CRICKET IN LITTLE INDIA: How's That?



CRICKET IN LITTLE INDIA: How's That? Reprinted from Little India by permission of the publisher.
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Along with their professional skills, their pickles and their papads, South Asian immigrants may just be importing something else into America -- the game of cricket.

Well, not exactly importing it in so much as reviving it, because cricket in America is probably older than the Statue of Liberty. After all, which game did George Washington's troops play to let off steam during the Revolutionary wars? Not baseball, not football, not basketball, but wickets, the ancestor of today's cricket.

It may be hard to believe, but cricket, the game of Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev and Sachin Tendulkar, was being played in America way back in 1777. The British broughtitto the New World and researchers have even discovered the laws of cricket, which were prevalent in the U.S. colonies at that time. In fact, next to LaCrosse, introduced by Native Americans, cricket is the oldest American sport.

In 1845, the first international game between the two North American neighbors, Canada and the United States, took place, the forerunner of the International Test Matches. After years of popularity, however, the game disappeared around 1917, because the United States was barred from international cricketby the International Cricket Conference (ICC) as it was not part of the British Commonwealth. Cricket was resurrected in the 1960's and 1970's with the fresh waves of Asian immigrants and, with growing immigration in the following years, it has regained some of its original spunk and verve.

This year, 1995, marks the 150th anniversary of the oldest International Tournament in the annals of cricket, when the United States and Canada played each other. Cricket's glory days in America may just be returning, with all the immigrant Gavaskars and Imran Khans wannabes.

Can and should cricket become a part of the contemporary American scene? Observes Bob Deodhari, President of the New Jersey Cricket Association: "In the Caribbean it is certainly the most important sport for the Caribbean people. Pakistanis are fanatical about it, and it's very important to Indians. Given that American society is becoming an extension of other societies, such as Indian, Pakistani and Caribbean, we expect that the sport will also become a part of that extension."

Indeed, cricket is one of the better legacies of British Colonialism. This gentlemanly game, which teaches teamwork and good sportsmanship, sprouted up in every one of the former colonies, from India to South Africa. In the United States the game has received a fresh lease of life from the new immigrants from Canada, the West Indies, Pakistan and India. California has several Britishers, South Africans and Australians playing on its teams, Florida, New York and New Jersey have mostly West Indians; in Chicago, Michigan, Minnesota and Houston one finds mostly Indians and Pakistanis playing the game.

The United States Cricket Association (USACA) is the governing body for cricket in America and is part of the ICC in England, which governs cricket worldwide. The ICC has representatives from all the test-playing countries like India, Pakistan, West Indies and South Africa. The United States is considered an associate member without test-playing privileges, along with 50 other countries, including Bangladesh and Canada. The USACA is headed by Nazir Khan, a Pakistani, who is based in Philadelphia, and four vice presidents, including Jimmy Colabavala, an Indian, who is also the president of the South California Cricket Club.

Assuming there are 1,000 teams nationwide, with about 15-20 members per team, you'd have to say there are 20,000 active cricketers in the United States. Philadelphia is historically the home of cricket in America and boasts the oldest team in the nation. It is also home to the C. Christopher Morris Cricket Library, on the campus of Haverford College, which has the largest collection of cricket books and related memorabilia in America.

Bowling America

Cricket is certainly bowling them over in America, though with the dignified and leisurely pace suitable to this elegant game. John Grossman, writing in Sports Illustrated, notes that there are over 700 active clubs in the country, a 25 percent increase over last year. He, however, adds that the game is still so obscure that Dan Ruparel, president of Cricket USA, "answers several calls each week from people dissatisfied with their disposable lighters." Indeed a data search of cricket is likely to yield as many entries on the insect as it is on the sport.

Figures about the amount of cricket clubs in America vary. According to Khan, there are close to 600 registered teams in the United States. But, says, Gowton Achaibar, who hails from Guyana and is the managing editor of U.S. Cricketermagazine, there are perhaps as many unregistered teams so that the number of cricket teams throughout the United States is well over 1,000.

