The other MCC (June 2001)

The town of Redmond, five miles outside Seattle, is dominated by the 295-acre Microsoft campus, the sprawling headquarters of the software empire of the richest man in the world. The campus consists of 50 almost identical two- and three-storey glass-panelled buildings set among perfectly manicured and watered lawns. Rows of gleaming Lexuses, BMW Roadsters and Acuras are lined up in the parking lots. All around are posters advertising Office XP, the newly launched version of the best-selling software, which tell employees: “You’ve got it. You love it. Now tell the world!”

It doesn’t feel like an obvious place for a game of cricket. But competing with the shouts of softball players and the buzz of remote-controlled aeroplanes in nearby Marymoor Park on any weekend afternoon during the summer is the thwack of willow upon leather. This is the home of the other MCC – the Microsoft Cricket Club. But what is it doing here, many thousands of miles from Lord’s?

It all started in the early 1990s when hundreds of Indian software engineers, newly employed by Microsoft, began arriving in Redmond. As well as coding skills, they brought with them a passion and taken for cricket. In 1994, a group of them formed a club (it actually goes by the initials MSCC). As the pool of Indian employees grew – there are now more than 2,000 among a workforce of 22,000 – so did the club, which is now able to field two XIs, both of which are among the best competing in the 12-strong Northwest Cricket League.

It is a blustery Saturday morning in June, with an overcast sky and a light drizzle above Marymoor Park, MSCC’s home ground. The weather is quintessentially British, offering the sort of conditions that afflict so many county games back home, but the landscape is certainly not. The park is surrounded by 100-foot-tall fir trees and the snow-capped Mount Rainier looms up behind them. The players of Microsoft II are oblivious to their surroundings, busy getting the square ready for their game against Seattle Cricket Club, last year’s winners of the Northwest Cricket League. The kit is not quite traditional Lords: the lads are wearing whites but some also sport Microsoft rain jackets and baseball caps.

Nor is the pre-match chat quite what you’d expect by way of changing room banter. As the players are warming up, one notices that the tiny orange flags marking the boundary of the outfield are irregularly spaced. “The flags are not equidistant from each other”, he remarks, and at once a debate ensues about the exact meaning of the word “equidistant” and whether the words “from each other” are strictly necessary. “Equidistant implies an equal distance from each other unless other specified,” concludes a young software developer, resolving the disagreement.

A few minutes later, the Seattle team – one of the more venerable XIs in this far-flung outpost of cricket – arrives. In the 1960s and 1970s, the club, the region’s oldest, consisted largely of British expats working in Seattle’s aerospace industry. Today, the team has only one Brit, an environmental consultant from Stratford-upon-Avon who lives in Seattle. The rest of the team is of South Asian origin, an eclectic mixture of aerospace engineers, a venture capitalist and owners of 7-Elevens and gas stations. Seattle’s captain, Naveen Dean, played minor counties cricket for Berkshire in the 1970s.

Seattle wins the toss and puts Microsoft in to bat. Wicketkeeper Ranjit Narayanan, who happens to have played at school in Calcutta alongside the Indian test batsman Saurav Ganguly, turns in the top performance, scoring 27. Microsoft eventually makes a respectable 129 on a soggy pitch. But the drizzle worsens and – familiar story, here as in England – rain stops play.

“I thought cricket was over when I came to the US”, says Raman Narayanan, 33, Ranjit’s older brother. He is a top-order batsman for Microsoft II and the longest-serving employee among the team’s players. Happily for the cause of cricket, there are, as well as this clump of enthusiasts in the Pacific North-West, thousands more Indians keen to keep up with their sport in the US – for example in Silicon Valley. In New York, too, many of the taxi drivers are from South Asia and gather in the borough of Queens to play the game and watch live coverage of test matches involving India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka that are beamed into huge cinemas.

Back in his office in Building 32 on the Microsoft campus, Narayanan is sitting at his desk. It looks like any other coder’s office on the campus – a PC with two monitors plus an array of manuals on the otherwise empty shelves and used orange Microsoft paper cups on the desk – apart from the fact that it had a window; at Microsoft, long-serving employees tend to have offices with a view. Behind him on the window ledge sits a Lucite plaque, awarded for the on-time shipment of several Microsoft products.

Narayanan, a development manager who has been working on a feature of Microsoft Office called optical character recognition, which enables a PC to read text from a scanned document, has been involved in the MSCC since its inception. He came to the US to do a degree in computer science at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and joined Microsoft as a software developer when he graduated in 1991. Contrary to his gloomy expectations, he managed to put together a team with other Indians at Dartmouth and played against other Ivy League universities. When he came to Redmond, he joined the Seattle Cricket Club, at that time the only one in the region.

