The old man and the SICC: Clarence Modeste, the ageless custodian of cricket in New York

The old man and the SICC: Clarence Modeste, the ageless custodian of cricket in New York

Peter Della Penna / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

The man who keeps New York cricket ticking

Cricket in the city is safe in the hands of the enigmatic Clarence Modeste, keeper of the oldest continuously run cricket club in the USA

Aishwarya Kumar  |  

"Good ball! Terrific turn!" Clarence Modeste yells from the dugout of Walker Park, where his team, Staten Island Cricket Club, is playing a 25-over home match against the British Officers' Club of Philadelphia. It's a chilly spring afternoon in New York, and Modeste has a light silky grey jacket on. The wind doesn't seem to bother him in the least. His cheering is annotated with loud claps. He stands at the edge of the ground for a solid 20 minutes, his brown-grey eyes locked in on the pitch.

"Would you like to sit?" I ask.

"Oh, I was out there umpiring just this past Wednesday… I'm fine!" he says and smiles.

Rumours say Modeste is close to 90 years old, but we will never know for sure, because he does not reveal his age.

"I am still alive. I promise, I am not talking to people from the beyond," he assures me.

His jet-white hair peeks out from underneath his green hat, and his gait is slightly slow as he leads me to the clubhouse next to the ground - but even so, I know that at age however-old-he-is, Clarence Modeste has a better chance of finishing a marathon than I do.

Modeste has been a part of the Staten Island Cricket Club since 1961, and its president for 25 years. He has helped launch a youth cricket programme in New York. He is a qualified umpire and a part of the USA's Cricket Umpires' Association. Every October he is in England for a cricket tournament with his friends. Every April he is in Philadelphia for the International Cricket Festival. Otherwise, every weekend he is at Walker Park, cheering his team on. His name is so popular in the tri-state area that it is used interchangeably with New York cricket: "Clarence's club", "Clarence's Staten Island Club", "Clarence's New York cricket legacy" are commonly used phrases.

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Video footage and interviews by Peter Della Penna

Modeste doesn't play competitively anymore but still manages to bat for a few minutes here and there in friendly games. When he is not playing, he is umpiring, setting up board meetings, and finalising fixtures. He has been a part of the club for so long that people don't remember the club outside of him.

"The rumour is that he was there at the inauguration of the Staten Island Cricket Club in the 19th century," jokes Abdullah Syed Zafar, the team captain.

Founded in 1872 by a group of British men working on Wall Street, Staten Island Cricket Club was then, according to Modeste, predominantly white, with a few Indian and West Indian members. It is the oldest continuously existing cricket club in the country, and the only one in New York with a clubhouse.

Some of the earliest images of the club show the team's weekly meetings on the waterfront along the ferry line. It then moved west to Walker Park, where over the years some of the greatest cricketers in the world - Don Bradman, Garry Sobers and Everton Weekes - would drop by to play friendly matches*. Owned by the city since 1930, the clubhouse has multiple purposes now: when the team isn't playing, there's an after-school programme that occupies the space. When visiting teams arrive, they look at the bar, kitchen and dressing rooms and tell Modeste, "You've got a really nice space here." It's not Lord's or the Melbourne Cricket Ground, but for club cricket, particularly in America, it's a pretty sweet spot.

The make-up of the club changed significantly in the 1950s and '60s, when the country, and New York in particular, started seeing increased South Asian immigration; there was a shift towards brown immigrants from the aristocratic white people who once made up the membership of the club. At its peak the club boasted 500 members, with a women's section and a thriving tennis space for members.

In The Tented Field: A History of Cricket in America , the scholar Tom Melville describes cricket as the oldest organised sport in the country. The earliest cricket match played in America dates to 1709. George Washington, Ernest Hemingway's great-grandfather, and several senators and government officials played the sport. Why then did it struggle to capture the popular imagination in the 19th and 20th centuries? Melville's research says that cricket failed to find its American character: it was always too rooted in the cultures it came from - those of Britain or former British colonies.