There are hundreds of hidden clubs and players in universities in many states. The most active clubs on the east coast are in New York and along with New Jersey, Philadelphia and Connecticut, account for half the teams in the United States. Although California too has many Asian immigrants, they are much more geographically spread out, so that organizing teams is difficult.

According to Khan, cricket is dominated in this country by West Indians. The last national team, which went to Kenya for the qualifying round for the World Cup was 90 percent West Indian.

Khan says that immigration has helped revitalize cricket, but "when you compete at the international level, you hace certain restrictions. There are qualification rulings, such as 5-6 years residency in the country you are playing for. Now they are coming up with a new ruling that 75-80 percent of the players playing for a country must be citizens of that country. That's a big drawback for us."

He estimates that even in New York and Miami only about 10 percent of the players are from South Asia, although the Mid-West has many more South Asian players.

Many of the administrators in the leagues are West Indians, but, says Achaibar, the California League has a majority of Indian teams. Although there is considerable activity around the United States in the field of cricket from Austin to Chicago, Little India focuses in this article on the tri-state area. Cricket buffs will be surprised to learn that in New York 16 cricket teams play regularly in several parks, including the van Cortland Park in the Bronx, which has eleven cricket grounds created by the City Park Commission. Says Achaibar, "The problem is they've put eleven pitches in one park, so the players are playing next to each other!"

There are several individual tournaments and exhibition matches and league competitions on the east coast. Asked if any steps are being taken on the local level to target new audiences or market the game properly, Achaibar replies: "Well, that's what prompted me to start the magazine. It is a way to legitimize the sport."

Expatriate Nostalgia

Cricket in America is very much a game of expatriates of the British Commonwealth, with very few mainstream Americans participating, or even understanding the sport. Bob Deodhari, who hails from Guyana, observes: "I've been living in America 15 years and I've met only a handful of Americanborn cricketers. Immigrants are bringing cricket with them, it's for nostalgia, it's a part of their roots."

With the millions of South Asians who have poured into America in the last decade, there certainly is a growing market for cricket and related activities, considering the mass hysteria and craze for cricket in South Asian cities when a test match is being played. Cricket videos, equipment by mail order, U.S. cricket tour packages and custom-made equipment are all flourishing.

The Sarasota International Cricket Club in Florida offers combined family vacation packages that combine tours of the beaches, Disney World with rounds of cricket and golf. And several Caribbean travel agencies were peddling cricket tours for Americancricket fans to Barbados in conjunction with the Australia v. West Indies test matches this March.

Asianet and ITV air international cricket matches on a regular basis to the large Asian community. Says Achaibar: "When people come here, they often lose touch with the sport and so forget about it. Only a few people who actually play, will keep track of it. So ITV's cricket programming helps the general public in keeping contact with the sport. " Middlesex County has over 12,000 Asians who still don't receive ITV or Asianet, so there is are large unreached markets for this kind of live broadcast.

US

It is perhaps a measure of the growing strength of the sport that the United States of America Cricket Umpires Association was established in 1992 in Brooklyn, NY. The USCUA organized its first umpire training program this January and on April 23 was scheduled to graduate its first class of 29 umpires.

And cricket is entering cyberspace. The Internet is already host to at least two cricket newsgroups. And when the Kennedy Cricket Club in Berkeley, CA, went looking for members, what better way was there to find possible recruits than to post a bulletin on an Indian newsgroup?

Doctor Cricketer

Who is the Indian American cricketer? Mostly professional men, doctors, engineers, and other professionals. having grown up with cricket, these immigrants are not about to get started on baseball or basketball. These same people, however, often avidly tune in to the Super Bowl and other sporting events on television. In fact, they are a lucrative audience for the big games and promoters of the events are increasingly aware of this affluent South Asian audience.

Merzi Dubash, who has a Masters Degree in Sports Marketing, is a corporate marketing manager for the New Jersey Nets. He is one of two bilingual marketers who target ethnic groups and corporations in the New Jersey area for sponsorships and ticket sales. Game tickets are used by Indian Americans as a business tool or for family outings.

