By Sham Ali
(Celebrating 40th Anniversary):- When Ashmul Ali stroked his way to an epic 245 not out for Cosmos at Keele Reservoir while on tour to Canada in 1983, it signaled the determination of a captain who was prepared to lead from the front, and announced an impressive beginning for a team in only their first year in the Metropolitan Cricket League. His inning, characterized by subtle placement and a sober mind, was a model of restraint and orthodoxy. His strokes had grace as runs flowed from his bat it like melody from the strings of a sitar, and a shirt drenched in sweat cling onto him. Recollection often warms the memory, for you are seldom disappointed by the figure you idolized. And now that Ashmul Ali has been inducted into the United States of America Cricket Hall of Fame is testament of a cricketer ‘worth his salt’.
An undemonstrative man, he greeted his double century with a rasping on-drive and then raised his bat with a slight bow of his head. He did so with the fierce competitiveness within and the grace ingrained in his quiet demeanor that punctuated his presence at the wicket over the years. He was not flashy and magnetic like most batsman of his time; he was just technically pure and unfashionably hungry for runs constructing his innings with a sculpture’s patience and endearing simplicity. His teammates were ecstatic at the achievement for his inning was special and a rarity to the eyes. But Ashmul struck you as the sort of level-headed man who does not dance easily in company; it was a signature feature which defined his own inimitable style in the romantics between shiny red leather and a seasoned Jumbo willow whenever he winked at another century.
His story, one of simplicity and contentment, began in the early sixties in the village of Ogle located just three miles from the capital city of Georgetown on the East Coast of Demerara. As a teenager, the Ogle Boys Club and the St. Johns Roman Catholic School’s inter-school competition paved the way, rather innocently, for his years ahead. However, Ogle Community Center became the bedrock where his skills were chiseled and polished into near perfection. Ashmul’s ability is one that was borne out of an indomitable will and a strong desire to work hard to perfect the technical aspects of the game. It came to him not in a magical form but from an impressive pedigree, four sisters and fourth in line of seven brothers all of whom swank to be better cricketers than him, however, the ensuing years told a tale of its own.
Ashmul had character, and that was his defining trait. He was as good a batsman as any in his time, accolades though never appealed to him since his commitment to the game at the local level and loyalty to club had a greater purpose than an individual quest. He led his beloved Ogle CC to championships in the North Cote competition, and was selected to represent East Coast in 1969 and 1970 the first division Case Cup competition in Georgetown. He later wore the stripes as captain of East Coast in Bristol and Rothmans limited overs competition in 1976 – 78. Even during his crowning glory in 1976 when he opened the batting for Guyana against the Pakistan touring team at Enmore cricket ground, he remained unfazed but humbled by the occasion.
When he migrated to the United States in 1978 he brought his passion for the game with him. He acquired his bachelor’s degree from New York University and worked as a broker for Fidelity Trust until he retired. But cricket was pivotal, and at best addictive, and it remained pure and young in his heart to this day. He began playing for Everest cricket club in the Long Island Cricket league and then the Queens County Cricket League. He announced his presence on the New York cricket scene as an opening batsman by winning the LICC batting champion title that year, and penciled 19 centuries in three impressive seasons. During that time he was also a guest player, on three occasions, with Rangers Cricket Club in 1982 scoring three consecutive centuries in the Commonwealth Cricket League. Rangers though needed help; they were a group of high school boys who loved cricket but never had any form of coaching or played the game at any level, except on the streets in their villages before migrating to the United States, however, they were keen to learn but needed some guidance and coaching.
And so in 1983, Ashmul left the limelight of LICC and took Rangers under his wings, and after four years in the Commonwealth Cricket League, Rangers changed its name to Cosmos and moved to the Metropolitan Cricket League. A new chapter had begun for Rangers/Cosmos and Ashmul and the rest is history written in volumes by one simple sentence at a time. He welcomes times of challenges, and not one who gives up, it is written in his genes. He is never about quick fixes, nor has he concerned himself about short term solutions to mask the inadequacies of a young team. He had faith and patience – that virtue of human nature – in tried and trusted methods, discipline and training, that has served him for much of his lifetime. Ashmul is all about team and club, sometimes too much, when he batted with a broken forearm because his team needed him. It told the tale of a leader who would stretch to his absolute limits for his team. A leader who took a young, willing group of Taft High School boys from the dust of Crotona Park in the Bronx to Van Courtland Park, and turned them into ‘gold’ – formidable group of cricketers. The crowning glory of his efforts was showcased in a watershed moment for an underdog team and a leader who was able to tactfully extract the strengths from each of his players and stitched it together into a unique combination and led them in 1999 to a coveted championship title in one of the most exciting final in the MCL history. That was indeed a signature moment for the team and a leader with a success story in US Cricket that has no equal.
However, Cosmos success over the decades weighed heavily on Ashmul’s shoulders, and he never winced at the opportunity to bear the burden. His leadership was a model of discipline and perseverance for a team that he loved, and as such, Cosmos members never missed an opportunity to absorb his tutelage, and in short order the team began to find their footing in the MCL. To enhance the experience of the team, he organized a historic eleven days tour to Oxfordshire, England in 1990 at the invitation of the late Frank Isahaq. The fourteen members touring group stayed at a seventeenth century old cottage in Charney Bassett. It was a memorable and successful tour. The hospitality of our hosts, Frank and Deena Isahaq, and the Mayor of Charney Bassett the late Bill Clarke remained unmatched. Of the many highlights of that tour, two events stood tall when Cosmos participated in a benefit match for the England player Chris Smith, and played against an Australian touring team enroute to the West Indies, the Melbourne Privateers, which had two Australian prospects, Mathew Elliott and Demian Fleming in their squad at the Challow & Chlidery ground (Cosmos won that match). That tour became the bedrock for Cosmos as they returned to England on four other occasions competing with nine other countries in Durham International Friendship Tournament. In 1997, after completing the Durham tournament, Ashmul led the team to New Delhi, India.