Though the club now only has 60 members, including overseas ones, it still wields clout. It remains one of the most efficiently run cricket organisations in the US, and one of the most well known. The team is one of the more formidable to participate in the annual Philadelphia International Cricket Festival, which launched in 1993, and in which stars like Sobers, Dennis Lillee, Jonty Rhodes, Shaun Pollock and Mark Boucher have appeared. When people think of club cricket in America, Staten Island Cricket Club is still one of the first names to come to mind.

"[The club] is a constant in the very tumultuous world of American cricket," says Joseph O'Neill, club member and author of Netherland, a novel about a Dutchman picking up cricket in Staten Island after the 9/11 attacks. "And, through all of this, one person is common: it's Clarence."

In July 1932, the SICC hosted a visiting Australian club team that included Don Bradman (seated, third from right). Bradman made 35 in the friendly match

In July 1932, the SICC hosted a visiting Australian club team that included Don Bradman (seated, third from right). Bradman made 35 in the friendly match © Courtesy of Staten Island Cricket Club

In 1959, Modeste, then in his late 20s, gave in to his friends' requests for him to visit Brooklyn from his home in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. "Can I still play cricket?" he asked. "Yes, of course," they said, and he booked a flight. The minute he stepped off the plane and saw the majestic skyline, he was taken with the city. He had grown up in Glamorgan in rural Tobago, and the electric energy of New York swallowed him whole. He felt revitalised, like he could do a dozen things a day just because of how the city made him feel.

He stayed for two months, playing in an informal club with his friends in Brooklyn. One of the matches they played was against Staten Island Cricket Club. He remembers being handed the club's fixture sheet and noticing how organised it was.

"They were playing home and away games every other weekend! They were travelling to Montreal, to Washington DC, to Hartford, to the Caribbean and London. It was the perfect mix of the two things I absolutely adored - cricket and travel - and that's when I decided I was going to move to New York and sign up with the club."

He joined the team in 1961, before the Verrazano Bridge was built, connecting Staten Island to the rest of New York by land. In the early years he would take the ferry from Manhattan to get his daily cricket fix. He worked as a radiographer at the time.

After almost a decade of playing for the club, Modeste was asked by the president if he wanted more responsibility. Even as a player, he was invested in the club and its matches, and the president thought he was ideal for the role of a match secretary. Modeste climbed through the ranks, going from secretary to being the club's captain for friendly matches. Sometime in the '90s he was voted president.

He is sheepish about his accomplishments, but he is probably the sole reason the club retains all its many traditions and continues to be one of the powerhouses of the game in America. If he hears people praise him, he immediately smiles and says, "Oh no, come on now! Although my mother would have been very happy to hear you say that!"

The Staten Island Cricket Club frequently hosts matches against other local clubs, like the Pioneer Cricket Club. It is also one of the only clubs in the US to have hosted international teams

The Staten Island Cricket Club frequently hosts matches against other local clubs, like the Pioneer Cricket Club. It is also one of the only clubs in the US to have hosted international teams Peter Della Penna / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Modeste is not here to revolutionise the club or cricket in New York. His mission is to preserve the club and its traditions. "Clarence is not an agent of change," says O'Neill, "He is an agent of conservation."

A popular tradition Modeste has kept going is the club's annual dinner and dance, which has for long been held at Jewel of India, a restaurant in Manhattan. He rents out the private party room, oversees the catering, and coordinates attendance with the club members' families.

A strict dress code is in effect during games: team members have to wear all white, with traditional jumpers.

Travelling with the team to clubs across the country, meeting new people in the away location, having dinner and drinks together in their clubhouse afterwards - all of that is what makes a club a club, Modeste says.

Several American clubs have turned into cliques over the course of their existence, where nearly all the players end up being from India or England or Pakistan; that to Modeste is not what club cricket was about. He has signed players of all colours and creeds and helped make Staten Island one of the most diverse clubs in the country, whose players have West Indian, South Asian, African and European roots.

Staten Island remains to this day one of the only clubs in America that hosts international clubs and teams. When teams visited, Modeste would personally make them tea during breaks. "That's how much he cared," says O'Neill.