Says Dubash: "The secondgeneration Indian-Americans are interested because they have been brought up in a society where basketball is the number one sport in the country. Boys and people in their 20's and 30's, who have been fans and followed a team, are more into it. They are into baseball, basketball and football, and ice hockey is coming up. Many of my clients are doctors, whose kids have grown up here and want to go for the games. Indians are getting into it big time."

Second-generation Asian Americans are playing good tennis, basketball and other sports in high schools and colleges, but the first-generation is still hooked on to cricket. Playing at an amateur level, the better players train the others.

Women turn out to watch the game, and on weekends entire families pack up for the event. Every year it's a tradition for the team from Canada to come for a competition match in the tri-state area, and teams from here also visit Canada. According to Dilip Patel, head of the South Gujarat Cricket Club and an engineer by profession, cricket is even more popular across the border in Canada, where there are close to a hundred teams in Montreal and Toronto: "They play cricket day in and day out. In winter time they play indoor cricket!"

Tri State Cricket

New York cricket is very competitive, serious cricket where everyone is out to win. Leslie Lowe, President of the Commonwealth Cricket League which has 45 teams, estimates that the New York area has over 95 teams in New York City while the Tri-State area has more than 145. He says the figure could be much higher, since almost all of the universities have cricket teams, including Columbia, Stony Brook, Rutgers, University of Kentucky and St. Johns University. Rutgers has an almost all-Indian team, and most universities have 90 percent Indian and Pakistani players.

Many of the cricketers in New York, according to Lowe, have played test cricket in the West Indies or in India. Zamin Amin, the Captain of the U.S. National team, is from New York and is a member of the Commonwealth Cricket League, which is the biggest in the United States.

The 17-member Pakistani team is headed by Mahmood Ahmed and draws its members from Queens, Long Island and Brooklyn. Ahmed has promoted international games with big names Imran Khan and Sunil Gavaskar in New York including India-Pakistan in 1989, and Pakistan-Australia in 1990.

The New Jersey Cricket Association has several teams and was recognized by the West Indian cricket board as a leading authority on cricket in North America. It's composition is 60 percent Indian and Pakistani clubs, and 40 percent West Indian. Interestingly enough, the game of cricket in New Jersey -- though just as popular -- is not as competitive as in New York. In keeping with the suburbs, it is relaxed, almost a weekend, family sport.

Kamran Khan, who is Pakistani, played for the U.S. National team for 18 years until 1990, and was captain and vice captain for ten. He has been coaching at Haverford College in Pennsylvania for almost 20 years, ever since he came there as a student. He plays for Prior, which is made up mostly of Indians and Pakistanis.

He says Philadelphia was a center of cricket in the early 1900s, but after the World Wars, and with the advent of baseball it died down. Today Philadelphia boasts of nine teams: Merion Cricket Club and the British Officers Club have mostly American and British players, while others, including Prior, Haverford College, International Club and the University of Pennsylvania, have largely Indian, Pakistani and West Indian players.

Says Khan, "There is a very cordial relationship between the various teams. The game itself teaches discipline and understanding. The people in this area are very good to each other."

Searching Out Others

Deodhari, who played cricket back in Guyana, gave away all his equipment when he came to the United States 15 years ago. Little did he know cricket was alive and kicking in America! At the airport itself he met a stranger who asked him to join their team in Marine Park in Brooklyn. Today, according to Deodhari, there are more than 18 clubs in New Jersey and the cricket community is almost 4,200 strong, including players and spectators. Some clubs have 40 members, others have 75- 200 members.

Cricket in New Jersey is a social happening with social gatherings following the matches, such as dinners, picnics and dance parties, which are always sold out, says Deodhari. Club Eclipse in Irvington, NJ, is a popular haunt for cricket buffs, who gather to watch cricket test matches on video. Cricket knows no communal boundaries and a mixed crowd turns up at these festivities. For the 1995 season the NJCA is planning an international picnic where, besides competition matches, a massive tent will be set up with food and refreshments contributed by all 18 clubs.

