STAY CONNECTED { }

CD 13: Staying in the Game

Brooklyn -

For immigrants, sports can maintain a link to an identity and a culture left behind in another country.  In southern Brooklyn, two distinctively non-American sports maintain avid followings.

Emigres from the former Soviet Union now living in Brighton Beach, Sheepshead Bay and Coney Island, flock to the Coney Island Avenue basement pingpong hall run by a former table tennis pro from Tajikistan. Meanwhile, South Asian and Caribbean immigrants from Brooklyn and beyond practice their batting at the city’s only indoor cricket cage.

BOUNCING AROUND THE WORLD WITH PINGPONG

For Nison Arinov, table tennis has been a lifeline.  Growing up on the rough side of Dushanbe, in Tajikistan, Arinov found table tennis as an avenue to escape the streets and earn money for his family.

Table tennis took him around the Soviet Union, giving him a chance to vie for medals and do some black-market business on the side.  His transition from salaried Soviet athlete to New York City immigrant was a tough one, but Arinov has found his calling on Coney Island Avenue.  After a decade driving a yellow cab, he now runs a bustling, subterranean pingpong hall called, The Brooklyn Table Tennis Club.

“For two years, I struggled,” said Arinov, who opened the Midwood club in 2003.  “I had no salary. It was then that I got divorced from my wife.  But you got to do what you got to do.  I was driving the yellow cab for 10 years, I got my investment, and I made my decision.

“Table tennis, that’s me, that’s my life.”

(Arinov talks about his immigration experience in the video below. For more about his life, go here.)

CRICKET PROVES A STICKY WICKET IN BROOKLYN

Welcome to New York’s only indoor cricket batting cage.

Men from countries as far apart as Guyana and Pakistan shuffle into a brightly lit, converted furniture factory on a dead end street to sweat away the hours of a Friday night.

Nevermind crossing oceans. Ashmul Ali, 55, of the Bronx, rode the subway for 90 minutes to Canarsie, a trip he makes at least once a week. “It’s kind of an enjoyable ride coming out here, especially when you’re coming to play cricket,” he said with a smile, adding that he spends the trip reading up on the complex rules of the game.

The English language wasn’t the only thing Britain imparted to its colonies during the 19th century. The imperial legacy extends to cricket, which is now played in more than 100 countries. The first reported U.S. cricket game was in New York in 1751.

Winter Training

Some 370,000 New Yorkers were born in either Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Guyana, or Trinidad and Tobago — all former English conquests — according to U.S. Census data from 2000. Today, some estimates put the number of Pakistanis alone at 200,000 in the city. New York also has the highest population of West Indians outside of the Caribbean.

As the weather starts to get warm, you can find many of the Crown’s former subjects gathering to play the gentleman’s game at Marine Park and Floyd Bennett Field in King’s County, or Brooklyn, for you revolutionary types.

During the winter, though, it’s a different story.

Cricket is played during the spring and summer months. But like their American, baseball-loving counterparts, cricketers like to keep their skills sharp and their bodies in shape during the off-season. That’s why Ali and hundreds of others like him from around the city come to New York Indoor Cricket, a six-month-old venture launched by Shafique Mohammed, a Pakistani immigrant who moved to the U.S. ten years ago.

A League of its Own

Mohammed, 34, lives in Marine Park, and is a member of the Brooklyn Cricket League, which has been around since 1936.

He already owned one business, a construction company, when he opened his the batting cage in December so New York’s cricket enthusiasts wouldn’t have to schlep to Morristown, N.J. — then the closest indoor facility — during the winter.

Mohammed built it, and they came.

“In the winter,” he said, “we opened up at seven a.m. and closed at two a.m, it was so full.”

His clientele is as diverse as Brooklyn itself.

“Grenada, Jamaica, Trinidad, Bangladesh, U.K., New Zealand, Zimbabwe. I have customers who come all the way from Stamford, Connecticut, and Poughkeepsie, New York,” he noted.

Game Conditions

There is an automatic pitching machine like you would find at an indoor baseball cage, but most of the cricketers come with their teammates and practice with live bowlers — or pitchers — and batsmen. “This game in particular,” Mohammed said, “is not a one-person game.”

The diverse group of men who play cricket in Brooklyn usually have at least two things in common: English and their love for the sport.

Zaheer Hussain’s team, of which he is captain, is called Pak 11, a nod to his home country and the number of players on his team. Political tensions back home notwithstanding, the team has two Indian members.

Hussain and his cousin, Ali Shahban, both originally of Kashmir, now living in Bensonhurst, have played since they were children.

“In the Dominican Republic, even the small kids play baseball,” Shahban, 21, said. “That’s how it is for us with cricket.”

Hoping for Wider Exposure

Pointing to his teammates, ranging in age from teenagers like himself to middle-aged men, he said, “They’re from all over the West Indies: Trinidad, Jamaica…”

Cricket enthusiasts hope to see the game get bigger in America.

“It’s not that big like baseball and football, but you can see that it’s growing in New York,” Marlon Persaud, a 17-year-old Guyanese immigrant who drives a half hour every Friday from South Ozone Park, Queens, to practice with his team, the Cosmos.

Wynford Blackmun, 52, has been in America for 20 years. He lives in East Flatbush and is one of a few Guyanese on a mostly Barbadian team. Blackmun would like to see the game become popular in America, but thinks that United States of America Cricket Association (USACA) “doesn’t have it together,” citing a fractured leaguing system that one might charitably compare to the ABA vs. NBA feud in the 1970s.

“The sponsorship is here in America,” he added hopefully, “so if took off in America, it would be great for the game.”

Cricket is getting more exposure, at least in city high schools. When the Department of Education made cricket a varsity sport last year, 14 schools formed teams. This year there are 22, including Coach Scott Jackson’s team from Brooklyn International High School, which began its season in April.

“We have a full team,” Jackson, a history teacher, said. “We have seven Bengali boys, three Pakistani boys, and a boy from Tibet that grew up in a refugee camp in India” where he learned to play cricket.

‘They Love it’

Jackson, 32, got the cricket bug while an undergraduate studying abroad at the London School of Economics.

Mohammed’s younger brother, Afiq, who will run the facility during the summer while his brother tends to the construction business, is an alumni of Jackson’s high school.

“When Afiq found out that my kids were down here, he was blown away,” Jackson said. “When he was at my school, he tried very hard to start a cricket club.”

It’s a challenge, Jackson said, for his players to balance work, school and cricket. He estimated that 75 percent of his student-athletes work jobs to help their families. One teenager works as a driver for a car service at night.

“My boys are all recent immigrants, they all arrived three or four years ago,” he said. “Their parents all moved here for a better life. They sacrificed middle class lives in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and they’re working construction and driving cabs here so that their kids can get a good education.”

As Jackson spoke, the his team was prepping for a game the next morning at Baisley Pond in Queens.

“They’re gonna travel two hours to get to the match tomorrow, but they love it,” he said.