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Cricket in Central Park


In an unusually cold evening to be outdoors, some of the executives working in fixed income securitization gathered at 3:30 pm sharp around the pitch. Since April 9 was an early close, it was an opportunity to squeeze in cricket before the weekend. Most hopped straight out of their midtown offices, with some even in their French cuff shirts and dress trousers.  

Someone lazily mentioned how his division at Barclays Capital is now bearing the brunt of the Lehman Brothers acquisition. An Ex-Lehman sniggers. Someone reckons he might get fired. The one to his left is moving to London. Somebody else he knows to Hong Kong. And the banter was in colloquial Hindi.    

But as the game started, all got astonishingly competitive.

Cricket, an afterglow of the British Empire that still lights up the Commonwealth, has found a home to the east of Sheep Meadow in New York’s Central Park.

While the sheep have long left the verdant lawns, Robert Moses having relegated them to Prospect Park in 1934, the pastoral setting invokes the village greens of South East England, where Cricket was first played. To the east of the Meadow is a brown turf where an American Elm doubles up as the wicket, and the game commences every weekend between recent Indian immigrants working in the financial sector in the city.

Cricket in New York recently got much attention with Joseph O’Neil’s critically acclaimed novel Netherland. Even President Barack Obama is reputed to be reading it. It traces the life of a Dutch banker in New York, Hans Van Den Broek, amidst post 9/11 angst and the subsequent estrangement from his family, who move back to London. In a New York City that is “phantasmagorical,” Van Der Broek finds camaraderie finally not in his residence at Chelsea Hotel, nor among his fellow bankers, but in the shabby environs of Walker Park, home of The Staten Island Cricket Club playing the game that he grew up with.  

In years leading up to the present financial crisis, the world experienced an unprecedented economic boom and New York found itself again as one of the epicenters of this capital creation. This resulted an expansion in need for financial services, and to meet this burgeoning need, financial institutions scrambled for human capital around the world.

A New York in which, O’Neil’s protagonist Van Der Broek recounts, “it seemed making a million bucks was a question of walking down the street – of strolling, hands in pockets, in the cheerful expectation that sooner or later a bolt of pecuniary fire would jump out of the atmosphere and knock you flat.”  

Amidst such circumstances, Kaushal Thakkar, 28, moved to New York in 2005 after graduating from the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Ahmedabad. HSBC Holdings PLC, the world’s largest bank and a relatively late entrant in the asset securitization business after its takeover of Household International, an American finance company that lent money to homeowners who could not get financing from normal banks, picked him up for its Mortgage Securitization desk in New York.

Mortgage Securitization is an innovation that transforms relatively illiquid, financial assets, such as personal homes, into liquid and tradable capital market instruments. Based on the likelihood of the borrower paying the promised principal and interest on time, and collateralized by real estate market that knew no gravity, risk, apparently, was out of the equation.    

But as the subprime mortgage crisis of 2009 unraveled, triggered by a dramatic rise in mortgage delinquencies and foreclosures, Mr. Thakkar, now an assistant Vice President must have felt the crisis hitting home. If moving halfway across the world wasn’t hard enough, here was the world he moved into and its way of life falling apart.

It is often said that Cricket is a game that the British, not being a spiritual people, had to invent in order to have some concept of eternity. After the Second World War, the British populace, seeking for a semblance of continuity amidst the devastation, thronged the cricket grounds for the Victory Series between the Australian Services side and England in 1945 and the subsequent domestic seasons in record numbers.

In India, the game is almost a rite of passage to adulthood in the life of an Indian boy. Be it on the inside lanes in housing squats or in Maidans, open patches of green in the middle of teeming cities, cricket is played on every conceivable space in urban India. It is perhaps appropriate that in the 2008 British film Slumdog Millionaire, the film begins tracing the life of its protagonist, Jamal Malik, while he is playing cricket with his friends in a private airfield, and the subsequent chase by the police for it through the slums of Mumbai.

Perhaps it is only human in times of peril to reach out for the intimate, for what one understands. So Mr. Thakkar made the call across the hall at HSBC in September to Nishant Mittal, an equity trader for HSBC and CL Keerthi Vasan, now working in credit trading for Barclays in London. The alumni of the Indian Institutes of Management (IIM), the top business schools in India, have evolved into a dynamic community and find themselves in the financial centers of the world, be it London or Hong Kong or New York.   

“All of us have a tough work week. It is hard work. Damn, you look forward to this,” said Susmith Sarma, who works in the Corporate Derivatives Sales desk at HSBC.   

“Some of these guys are my best friends at HSBC. They make work fun. But right now, I can’t wait to smack them for a four, or get Kaushal (Thakkar) out for naught,” said Mr. Sarma.

“Cricket was waiting to happen among us. Once the E- Mails were sent, people came,” Mr. Thakkar said. From these three at HSBC, it has snowballed among similar financial executives working at D.E. Shaw and Company, Calyon, Barclays Capital, HSBC, Goldman Sachs, ICP Capital, Vichara, Morgan Stanley and Bloomberg.

 “I guess, there is a boy who refuses to grow up in all of us,” added Mr. Thakkar.

(Shreshth Dugar, born in Calcutta, now is a journalist-to-be at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Institute of Journalism. Living on the fifth floor of a Lower East Side walkup, life is easily put on hold for Cricinfo's over-by-over coverage. Recently drafted by the Mulligans, a.k.a the Hoboken Cricket Club, as an orthodox finger spinner, he debuted last month against Philadelphia CC in arctic- like conditions in Chestnut Hill. So cold and wet it was that the orthodox finger spin had to give way to dibbly- dobblies, those of the Mark Ealham kind. Probably in a nutshell what America does to you.)

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