New Jersey has several cricket teams including the South Gujarat Cricket Club. The club has about 30 members and they play in the public parks in New Jersey. Some American corporations are also recognizing the importance of cricket: AT&T, for instance, has allowed its employees to utilize the company's property as cricket grounds in South Edison. This trend may well be followed by other companies as they become aware of the burgeoning South Asian community.

Patel played cricket in India and when he came here he quickly discovered that cricket fanatics searched each other out. He says every year new players come from India and many of them are young and more familiar with the game. He has been playing cricket for the last 12 years and says that newcomers soon find out all about leagues and cricket clubs in the tristate area.

Sticky Wicket in Mainstream

Cricket, though it was brought to America hundreds of years ago, has never fully caught on in the fast-paced action-packed New World where attention span is measured in television sound-bites. So will cricket catch on with the mainstream?

Deodhari says: "It's not being established in the schools, it's not being established as an American sport. There are several factors: it's a very tedious game. I'm a cricket lover but to watch it, it' s a very boring game. Americans generally are used to more faster paced sports, like basketball, football and baseball."

Mahmood Ahmed concurs: "Americans cannot get interested unless it' s on television. To get it on television, you need proper stadiums and good teams from cricketplaying countries. To get them interested, there have to be some changes also in the rules. A test match is five days and it would be impossible for Americans to comprehend that there could be a game which runs five days, and may end without a decision. Even one day is too long for them."

He adds: "I think 30-over matches could develop some interest in Americans because those would be fast-moving and hardhitting and would be over in three or four hours. No television station will carry a game for six-seven hours."

Charles Olzewski, an American cricketer, wrote in U.S. Cricketer about the unique charm of cricket: "In baseball you hit the ball once in each turn at bat. Whether you hit a single, a triple, a home run or an embarrassing foul pop-up, that's it. That's all there is to it. In cricket, you can keep on hitting the ball so long as you aren' t out (and so long as your side isn't out.) For a baseball player, it sounds like the surfer's endless summer!" He adds that there is definitely a button to push in every U.S. athlete and sports fan, which will turn them on to the game: "My regret is both that we don' t seem yet to have found it; and more, no one seems to be looking terribly hard."

School for Cricket?

Do Asian American children also tend to tune cricket out, feeling it's not an American sport? Says Achaibar: "I believe that with the right effort, there is a large enough community of young people who could get involved with cricket." He feels there are so many Asian kids in the schools, especially in the suburbs of New Jersey, that if the sport was introduced in schools and is properly set up, it could really catch on.

The game of cricket, however, still has some sticky wickets to overcome in America. One of the biggest problems is that there are no facilities of international quality. Without these, it is impossible to hold international quality games for which television networks would buy the rights to broadcast them live, and thus bring money into the sport. The games are played mostly in city, state and county parks. Even when international matches are played, they are hosted in facilities which are far from what cricket facilities should be.

"It's here and yet not here," says Achaibar. "The community will have to do something and take an interest in it. Cricket here has not been well-organized. Unfortunately the United States Cricket Association is a self-serving body that doesn't seem to have the development of the sport as their primary goal. They haven't really achieved much in getting sponsorships for the sport. You would think that any sport that has a thousand teams and a following potentially of a half a million people could get national sponsorship but cricket doesn't. "

USACA's Nazir Khan, however, rejects that criticism. "What do these people want USACA to do? What do they do for USACA? We are not in the same position as India and Pakistan. USACA has limited resources. No matter what you do, you are bound to have people who are unhappy. You cannot satisfy everyone and we are trying to do what we can within our limited resources and time."

Deodhari also believes community participation is vital. "Then again, we as communities are not doing anything. Local community leaders -- Pakistani, Indian, Guyanese, Jamaican, Trinidadians -- are not asking their senators to establish cricket in schools. What happens is we don't have grassroots so that's why the game is not catching on."

The NJCA took the first step by establishing a program in 1992 under which it gives demonstrations in schools. A school in Voorhees township in New Jersey is planning to add cricket to the curriculum and demonstrations have been done in Irvington, New Jersey, which has a very large West Indian community. Says Deodhari: "I think we've made some headway. "

Last year, a Center to Advance Cricket was established in Richmond Hill, NY, with the aim of raising $10 million for cricket development by the year 2000. The organization seeks to promote private club franchises and develop youth cricket. It is currently registering kids from 12 and under upto 19.

