So far we have documented the life of a north London-born boxer; a champion cyclist whose professional career began at the Herne Hill velodrome in south London; an Olympic gold-medal winning bobsledder who now farms in Devon; and a lady from Northern Ireland regarded as the all-time greatest lawn bowls player.”

George Kerr and his training partners Osawa and Daigo at the KODOKAN Institute Tokyo, Japan, 1958
George Kerr and his training partners Osawa and Daigo at the KODOKAN Institute Tokyo, Japan, 1958

“The sports stars we have met so far were champions before mass media. They have stories of greatness which were never broadcast widely,” Daniell says. And these stories of greatness are all the more fascinating due to the simple and generous way they are told by the champions themselves.

“Kerr cares about the past, present and future of Judo. We wanted to hear him talk about this in person,” Daniell concludes. “We want to unearth the stories and give these sportsmen and women a chance to recount their adventures, looking back on what it means to them now.”

All five films from the ‘In Their Time’ series will be shown at an exhibition at Dream Bags Jaguar Shoes, beginning 7 July 2016

Boris Becker: unseeded, unmatched

As the Wimbledon championships begin, Conor Mahon meets the German tennis icon to discuss breaking records, Novak Djokovic and his style on and off the court.

Young Boris Becker playing at the Kitzbühel Tennis Tournament. Image courtesy of KTC.
Young Boris Becker playing at the Kitzbühel Tennis Tournament. Image courtesy of KTC.

Sitting at the bar of the Hotel du Vin on Wimbledon Common, London, I find myself fidgeting, spinning an empty glass over the bar’s surface. The reason for the nerves? I am waiting for three-time Wimbledon tennis champion, Boris Becker. Having grown up with the back and forth of Becker and his old rival, John McEnroe, as the quintessential voices of highly anticipated summer tennis, the opportunity to meet the former world number one is both daunting and exciting.

When he does arrive, with his wife Lilly and their dog, I am surprised at his imposing stature. Whether throwing himself around the court as a teenage star in old Wimbledon videos or later sitting down in the studio serving up quips to Sue Barker, Becker’s six feet and three inches don’t fully come across. After a double-hip surgery in January of 2014, there’s a slight limp to his movement, but when you shake his hand he has the unmistakable physical presence of a world-class athlete. As we sit down at a table overlooking Wimbledon Common, Becker rests his elbows on the table and appears reserved yet approachable. After introductions, I ask what his relationship with the world-famous tournament is like these days. “I happen to coach a player who is a Wimbledon champion, so I get reminded a lot more about my wins nowadays,” he replies.

The 7th of July 2015 will mark 30 years since Becker won the Wimbledon men’s championship at the tender age of 17 years and 227 days, becoming the tournament’s youngest ever champion, the first German to lift the trophy and the first unseeded player to have done so. You might assume that in order to win in his teenage years Becker must have played obsessively from a young age, but he assures me that wasn’t the case. “I don’t come from a tennis background. My parents played, but not as professionals,” he says. “My father was an architect, my mother worked in his office, and my sister studied for a doctorate in interior design, so tennis was really a past time in our family.” Looking back to his early years, he explains that further education was on the cards for the teenage Boris. “There were arguments,” he tells me, “but I had to win those to win Wimbledon.”

Securing victory on his first attempt shook the sporting world and changed the life of a teenager who, to this day, still holds the record. “It was sort of my second birthday… every year when Wimbledon comes back and the record is still standing, it brings back all of the memories, emotions and sensations,” Becker says. “You sort of relive it for two weeks.” When asked if there are any feelings of protectiveness over the record, he is somewhat stoic in his response. “Every record in sport is bound to be broken… although it seems that, nowadays, those who win in tennis are a bit older.”

How and when does he envisage being stripped of the title by a younger champion? “I don’t think about it, but who knows? In five years some sixteen-year-old – a bit younger than I was – could come from Edinburgh, Moscow or from Berlin and break it,” Becker says. “I’m surprised every year that it is still standing in a way, but each year it stands it makes the original performance a bit bigger.”

