COMPTON, Calif. -- Compton Cricket Club players have sipped tea with Prince Edward at Buckingham Palace, played against Aborigines in the Australian outback, and swapped stories of violence-torn neighborhoods with residents of Belfast.
At home, though, it's another story.
American cricketers are already an anomaly, but when they come from Compton, a city on Los Angeles' southern border known more for gangsta rap and gang shootings, heads near and far spin faster than a cricket bowler's windup.
"I tell people I play cricket and people automatically think it's croquet or an insect," said player Ricardo Cazarez. "I just tell them go look it up on YouTube."
Decked out in cricket's obligatory whites, they boast batsmen, bowlers and wicket-keepers (batters, pitchers and catchers) like any other 11-member team, but they profess their passion for the sport in pure Compton style.
Several players sport tattoos saying "cricket outta Compton" and "from gats to bats" ("gats" is street slang for guns). The team, named "the Homies and the Popz," raps cricket-themed songs titled "Shots" and "Bullets."
A couple players have served jail terms. One missed the Australian trip because he was on parole. Another was killed in a driveby shooting. And two others died in traffic accidents.
"With these guys, seeing is believing," said Katy Haber, a British film producer whose role as manager encompasses everything from fundraising for overseas trips to accompanying players to court appearances.
Thanks to the far-flung reaches of the old British Empire, the genteel sport is huge around the globe. But in the United States it's viewed more as a novelty, unique for its slow pace and matches that can last days.
Less known about cricket is its high level of sportsmanship. Arguing with the umpire and "sledging," or deriding opponents to distract them, are banned. Players are expected to report their own outs if missed by the umpire and applaud good plays by opponents.
That etiquette was what drew Compton team founder Ted Hayes to the game in 1995 after Haber invited him one day to play with the Beverly Hills & Hollywood Cricket Club.
Hayes saw that the sport's code of conduct contained larger life lessons of fair play and civility that could be a useful teaching tool. "This improves citizenship," said Hayes, who headed a Skid Row homeless shelter at the time. "You're a much better person when you come off the field."
He and Haber formed a team at the shelter, and then reoriented it to youth, recruiting players from Compton schools.
"I thought it sounded dumb, but a friend went and I liked the fact that you caught balls barehanded so I went," said Emidio Cazarez, Ricardo's brother who was in eighth grade at the time and is now team co-captain.
They trained with the Beverly Hills club, where they impressed players with their athletic ability and, as time went on, their staying power. "We get the odd American who wants to try it out, but it usually doesn't work out," said Jeremy Reed, team captain. "These guys have really taken to it."
Other local teams, which mostly comprise expats from cricket-playing nations, were flabbergasted when the Homies showed up on the field in the San Fernando Valley where the Los Angeles Social Cricket Alliance holds its matches.
Their loud pre-game cheer of "Compton!" is quite a contrast to the chiseled British accents and singsong cadences of South Asian English that are more common among the alliance's eight clubs.
"When I first heard about them, I said 'no way'," said Mahmood Jadwet, founder of the Simi Valley Sloggers, a team on the outskirts of Los Angeles. "But when we played them, it was amazing talent."
The Homies have had up and down seasons, depending on time for practice. Last year, the club, whose members work as plumbers, flooring installers, journeymen and billing clerks, ranked sixth out of the league's eight teams.
But cricketers say the sport is more than just winning and losing. The game's etiquette has helped them mature beyond the confines of urban street culture. They've learned to mingle with people of different backgrounds, gain self-confidence and control their tempers.
"Growing up in Compton, you're always defensive. You don't talk to people," said Emidio Cazarez, 28. "I'm more social."
Isaac Hayes, Ted's son, credited cricket with steering him away from gangs as a youngster. "It takes guys who usually aren't kind to each other and makes them say 'Hi, nice to see you again'," he said. "It's helped me see the world is bigger than my backyard."
The Cazarez brothers, whose third brother Jesse was killed in the driveby, said the sport's emphasis on accepting the umpire's call helped them cope. "If something doesn't go your way, keep your head high and just go with it," said Ricardo Cazarez, 26. "Life's not fair sometimes."
The first U.S. cricket team to undertake a tour to Australia, the team's fame is spreading. They've been invited to play and give inspirational talks to gang members in Birmingham, England, and to compete in the Sarasota Cricket Festival in Florida this fall. Haber is rustling up sponsors.
Closer to home, Ted Hayes is organizing a cricket summer program at an Orange County middle school and has convinced four Los Angeles police officers from the Counterterrorism and Special Operations Bureau to take up the sport. He's training them so they can join the Homies.
Assistant Commanding Officer Blake Chow said the bureau's goal is to eventually sponsor a cricket team as a way to build better relations with Muslim youth. "Cricket can be another tool to reach out in that community," Chow said. "It's a game built on respect and civil conduct. I think it has a lot of potential."
For some of those on the Compton team, the goal is more personal.
"I don't want to go back to prison," said, Efren De Lucas, 25, who served time on weapons charges. "I want to learn this."