At first glance, the grass playing field at Mountain View Alternative High School in Centreville, Virginia, looks like any playing field at any high school in the country. But for a Sunday in August when most schools are usually still, there was a lot of activity, and the stifling air rang with a mix of Hindi and the occasional English cries of “Six!” “Awesome shot!” “Good running, man!”
Only they weren’t playing football, basketball or track and field. They were playing cricket, a sport which was last popular in the U.S. more than 150 years ago, but is seeing a dramatic resurgence as immigrant groups, particularly from India and Pakistan, grow.
This particular match was between Ashford Cricket Club (ACC) and the Willow Cricket Club, two teams out of 32 that comprise the Washington Metro Cricket League (WMCL), one of several leagues in the DC area and one of 45 leagues nationwide officially recognized by the USA Cricket Association (USACA).
“There’s not enough room for all the people who want to play,” said Hitesh Panchal, the captain of ACC and one of the founders of the WMCL. “There are just not enough places to play.”
The players in the WMCL are largely from the Indian subcontinent. Some are U.S. residents, some citizens and some here on temporary H1B employment visas. Many work in the computer field, said Panchal. They’re of all ages, some are married and others are bachelors, but they all share a deep love of the sport.
According to John L. Aaron, the Executive Secretary of USACA, there are 20,000 league players in the U.S. and likely 200,000 recreational players.
He thinks cricket has huge growth potential as well, saying there are millions of people living in the U.S. from countries where cricket is popular, namely India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the West Indies.
“It’s growing in two important areas,” Aaron said. “You are seeing people from countries where cricket is not played starting to play, and more importantly, it’s being handed down to the children of immigrants from countries where cricket is played.”
While there are no cricket version of Little League yet, Aaron didn’t rule out the possibility.
Aaron said that during the 2007 Cricket World Cup, which was held in the West Indies, more people in the U.S. watched than in any country other than India, where cricket is a religion unto itself.
Despite the increase in popularity, the United States is a long way from competing at a world-class level with countries such as India, England, Bangladesh, Australia, Pakistan, the West Indies, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and South Africa, the full members of the International Cricket Council (ICC) that vie for the World Cup every four years.
The U.S., for now at least, remains a second-tier, associate member of the ICC. However, with the recent growth in popularity, some of the world’s top teams have started coming to the U.S. to play exhibition matches.
For example, in May of 2010, the New Zealand and Sri Lankan teams played two, one-day matches at the only ICC-sanctioned cricket stadium in the U.S., which is located at the Central Broward Regional Park in Florida.
“There was good attendance,” said Aaron. “There were quite a few Americans who were not familiar with the sport, and they were asking a ton of questions.”
While there were no spectators at the WMCL match, the league is serious enough to have come up with $10,000 to invest in the pitch, a specially prepared turf strip in the middle of the field where most of the action takes place. The league also maintains a very thorough website, complete with team and individual statistics as well as player profiles.
WMCL matches aren’t played with a regular cricket ball, but instead with a modified tennis ball. Panchal said this was to avoid potential liability as well as to make the game playable without the protective gear required when using the very hard, leather ball. Some leagues do play with a regulation ball, Panchal said.
The WMCL matches are highly competitive and taken very seriously by the players. As in baseball, when one team is batting, the other takes to the WMCL version of a baseball dugout, in this case, a couple of picnic tables in the shade by the field. From there, they shout encouragement to their batsmen. On the field, there’s more than a little trash talk, said Panchal.
Players are also not afraid to verbally clash when they feel a call doesn’t go their way.
Two controversial calls by the umpires cleared the benches, and while it never got close to trading blows, heated words were exchanged.
Cricket is not taken lightly.
“It’s fun, competitive and also a good workout,” said Ganesh Gopal, whose DC Yorkers team took to the field in the next match. “Why else would I spend almost five hours on a weekend for the game?”
In the end the Willow Cricket Club edged out ACC 143/8 (Overs: 20.0) to 102/10 (Overs: 16.5). ACC was closing the gap, but one of their batsman was called out on a controversial play. Panchal, like any competitor, blamed the loss at least partially on the poor quality of the umpire.