Becker went on to defend his Wimbledon title in 1986 against the world number one at the time, Ivan Lendl, and won 6-4, 6-3, 7-5. In total, he reached the final of Wimbledon seven times and won his third championship title in 1989. As well as achieving great success in London, the German also won an Olympic gold, the US Open and lifted the trophy at the Australian Open on two occasions, and by 1991 he was world number one.

Becker had grown up in the spotlight, experiencing some tough losses during his passage to the top. “It’s the nature of the beast: you lose sometimes, but you just want to win the more important ones,” he says, reflectively. It was the combination of his passionate struggles on the court and his amiable commentating style that led to the BBC releasing a documentary in 2005 entitled Boris Becker: Britain’s Favourite German. Another large part of Becker’s widespread appeal was his appearance and yet, when I mention his image, he is typically dry. “We were famous, young and we represented brands. Fashion and sport really go hand in hand, but it really depends on the personality of a player,” he tells me. “For example, Andre Agassi’s jean shorts: I wondered whether they belonged on the court, but they fit his personality.”

Becker was sponsored by Adidas until 1984 when he switched over to Puma, and a year later the 17-year-old star had won Wimbledon and become the spearhead of Puma’s global image, all while wearing a pair of their Match 74 trainers. Despite holding the position of an on-court style icon, could there have been any fashion choices that he regretted? “The brands had fashion directors with certain styles that were trendy, certain colours. You didn’t have much of a say,” says Becker. “But the older I got, the more I felt I could say something.” So what about the now infamous short–shorts, I ask? “You couldn’t have longer ones,” he replies. “The first player with long pants was Pete Sampras and he was crucified – nowadays that’s considered a short-short.”

During his time on the court, Becker made some demands that revealed the more enterprising aspects of his character. When Puma looked to be altering the production of the racket that had lasted his career, Becker took a firm stance. “I didn’t like that. I was winning with the racket I had played with, so I bought all the moulds, just in case I changed company or they changed me,” he tells me. “That meant I played my whole career with the same racket.” Today, these racket moulds can be found in the hands of Becker’s old racket stringer somewhere in Germany.

It was this pragmatism combined with an entrepreneurial drive that helped Becker gain success in other areas once his professional tennis career ended in 1999. “I started out two businesses and I’m still running both of them,” he explains, before enlightening me to one of his lesser-known talents. “I played professional poker for six years and I was on the tour,” he adds. “My best ranking I think was number 41 in the world.”

Despite the old champion’s entertaining and surprisingly varied extra-curricular activities, his heart has always been on the court. “I love the game very much, so I had to ask ‘how can I stay in tennis?’”. When he was given the opportunity in 2002 to become a commentator for the BBC, the only thing he was worried about was his level of English. “I know the place, I know the tennis, but I was offered the final on the first year, which meant speaking to millions of people,” he says, nodding at the prospect. “Then I did 12 years in a row, which landed me other television gigs speaking about sports, so I am grateful to the BBC for giving me my first chance.”

For the past two years, Becker has stopped commentating in order to coach the world number one: Novak Djokovic. I was curious about how commentating compares with coaching. “As a coach, you have to talk a lot. In my case it’s coaching tennis and I’ve played and talked about it professionally,” he explains, before going on to highlight the differences between being a pundit in the studio and a mentor in the locker room. “It’s easy because I can talk, but it’s difficult because Djokovic is a connoisseur of the game,” Becker says. “You have to be able to tell him something that he hasn’t heard yet. That’s always a challenge.”

As with all of Becker’s answers and many of his tennis matches, he closes with a statement of quality. “I think the fact that I’ve played Grand Slam finals – won and lost them – and the fact that I was commentating on Grand Slam finals for 12 years and am still involved in the game has helped me do my job today,” he concludes. “Apparently it works. Djokovic is winning a lot more than he is losing.”

The Small Universe of New York Cricket

Port’s US editor, Alex Vadukul, explores what cricket means to a small group of dedicated sportspeople in NYC

Ricky Singh, owner of Singh's Sporting Goods in Brooklyn
Ricky Singh is the owner of Singh’s Sporting Goods, one of a handful of shops in New York that specialises in cricketing hear. His shop has been in Ozone Park, Queens, for 15 years.