After a couple of years, however, a group of Indians at Microsoft decided to start their own club. At the time there were still few Indians at Microsoft (Narayanan was, for example, the only employee on the campus named Raman; there are now eight or nine), and often they struggled to put out eleven players. “For the first few years it was a very amateur, Dad’s Army kind of team”, Narayanan remembers. “The night before a game we were calling people and saying, ‘Do you have a pulse? Can you play?’” But as the club grew, its standards improved and in 1995 it joined the newly formed Northwest Cricket League, which it has since won twice. “We now have batsmen coming up at 10 and 11 who can bat respectably”, says Narayanan. “There’s a lot more depth.”

Most of the team had grown up playing cricket in India, but for many, the MSCC, which also functions as a kind of social network for Indians living and working in Redmond, has allowed them to take cricket more seriously than they even did back home. “I’ve played more serious cricket in the US than I did in India,” says Keshav Puttaswamy, a left-arm bowler from Bangalore and captain of Microsoft II.

Microsoft’s corporate contribution to the team is to pay its league fees. It may not seem like much for one of the world’s biggest and richest companies (it is telling that the lawns on the Microsoft campus are in better condition than the cricket field at Marymoor Park, which the team levelled and re-seeded at its own expense last year), but this is America where cricket is still an obscure niche sport. Microsoft’s press officer referred to a game called “criquet” in the emails he sent to me. Microsoft’s contribution is at least some recognition of the game at a high level. Deb K. Das, a Seattle-based Cambridge graduate who runs cricinfo.com, a website about cricket in the US, is duly appreciative. “I know of no other company that has got behind cricket even in this limited way”, he says.

It is six o’clock on a gorgeous, sunny Thursday evening and the MSCC is about to begin its practice session. Around the cricket field in Marymoor Park are people engaged in more typical West Coast leisure activities – jogging, softball, rock-climbing, ultimate frisbee. Keshav Puttaswamy is wearing full whites; the other players are in the usual variety of Microsoft t-shirts, shorts and baseball caps, and one is even wearing a bright blue Seattle Seahawks football jersey (the team is owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen). As they get ready, they discuss Office XP, which has been launched by Bill – Microsoft employees, even those who have never met Gates, always refer to him by his first name – in New York earlier that day.

If it seems astonishing to find a cricket team in baseball country, it is equally surprising to find a Microsoft team with enough time to get together and play regularly. In Microserfs, Douglas Coupland’s 1995 novel about life on the Redmond campus, most Microsoft software engineers are, in the words of the narrator, “deficient in the having-a-life department”. He describes a typical cash-and-paper-rich but time-poor Microsoftie as having a kayak gathering dust in his garage so that he can say he goes kayaking in his free time, even though in reality he has no free time.

When the MSCC first started its one team insisted on playing matches only once every two weeks, much to the annoyance of other teams in the league, because time was so limited. But both Microsoft XIs now play a competitive match every weekend and practice three nights a week for three hours. Admittedly, on this Thursday night, one player leaves after half an hour because his project team has a “Bill Gates review” – a presentation to Microsoft’s “chief software architect”, who is known to ask difficult questions – the following day. But the rest of the team stays until the light begins to fade.

Things have apparently changed at Microsoft in the last five years. “It’s not like it was years ago when people worked like crazy for 100 hours a week”, says Rajesh Munshi, a developer who works on Windows XP, the new version of the Microsoft’s operating system, which is due out in October. “Now they want you to have a non-work life so you don’t get burned out. It is more of a long-term approach.” According to several members of the team, these days the pressure to limit the amount of cricket they play comes not from their employer but from their wives.

It is just as well that they have more free time to play. Competition is greater, the stakes are higher and the Microsoft players see the game as anything but a stroll in the park. They are reputed to be one of the more competitive teams in the league. “We want to win,” says Rajesh Ganeshan, Microsoft I’s vice-captain and opening batsman. “It comes with the Microsoft mentality.”

Back at the match, the rain eases off. After lunch – freshly cooked parathas brought by one of the players’ wives – it is time for Seattle’s innings. They start well but lose a flurry of wickets and begin arguing among themselves on the sidelines. The sun briefly comes out and equally briefly it looks as if Microsoft might sneak a victory but a late rally by two veteran batsmen ensures Seattle wins by two wickets. For once, Microsoft ends up on the losing side.

A version of this article was published in the Sunday Business magazine, July 15, 2001.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s