Cricket 'with attitude' for LA gang team

Squinting into bright sun at the famous Sydney Cricket Ground, American bowler Theo Hayes plucks a blade of grass and pops it into his mouth with a grin.

By Amy Coopes

Sydney: Feb 20, 2011

Squinting into bright sun at the famous Sydney Cricket Ground, American bowler Theo Hayes plucks a blade of grass and pops it into his mouth with a grin. He’s a long way from the Los Angeles badlands of Compton, where gang violence, drugs and shootings provided an unlikely crucible for what he says is America’s only touring cricket team.

“It’s kind of like going to Babe Ruth’s house, to Yankee Stadium and I’m so honoured,” said Hayes, 38, captain of the Compton Cricket Club. “I ate the grass so I can come back in my next life. I want to get a century here in my next life.”

Hayes’ team, nicknamed “Homies and the Popz”, which became the first American team to tour Australia this month, started life on the wrong side of the tracks before turning to the genteel sport of cricket to stay out of trouble.

“You ask them where would you be if it wasn’t for cricket — dead or in prison,” said Ted Hayes, club founder and Theo’s father, of the players.

The tattoo-sporting outfit are also rappers whose songs “Shots” and “Bullets” extol the virtues of cricket. They have toured England five times since first forming as the LA Krickets Homeless XI, but it’s taken them 16 years to get to Australia.

Emidio and Ricardo Cazarez don’t like to speak about the drive-by shooting murder of their brother Jesse, and little is said about two other teammates who died in car accidents or another who is in jail, but their presence is felt.

It’s a sobering reminder of what could have been for any one of them, had it not been for cricket. For them, the sport is literally a matter of life or death.

“The umpire’s the highest authority on the field and if he says you’re out you don’t go like a baseball player, spit and carry on, you fold your bat and you walk off. Therefore, if a kid in your neighbourhood’s got a gun in your face, whether you like it or not that’s the highest authority in your life and you need to use your head to get that gun out of your fac,” said Ted Hayes.

Hayes got his first taste of cricket after being roped into a Beverley Hills expat match in 1994. He threw down his bat after his first hit and made a dash for the opposite crease, sure he’d scored a home run.

The sport’s values of discipline and respect inspired Hayes, an activist for the homeless, to use it as an outreach tool for Compton’s youth — some as young as 10 — who were falling in with drugs and gangs, including his own son Isaac.

“I was loner, I didn’t really have many friends so I got recruited by these guys and they showed me drugs, showed me money, showed me guns, showed me women,” said Isaac Hayes.

“They used me ‘cos I was underage to do a lot of dirt. I got into a lot of problems with that, I got into a lot of problems with the police.”

Cricket has taught them respectful behaviour, explains Ted Hayes; to honour every ball in life as important and learn from their opponents.

It brings them kudos on the street too, despite some confusion — “they always mix it with croquet,” jokes Ricardo Cazarez — about what exactly it is they do with two bats and no home plate.

“I like to say it’s given them a pass to live in the ‘hood, it’s given them the freedom to walk in the neighbourhood and not be afraid,” said Theo Hayes. “They developed a self-esteem to be their own individuals, they’ve become leaders in their communities.”

The Homies have played everyone from Buckingham Palace staffers to West Indies legend Brian Lara, but they’re most at ease on the city fringes, playing homeless and at-risk youths during goodwill trips overseas.

What they lack in skill (they won just one match in their two-week tour of Australia) they make up for in style, readying for play with a hip-hop huddle about swapping “bullets to balls and Gats (guns) to bats”.

As they pose for a team photograph on the Sydney Cricket Ground field, where Australia would clinch a one-day series against England just two days later, Theo confesses a dream.

“How beautiful would it be to have an American-born team representing that in the future,” he said. “It’s far-fetched but we believe it can happen.”

His father has bigger dreams, for his Cricket Outta Compton project and the thinking man’s game, whose World Cup started in South Asia on Saturday. “If cricket is taught correctly it can change things. We want to bring cricket back in a way that civilises the world,” he said.