Modeste also focuses his energy on promoting cricket among the youth of New York. In 2012 he launched a summer youth cricket programme for boys and girls in the area. Kids - mostly the sons and daughters of immigrants - are taught the basics of the sport, and spend several hours a week training with coaches in summer. The minimum requirement for the programme is five kids, and they have always had anywhere between that number and 15, all between the ages of six and 13.

"Kids of immigrants are excited about the programme," says Modeste. "The next step is to make sure that American kids are introduced to the sport at a young age in their elementary schools."

The entrance to the brick clubhouse is tucked between large trees. The back of the building curves around a portion of the ground. The clubhouse and ground are hidden by the tennis and basketball courts that the Parks Department built for the affluent Italian-American neighbourhood. The layout gives Staten Island Cricket Club an unintentionally mysterious vibe.

The original clubhouse at Walker Park burned down in a fire in 1932. Its handsome brick-and-timber replacement was built in 1934 and has been standing since

The original clubhouse at Walker Park burned down in a fire in 1932. Its handsome brick-and-timber replacement was built in 1934 and has been standing since Peter Della Penna / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Modeste opens the door to the clubhouse, one eye still on the match. He knows Walker Park like the back of his hand, and can spot a stray cigarette butt from a mile away.

"There are rules here. I run a tight ship. You can smoke in a designated area, and sometimes players like to crack open a bottle of beer after a match - and that's okay as long as you remember to take the cigarette butts and the empty bottles back with you."

He shows me around. "Such a thoughtful touch to a clubhouse," he says of the kitchen and the bar area. There are no pictures of cricketers or hall-of-famers, but the walls are adorned with drawings by the kids from the after-school programme. Modeste points out the changing rooms and the showers.

He pulls up two chairs in the large common area. We talk about cricket in America, the concept of boredom (he says it is alien to him), European history, the transatlantic slave trade (calling what the Portuguese did "exploration" is kind, and forgives a lot of their sins), and wine: he was a member of a wine-tasting society in Manhattan in the '70s and '80s and doesn't understand why fruitiness and high alcohol levels have become commonplace in wine: "If I wanted to drink alcohol, I'd drink gin!"

He loves winter, he says. Up until a few years ago, when his "knees weren't so uncooperative", he'd go skiing in the French Alps or the Colorado Rockies. It was off season for cricket but it was never off season for him.

Modeste has the ability to manoeuvre through topics. It's easy for him to find a common interest with anybody, and so it is easy to form a bond with him. One minute I'm shaking hands with him and the next we're talking about the implications of British colonisation in India.

There is also a strong sense of mystery about him. Nobody knows his age for sure. He has never been married - although, says O'Neill, his friends have heard "stories about his women in Argentina".

Modeste's team-mates remember him as a batsman who scored quick runs when his team needed them the most, with a memorable shuffle between wickets

Modeste's team-mates remember him as a batsman who scored quick runs when his team needed them the most, with a memorable shuffle between wickets © Courtesy of Staten Island Cricket Club

We talk about his love of exploration. The way he moves from talking about Japan's perfect road system, to New Zealand's ability to bounce back from tragedy, to Singapore's democracy (or lack thereof), it feels like he has been to every nook of the world. He would love to visit the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, he says.

I ask him the secret to his longevity and he smiles shyly and says, "Good wine, lovely women and a positive attitude towards life!"

Despite the amusing tangents, the conversation finds its way back to cricket and why Modeste still wants it to be such a big part of his life. You would think after 58 years a man might be tired and want to sit back and listen to Beethoven or Mozart (classical music is his favourite kind) in his apartment in Queens and not have to deal with scheduling matches and chasing after club members to pay their dues. You would think a man who has had to pencil "take free time" into his calendar as a reminder might want to retire from cricket and actually take some free time.

But, if anything, cricket only seems to energise Modeste more as he grows older.

"There are things that you connect with in life, and while cricket is not exactly the same as eating, I think one needs to anchor one's life to certain things - and cricket was one of them for me," he says, and laughs.

*Sep 10, 04.58 GMT: An earlier version of this piece suggested that Bradman, Sobers and Weekes all played matches at the Staten Island Club in the 1930s.

Aishwarya Kumar is an international writer with ESPN. Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent

 

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