Touring became a vital ingredient in Cosmos and Ashmul had his finger on the button. He has been a vibrant and diligent worker in administering cricket both at the club and league level for the past 35 years, and one who extended himself unselfishly to help promote the game. Like so many before him who are vilified for doing so, he just kept marching on administering and coaching. In his own inimitable way, he took his challenges in quiet strides and remained pure and honest. As the captain and Public Relations Officer of Cosmos for more than two decades, the team spanned the US, Canada, England and India and the Caribbean. One word has attached itself to Ashmul wherever he has gone; he carried the qualities of a gentleman. He doesn’t run around flattering everyone in sight but makes sure he fulfills his duties and obligations. Above all, he is not only courteous, he is also constant and selfless: always the same, whatever the circumstances or the company. He was restrained in celebration, just as he was restrained in disappointment, and yet his emotional self-control coexisted with fierce competitiveness.
In his three decades of service to the game in the US, Ashmul has earned his stripes; he scored a record 865 runs in a season; one of the highest in a MCL. He is often referred to as the best captain of the MCL team in its heyday. He served as coach of the MCL U25 team. For Cosmos his caps are many. He has accumulated 14,310 runs with an average of 40.70 which included 18 centuries and 73 fifties and took 390 wickets of ‘gentle’ off spin with an average of 17.20. He represented the United States against the visiting World XI at Shea Stadium in 1979, a selected New York XI against the 1983 India World Cup team at Mt. Vernon in 1983, the New York All Star team against a visiting Pakistan team at Flushing in 1987, and the touring MCC team. He was also a member of the US team to Antigua and against Canada in Freeport, Bahamas. He served as coach of the New York Region U25 team tour to California in 2000 and in 2008 as coach of the NYR U15 team to California.
In retirement he continues to impart his knowledge, much of the value, discipline, and enjoyment to the younger generation, which the game has given to him, as Coach and President of his beloved Ogle Cricket Club in Guyana – a place where he had spent his formative years. Ashmul has a good eye for talent, and in three short years, he has awakened the souls at Ogle Community center from the brink of abandonment to a vibrant functioning organization once again, gave meaning to the tireless work of past generations of stalwarts, and opened new opportunities for the U13 – 19 youths. It is a heart-warming story predicated only by the selfless desire of a man committed to doing good for his community, and by extension his country is that which feeds his soul. In a brief period, he has seen four of his players representing Guyana at the youth level; talents that would have perhaps disappeared and lured into other activities in an ever changing environment.
Ashmul is a man with few parallels. He knew his compass well, at times he was outdone in terms of hunger or passion, but he was never outdone in terms of behavior or dignity. To speak to Ashmul was to speak of someone who never lost his ability to communicate the allure of the game, explaining either in a single phrase or a lengthy alliterative just why we all spent so much of our lives playing and watching people compete with bat and ball. Ashmul is a soft-spoken man, able with his presence to lift the tension, but the cricketer in him made good use of the stories that he charmed from people and the moods that he discovered. It is not an exaggeration to say that a whole strand of the game broken up into single letters configured a unique strand of genetic code runs rich through his veins departs the scene. He declared his innings closed a few years ago. No longer will he gently brushed the matting and take guard with that familiar hint of politeness. No longer will he stand at first slip, timely and precise in his movements. And no longer will he be that pearl of a tactician on the field, but assuredly he will continue to give of his knowledge freely. In years to come we may realize what we have had: the cordiality, craft and dignity that Ashmul brought to every cricket match in which he played. Where many sportsmen flatter to deceive, Ashmul runs deep; a man of truth and substance, morally serious and intellectually curious. For all his understatement, he couldn’t fail to convey those qualities to anyone who watched him properly.
Ashmul is a true gentleman and an ambassador of the game. He is the same as he always has been – warm, self-deprecating, and concerned about the lives of others and always willing to offer an extended hand of help and advice. As ever, he made a point to inquire of the elders, family and friendship, you sense, are central to his life and his values. He worked hard. But the hard work was driven by the desire to give full expression of a cricketer born and bred from seeds of good soil at Ogle. For the sheer pleasure that he gave his peers as a batsman and as a leader of men, in Cosmos he is irreplaceable. Ashmul is cricketer first and a champion cricketer, at that, of eternal class and dignity whose attribute is an increasingly endangered species as the last in a great tradition of cricketers whose instincts and temperament define cricket. He is my favorite cricketer, one whom I have admired over the years.
His stewardship will always be at the helm for he has molded Cosmos into a formidable team and a family during his time. It is with tremendous admiration that we offer a brief glimpse into the enigma of a champion among men. The members of Cosmos Cricket Club and Ogle Cricket Club will forever be grateful for his guidance, friendship and as a ‘father-like’ figure over the years. We are extremely proud that his service to cricket over the decades has earned him the distinction of being inducted into the United States of America Cricket Hall of Fame. The game’s richness is preserved with hands of servants like Ashmul Ali. So much can be said, but today these words left a permanent mark of my brother on me. What a special human being, a cricketer, and a good one at that. He knew where the boundaries were, in life and in cricket.