Brooklyn

After living in New York for 18 years I travelled two hours to a park on the borders of Brooklyn to watch one of the world’s most popular sports – which, through a twist of irony, remains practically invisible in a metropolis known as ‘the world’s city’.

An hour-long subway ride from Manhattan placed me at a boulevard of Eastern European restaurants and shops, where I boarded a lonely bus. We blurred through avenues of brown houses. An old man sat near me with a fishing rod, presumably for catching striped bass in muddy Jamaica Bay. A West Indian man sat farther away speaking on his cell phone. “I’m on my way,” he said before hanging up. “Let’s have some Saturday cricket.”

When I got off I heard the cries of children. Marine Park, a large, choppy grass-covered expanse, encapsulates everything they say about New York’s diversity. The place feels preserved in time, a scene from an early Martin Scorsese movie. A playground with water-spouting fountains was overrun with kids. Mothers gossiped in Spanish. Orthodox Jewish fathers, sweating in dark suits, pedalled their infants around on bikes. Big men with borough accents slammed at balls on one of the baseball diamonds. But in the field’s heart, taking up a surprising amount of space, was a perfectly adequate, if ragged and uneven, cricket pitch. The Jamaican men in crisp white uniforms appeared to shimmer mirage-like under the hot sun.

Cricket exists here because immigrants refuse to part ways with it. Players hail from the West Indies, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, England, New Zealand and Australia
Cricket exists here because immigrants refuse to part ways with it. Players hail from the West Indies, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, England, New Zealand and Australia.

Their wives and friends watched from a distance, sitting in lawn chairs while sipping rum cocktails from plastic cups. A batsman beat his willow blade against the rocky turf. The bowler dashed and hopped, his arm swinging like a well-greased axle. The red ball, sharp against a blue sky punctuated by planes soaring into JFK Airport, travelled across the pitch. Willow cracked. The ball flew in the direction of one of the baseball diamonds. Teammates clapped. A man stopped playing catch with his son to watch with fascination.

The rich multicultural tapestry of New York has always interested me, and I’ve tried to see as much of it as I can: lavish Indian weddings in Long Island, giant Chinese dim sum halls in Queens, red-sauce joints in the Italian-American enclaves of the Bronx, vodka bars filled with tattooed men in Brighton Beach. But this scene felt so out of place, especially to me. Although I hardly know the rules of cricket, I’ve lived in the sport’s shadow my whole life.

My father, Max, grew up in North London, in Enfield, and as a teenager was an impressive player respected for his fast bowling. The esteemed Middlesex league picked him up and he became a star bowler, dreaming of playing professionally and escaping his dull terraced house-lined street. But his career ended one day when a ball was bowled into his face, leaving his nose hanging from strands of bloody skin. His face still bears signs of the battering, yet his passion has endured despite having immigrated to a skyscraper-filled city whose denizens confuse the sport with the name of an insect.

I have seen him watch countless televised matches, heard him kick up conversations about cricket with any Pakistani cab driver who will listen to him, and will never forget returning from house parties during high school to find him wide awake in the dark living room, sipping a cup of tea, staring at the glowing television airing a game in Australia. Nonetheless, the sport has remained gibberish to me. But here I was, in Brooklyn, transfixed and calmed, witnessing a match in the flesh.

Marine Park in Brooklyn
Around 80 league games occur in parks around New York any given summer weekend. Here, the grounds at Marine Park in Brooklyn.

Cricket exists here because immigrants refuse to part ways with it. Its players hail from the West Indies, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, England, New Zealand and Australia. They play outside of Manhattan, the city’s cosmopolitan centre, in the more culturally diverse and less expensive parts of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx. A sport with more fans worldwide than any other (save football) exists on the fringes here, mutated by urbanity, defined by adaptation, and shunned by a country that doesn’t play the game. Yet cricket predates baseball in America by over 150 years, when it followed its English forefathers to the New World. A 1751 newspaper article is considered the first record of a match in New York, and the game was at one point even played in Central Park.