Leslie Lowe agrees: "If the game has to survive it's the younger people who are going to be the future of game.

Children are however not exposed to cricket whereas other sports are a staple on TV. They have to have some glamorous role models, which is not happening here. Deodhari observes: "In India everyone wants to be Sachin Tendulkar, in Pakistan everyone wants to be Imran Khan, in West Indies everyone wants to be Brian Lara. In America everyone wants to be Don Mattingly, Karim Abdul Jabbar or Dr.J. -- but not Gavaskar, because they're not exposed to that."

Minority Sport

The NJCA is a breakaway group which is no longer part of the USACA because as Deodhari puts it, it is totally mismanaged with poor accountability: "My group pulled out, as enough was not being done to promote the game. Cricket is a very expensive sport and a minority sport as such and we felt we were not ready for them because we were wasting valuable funds. So we decided to focus on the needs of the NJCA member clubs, such as insurance, buying equipment wholesale, passing it on to the members at no charge. My league is the first one in America to have started that -- we actually give the stuff free to members. The membership is $500 but we provide accidental coverage, liability insurance, free balls and umpires, and are working with parks to reduce the cost of the use of parks. We are the pioneers because no league in America has done that yet."

Deodhari approaches corporations and small businessmen for sponsorships. Last year an international game was played in colors instead of whites, with names of sponsors on the back of the clothing.

But USACA's Khan says it is wrong to create break-away teams. He points out that zone vice presidents are elected and are responsible for clubs in their zones. If members are unhappy, he says, they should not leave the USACA, but use their voting power to vote in those who listen to their voices. "We may lose some talent by their leaving us, but they do more damage to themselves," says Khan.

For teams in New York and New Jersey suitable playing grounds continue to be a big problem. According to Mahmood Ahmed: "Right now we are playing on matting and grounds not properly prepared for cricket. If there were proper facilities, I think there is a great potential for this game in this country."

Says Deodhari: "Green Acres is a federally funded program which takes care of all the parks in America. What's happening is that since 1981 soccer has caught on and is competing for the same space as cricket and there are conflicting scheduling programs."

Racism also plays a factor in cricket's fortunes. Deodhari observes: "It took us 200 years to get a new ground in Essex County. Since they don't understand the game, people have preconceived notions about it and because it is more suburban territory, they are agitated to see people from Asia in whites. They think, 'I didn't buy a house for $200,000 to have these dark-skinned people playing this strange game in front of my house.' We have a lot of these mishaps happen. These people need to be educated and these are problems we can overcome. "

Ahmed, who has been playing cricket for the last 19 years in New York, says there has been a tremendous growth in the Pakistani population in the last two decades: "There is enough population to justify any game. The game is also becoming more serious because a lot of young players are coming in from West Indies, India and Pakistan. The standard is getting higher and higher."

The U.S. National Cricket team has not been able to make a dent on the international circuit, Ahmed believes, because the USCA has not been astute in picking the best players for the qualifying rounds for the World Cup. He observes: "The USACA has not taken it seriously. What is needed is proper organization and promotion, for the talent is there. Promotion of cricket can be good for the community, for the players and for business too. I know there is tremendous potential among the local cricketers. If there is a team picked from the United States solely on merit basis, it could create problems for any side on the international scene."

Cricket in America is different from any other because it is a celebration of diversity. Roxroy Anderson rightly writes in U.S. Cricketer:"This is the only part of the world where one can describe a team as international in its composition. It is not rare to find a team that is made up of players from Jamaica, Trinidad, Monsterrat, Guyana, Barbados, England, India, Australia, Pakistan, and believe it or not, South Africa. This amalgamation of cultures and talent in one closely knit group gives cricket competition a unique meaning and this new experience can only be found by playing the game in North America."



Melwani, Lavina, CRICKET IN LITTLE INDIA: How's That?., Little India, 05-31-1995, pp PG.