Published in The Link 36.18 on January 26 2016
It’s Saturday afternoon, and the Australians are everywhere. There’s one crouched behind me, nine spread across the field, and one straight ahead, whipping a ball at my face.
I swing at the ball. I miss, hard. I yank my shoulder, scream in pain and close my eyes as everything goes white. Cringing, I drop the bat, and it clatters to the frozen plywood—I let my team down in a double-whammy of physical and emotional pain. My eyes open but everything stays white—because this is snow cricket.
Snow cricket is Angus Bell’s invention. A Scottish expat living in Montreal, the idea came to him ten years ago while touring through the former Soviet Bloc, writing a book on extreme cricket playing.
“I played cricket on ice inside a Soviet missile factory against the Estonian national team,” Bell says. “I thought, when we come back to Montreal with six months of winter, it’s a perfect fit.”
This year’s perfect fit is the ninth Snow Cricket World Cup, and Bell says that around 70 people are here in our corner of Jeanne-Mance Park for the event. He gestures across the snow at the three cricket fields, made of plastic wickets and plywood boards. Colourful snowsuits stand out against the white as people from all over the world chase frozen tennis balls—the only thing that bounces in this weather.
“There are some very loose alliances here,” Bell says of the teams. He’s wearing a kilt over his snow pants, a St. Andrew’s Cross jersey over his jacket and is on what could be called the non-English British people team: Celts, Gauls, Scots, Welsh and a South African. There’s also the Canada-U.S. team, the actually-English English team, the Asian Bloc (Indians and a Brit born in Hong-Kong), New Zealand and Australia.
The Asian Bloc won last year’s tournament, so I join their team in the second match against Canada-U.S. They’re short a player, and I can’t figure out how cricket works just by watching—besides, Bell says the tournament is for beginners too. There’s just something about playing in snowsuits and boots that makes everyone bad at sports.
Pratik Joshi, the Asian Bloc captain, directs me to stand near the Canadian batsman, and explains the basics. Just like baseball, the idea is to get full coverage of the field. If the batsman hits the ball as it is bowled or pitched, then we fielders have to catch it and send it to the bowler or the wicket-keeper. If the bowler or wicket-keeper catches it and hits the wicket before the batsman runs to the wicket, the batsman is out. If the batsman gets there first, they get a point. Simple right? Except it’s not.
See, there are two wickets: the one you bowl at and the batsman runs from, and the one you bowl from and the batsman runs at. There’s another batsman, who runs to the first wicket after the first batsman bats, to get more points. Also if the bowler hits the wicket, the batsman is out, but the bowler only has ten bowls before they have to be substituted out of the game for another player, and before I understand any of it, the batsman hits the ball and it lands in front of me.
I dive into the snow and throw the tennis ball to the wicket-keeper, Pratik. I don’t know if that was right. The Canadian batsman doesn’t run. Nothing happens. But the team says to me, “good fielding,” so I guess it was okay? I dust the snow off my jacket. I can get used to this.
The bowler bowls again and the batsman bats, but he misses the tennis ball and promptly crumples to the wood, screaming. He has twisted his knee, maybe dislocated it. We gather around him. Somebody calls an ambulance.
Yes, cricket is complex and intense and, like any sport, potentially dangerous, but this is snow cricket, and we’re here to have fun, so we help him to the stands and we keep playing.
Gradually, I learn the ebb and flow of the game, when to run and when to stand and when to go get your jacket because it’s really cold out when you’re not chasing balls. I learn to bowl—I’m not bad at it. I learn to bat—I’m very bad at it. I learn to run—I’m very good at it.
Time passes, and we beat the Canadians handily. I feel no remorse or pity for my former country folk; I’m team Asia now, there’s no looking back. Our next match is against England, and when I bowl I get a wicket—an “out”—against a tall fellow named Felix.
Never mind that he gets me out when I’m batting, I got an Englishman out at cricket!
And yes, I do blow out my shoulder in our blowout against Australia, but our opponents showed real concern and compassion as I limped away from the wicket. Everybody wants everybody else to have fun.
“Are you alright mate?” somebody asks me. No, but I think I will be. After all, I’ve made a team’s worth of new friends and got to enjoy a beautiful sunny day I otherwise would have watched through a window.
Bell calls snow cricket “the gateway drug to real cricket,” and I understand why. Talking to one of my teammates who was born in India, I feel like part of something bigger. This is a sport that linked the largest empire in history, and the game connects people like my teammate to their home countries and culture. By playing it in the snow, he can link his sport to his homes, old and new. Plus, meat pies for lunch.
The best part of snow cricket is that everyone is welcome—from beginners like me to strategists like Pratik, to whoever the slugger on the Australian team was. Bell runs an indoor cricket centre and an outdoor cricket league, too. And, like snow cricket, he says there’s just one rule: cricket for all.
Well there are actually hundreds of rules, but that’s the only one that matters.