Cricket in New York is trashcans as wickets in Bronx pickup games; taxi drivers playing with tennis balls in dimly lit parking lots during night-shift breaks; tournaments in rusty-fenced parks beside basketball courts alive with the sounds of skidding sneakers and trash talk.

Winters are long here, so the season is short. Five-day test cricket is an absurd concept in a town that spawned the expression ‘in a New York minute,’ so the game’s faster Twenty20 format is the standard. (Each team has a single innings, batting for a maximum of 20 overs; play lasts about three hours.) At a match in the Bronx one coach told me: “You’d have to be retired or unemployed to play test cricket in New York.”

Most parks have badly tended grounds that obligate the use of jute mats rolled across pitches to create a semblance of flatness. They are kept in large rusty lockers on park grounds and their removal signals a game’s start. They also protect the batsman: a bowled ball that ricochets off a stray rock or piece of glass can turn dangerous and unpredictable.
But the game is now perhaps better organised and more popular in this small universe than ever before. About a thousand people play cricket seriously in New York (hundreds more play casually), and Queens alone has 16 weekend leagues. There are players who have competed professionally in their home countries, though the majority are passionate amateurs: accountants, cabbies, auto mechanics, doctors, engineers and bankers who await their weekend league games with the same itch Upper East Siders have for driving out to the Hamptons.

Fifty-nine cricket grounds exist in the city (vs. 634 baseball diamonds). Websites like newyorkcricket.com and dreamcricket.com chronicle the scene hungrily, posting game schedules and commentary. In 2008 the New York City Department of Education created the country’s first competitive public school cricket program, which now has 30 teams. Whispers exist even of a potential cricket stadium in Queens, though it’s worth noting America’s only internationally recognised cricket stadium, Florida’s Central Broward Regional Park, has yet to impress with its profits and attendance numbers.

New York Cricket
Manhattan

I spent June exploring the spectrum of New York cricket. I witnessed informal practices in parks, met players who once competed for Caribbean national teams, hung out with the 18-year-old star of the high school cricket scene, and visited a cricket shop in an area of Brooklyn so industrial and unwelcoming that I was certain I’d come to the wrong place: I found a business stocked with hundreds of bats and balls run by two Guyanese brothers who distribute a majority of all cricket products used across America.

Early on, the Columbia Cricket Club invited me to a Wednesday morning practice in a park on the west side of Manhattan. It was at 6 a.m. so members, some in finance, could make it to work. Manhattan has the smallest cricketing presence of all the boroughs, and I am confident this was the only place on the island where the sport was being played that morning. “I’d bet my house on it,” one of its members told me.

The sun had just risen. Players arrived wearily, setting their gear bags on a bench beside the baseball diamond’s cage. I sipped coffee and ate an egg sandwich. One member set up a plastic wicket near the cage. Another put on his pads and helmet. Jackhammers drilled in the distance. Nearby, a woman practiced tai chi.
The group moved far away enough so that they could have a decent run-up to bowl to the batsman. Some were not much better than me; others bowled with marksman-like precision, hitting the plastic wickets squarely, making them shake about like an inflatable child’s toy.

Josh Webb was one of the fastest and fittest bowlers. He moved from New Zealand six years ago and works in media. “I don’t really care, or think it matters, if others don’t understand what we’re playing,” he said of the inquisitive passersby. “If people ask, we tell them it’s like baseball, even though it really isn’t.”

Eager to show I possessed some knowledge of the game, I asked about ‘bodyline’ bowling. My father has an almost gleeful obsession with this aggressive technique in which, as I understand it, the bowler aims for the batsman’s body, rather than the wickets, thus intimidating him and breaking his concentration. I’ve concluded that my father, in his youth, probably enjoyed having a socially justifiable way to injure someone. Did the New York cricketers share that proclivity? “We’re just trying our best not to bowl a wide,” said Webb. “You won’t see bodyline bowling in New York. Most players aren’t good enough.”

A heavyset batsman started pounding balls into the far reaches of the field, creating a sad procession of sleep-deprived men jogging to collect them. He walloped another, sending it near the park’s public restroom.

