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Originally published Sunday, April 6, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Is cricket America's next favorite pastime?

With a loud crack, the ball soared toward the fence, and fielders ran to get their hands on it. On the sidelines, the batter's teammates...

The Associated Press

NEW YORK — With a loud crack, the ball soared toward the fence, and fielders ran to get their hands on it. On the sidelines, the batter's teammates whooped with excitement as four runs were added to their tally.

This, however, is not baseball — it's a high-school cricket game.

Schools in New York City, home of the Yankees and the Mets, have launched a cricket league — it's apparently the first school system in the country to offer the sport. The response has been overwhelming, a reflection of the city's growing number of immigrants from the Caribbean and South Asia, where cricket is the most popular sport.

The season opened Wednesday with squads from Richmond Hill and Aviation high schools facing off in a city park.

"This is big," said Wesley Henry, a teacher at Aviation who coaches the cricket team. "I came here from Guyana, I never thought I would see cricket being played here. It's always basketball, baseball, football."

Only four or five schools were expected to show any interest, said Eric Goldstein, chief executive officer of school support services for the Department of Education, who oversees the Public Schools Athletic League.

Instead, there are 14, divided into two leagues, with about 600 students involved. Each school will play 12 matches, with a championship scheduled for the end of May, Goldstein said.

Cricket was carried around the globe by the British Empire and is wildly popular in countries including India, Pakistan, Australia and the nations of the West Indies.

It's played on a field known as a pitch, but the pitcher is called a bowler. The bowler hurls the ball to the opposing team's batsman, who attempts to hit it with a flattened bat. Depending on how well the ball travels, a hit can result in one or more runs.

The New York program is a way to reach out to immigrant teenagers, who can feel uncomfortable trying to pick up sports that their American counterparts have been playing for years, said John Aaron, secretary of the United States of America Cricket Association, which oversees the small cricket leagues that exist in the United States.

"You can't shoot a basketball, you can be humiliated," he said.

For those immigrant students, having cricket means "now they found something to fit into," said Mdarman Mannan, 14, an Aviation freshman from Bangladesh who came here a few years ago and plays on the cricket team.

"They can say 'I'm an athlete now.' "

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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