“Cricket was once the national pastime, people forget that,” a long-time member, Madhura Gunasekera, told me. “Washington, Franklin, all those guys played cricket. The first international game was Canada versus the USA.” Old teams in Boston and Philadelphia, he said, once boasted players of the same calibre as the best in England.

A historic cricket club in Philadelphia, he told me, keeps a framed article about Babe Ruth, the legendary baseball player, meeting Australia’s Donald Bradman, his cricket equivalent. “It’s about them together for the first time,” he said. “They both knew about each other’s fame.” But ‘The Babe’ was surprised by Bradman’s modest height. “I expected you to be bigger,” he said. ‘The Don’ replied by commenting on Ruth’s trademark paunch: “I expected you to be fitter.”

Clarence Modeste, president of the Staten Island Cricket Club
Clarence Modeste is president of the Staten Island Cricket Club and a figurehead in the New York cricketing community. He moved to the city from Tobago in 1959 and joined the club in 1961.

Staten Island

Cricket’s early American origins intrigued me. It was hard to picture hundreds of people showing up for a test match in prerevolutionary Brooklyn. This led me, improbably, to Tom Melville, a 59-year-old scholar who lives outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His book, The Tented Field, is a comprehensive look at the history of cricket in America. He travels around the country to American history reenactment festivals, where he wears Civil War-era clothing and teaches adults and children how to play their country’s original national pastime.

“It’s probably the oldest sport in the country,” he said when I reached him by phone. The earliest record of organised cricket on which most scholars agree comes in 1709, in the form of a diary entry by one William Byrd, a Virginian plantation owner. Records show important early Americans played: George Washington, one of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s sons and, in Iowa, Ernest Hemmingway’s great-grandfather. It was a game favoured by the rich and privileged, senators and congressmen. “What makes a game American?” Melville mused. “Who plays it? How old it is? Well, in that case, cricket wins in America. Hands down.”

Cricket’s US popularity peaked between the 1850s and 60s, when bigger games could draw thousands of spectators. Gradually, however, baseball became the bat-and-ball game of choice. The skill level of American cricketers was far from second-rate. “The 1898 team in Philadelphia? They could have easily beat England or Australia,” said Melville.
But if cricket was so popular, how did it fade away so definitively, ending up relegated to overgrown parks in distant parts of Queens? Perhaps it had to do with Americans wanting a national sport without a British imprimatur. “Historians have spilled a lot of ink on that question,” Melville told me, growing heated.

Some cricket scholars agree that the sport’s British connection hastened its demise; others believe the game’s length did not suit impatient Americans and still others say that baseball was simply less expensive to play and host. Melville’s verdict? “Cricket failed in America because it did not establish an American character. I think that’s what’s holding it back today. It carries too much cultural baggage.”

As for New York, he told me: “Cricket is an immigrant game there, and that is positive and negative. It is positive in that it maintains a presence. But the downside is that it has remained an immigrant sport. An invisible sport.”
One relic of New York’s cricket history exists. To see it, head to Staten Island, cruelly dubbed the ‘forgotten borough’ by some New Yorkers. Walker Park is home to the Staten Island Cricket Club, founded in 1872, the oldest continuous cricket club in the United States.

While other historic clubs have closed, cricket has endured in this modest park, situated in an Italian-American suburb. The club does not look as if it echoes with cricket history, but Donald Bradman once played here, as did such other greats as Gary Sobers and Everton Weekes. In its heyday, the Staten Island team competed internationally. It was once composed of wealthy British Wall Street men. Hundreds of fans would sit on its then well-manicured lawn to watch games. The club, and New York’s cricket scene, enjoyed a brief burst of international attention when the Irish-born novelist Joseph O’Neill featured it in his 2008 best-selling novel, Netherland.

It’s also the only cricket ground in New York with a clubhouse. The city has owned Walker Park since 1930, so much of the clubhouse has been repurposed, but faint traces of its cricket past are still there: its majestic redbrick Tudor-style architecture, two changing rooms (one for the home team, one for the visitors), and a large space that once housed a bar.
I went to see a game one Saturday in July. Most team members were middle aged. One man who appeared to be in his late 60s bowled with the gusto of a 20-year-old. The players changed into their whites in the locker room. A wooden scoreboard was set up (in most leagues players must keep mental tallies). Plastic chairs were brought out. Someone started smoothing the pitch with a rake-like instrument. Six men dragged the heavy jute mat from the clubhouse to the field.

Disagreement arose over where to rest the mat. Charu Choudhari, a 62-year-old who has been with the team since 1985, insisted there was a depression in the pitch and that it would interfere with the ball’s trajectory. He was correct: a dent had appeared – perhaps from abusive football studs earlier in the week – and after five minutes of moving the mat back and forth they nailed it into place. “This is bush cricket,” Choudhari said.

The club’s president is a tall, elegant 80-something man from Tobago named Clarence Modeste. If a revered figurehead in the New York cricket community exists, it is he. Five interviews ended with the question, “Have you spoken with Clarence yet?” Modeste moved to the city in 1959 and joined the club in 1961.

“Even though there are what appear to be these stark differences between a lovely English cricket club somewhere in the countryside and the rough and tumble and noisy New York,” he said, “there’s not enough of this rough and tumble character to discourage cricket from being played here.”
“The game came into my life early,” he added. “If I shouldn’t play cricket, if I dismiss myself from the cricket scene, it would be like losing a good friend, like cutting off an important part of myself and floating it off to sea.”

Players watch a game from stands at Baisley Pond Park in Queens. The park is an undisputed nucleus of the Queens cricketing community.
Players watch a game from stands at Baisley Pond Park in Queens. The park is an undisputed nucleus of the Queens cricketing community.

Queens

Until this summer I don’t think my father had ever gone to Queens for any reason other than to catch a flight from LaGuardia Airport, but I dragged him there to see a match at Baisley Pond Park. I also had something else in mind. I was going to take him to the city’s only indoor cricket batting cage so that he could bowl for the first time in 30 years. I would bat.
As we drove through the far reaches of Queens, Max talked of his cricketing youth.

“I used to do a very short run-up and I was always very successful at destroying them,” he said of his bowling abilities. “We used to use briefcases as wickets. I thought that was going to be my future,” he said wistfully. (Improbably, he became a portrait and fashion photographer.) When we arrived my father looked at the pitch: “What the hell is that?”

Baisley Pond Park is among the scrappiest of all New York’s cricket grounds, with shabby overgrown grass and many littered patches, but it’s an undisputed nucleus of the sport’s Queens community. The granite stands were filled with Guyanese players. A family had pulled the backseat row from their parked van out onto the street to use as a couch. When a truck sped past, the driver yelled from his window: “Hit a six!”

“This is guerrilla cricket,” my father said, somewhat shocked. He was out of place, as though the word ‘Manhattan’ was stamped to his forehead; but he quickly made friends and chatted with Derick Narine, 18, the star of the high school cricket scene. By the game’s end he was impressed. “Those guys weren’t mucking around,” he said. “All they need is a decent turf.”

The batting cage was in the middle of Queens. It was a ratty and poorly air-conditioned establishment – effectively a baseball batting cage. Its longhaired owner, Ross, decided to capitalise on cricket’s rise in popularity, so he repurposed two lanes for the sport. He gave us balls, a wicket, a helmet and leg pads, before returning to his heavy metal.
We entered our lane and I put on my padding. I breathed heavily in the cage-like helmet. The first balls were warm ups. But then he moved back and introduced a short jog before his throws. The fluid arc of his arm was remarkable – a natural talent that has remained intact after all these years. The balls now stung, battered and bruised me. They zipped into the wickets. One ball rang right into my helmet.

“That’s what we call chin music,” he said – pleased with himself. “I’m going to throw a short one now. Don’t be afraid.”
In this sweaty dim-lit cavern we connected with something that had long escaped our bond. On the drive home I thought back to the match at Marine Park and felt closer to my city as well. I had watched the Jamaican cricketers, and the diverse scene anchored around them, from a quiet patch of grass. I was absorbing the full swell of New York’s immigrant story and was reminded again, for the first time in a while, of its capacity for miracles.

Photography Benjamin Norman