The San Ramon Cricket Association Under-11 team faces off against California Cricket Academy Under-11 during a cricket match in Pleasanton on Nov. 26, 2022. (Aryk Copley/KQED)
On a recent Saturday morning, kids stand strategically in a cricket field tucked behind Alisal Elementary School in Pleasanton. Soccer matches are afoot in another field close by, but these young athletes with the San Ramon Cricket Association are captivated by the world’s second most popular sport.
The bowler (like a pitcher) bowls the ball to the batsman (like a batter). The batsman scores by running between two sets of wooden stumps.
When the practice match ends, Ram Ramachandran’s 9-year-old son, Vikram, races toward him. He’s out of breath when he announces he’s been named "Man of the Match."
“Oh, awesome, awesome!” Ramachandran says. “I’m so happy.”
Vikram is a left-handed batsman with a left arm spin, making him a big asset to the team. He wants to play cricket professionally.
"I watch cricket daily. I don't [get] a cricket bat because I don't want to damage anything. I get a badminton racket and I imitate the strokes other batsmen play on live TV,” Vikram says. “I love the chaos and the intensity.”
Thanks to years of advocacy from the Bay Area’s South Asian community, young cricketers like Vikram can pursue the sport in their hometowns.
Aspiring athletes can play on cricket fields, train in local academies and join youth leagues. Tri-Valley cities recently hosted a cricket tournament, and schools in the region offer cricket in physical education classes.
Next year, Major League Cricket will launch in the United States, and one of the professional teams will be based in the Bay Area.
Like many parents at the cricket practice, Ramachandran is from India, where cricket is widely popular.
“We told [my son] there was a sport called cricket, and he was like, ‘OK, whatever,’” Ramachandran remembers.
But then they visited India in 2019, and his son saw that cricket was more than a sport — it was a national obsession.
“You go to a pizza shop, there’s a TV, and the cricket game is on. You go to a store, the guy helping in the store has a small TV, and he’s watching the game. The security person is watching the game on his phone” Ramachandran says. “[Vikram] met his cousins, constantly talking about the game, the players. He couldn’t believe he did not know about a sport.”
His son saw that if he wanted to be a part of his family’s pastime, he needed to learn how to play.
Cricket's rise, then fall, then rise in the US
Cricket has deep historical roots in the United States. The sport spread around the globe to regions the British Empire colonized, from Australia to the West Indies to India. British colonizers brought cricket to the United States in the early 1700s, and mill workers from the Midlands region of England, like Nottingham and Lancaster, brought cricket with them to Philadelphia in the 19th century.
But over time interest in cricket faded and gave rise to baseball, says Christopher Gair, lecturer in English and American Studies at the University of Glasgow, who has written about cricket.
"The idea of having cricket games that might last two, three, five days simply wasn't going to take off when you could have a baseball game that's over in an afternoon,” Gair says.
He says that during the 1920s and 1930s, English stars seeking movie fame in Southern California brought a love for cricket with them. Some participated in the Hollywood Cricket Club, and attempted to bedazzle new fans, with limited success.
Cricket’s home is England, but the sports’ business home is Mumbai, says Michael Naraine, sports management professor at Brock University in Canada.
India's victory in the 1983 Cricket World Cup revolutionized the sport.
"Now having beaten all these other countries at the colonizer’s game, India could now say, ‘This is part of our national identity. We are cricket.’” Naraine says. “That started a path for cricket in the global sphere. It’s not just England and Australia anymore.”
“Cricket is not going anywhere. It's going to be an Olympic sport by 2032,” Naraine says.
According to Sameer Mehta, co-founder of Major League Cricket, the audience for cricket has grown dramatically over the past two decades in the United States. He is also the co-founder of Willow TV, a sports channel devoted to airing overseas cricket events.
He says viewership grew from about 5,000 customers to 4 million customers in North America over about 16 years, and the Bay Area is the second largest market.
“You put out a World Cup game or even a top-tier game between India and Australia, and you would get over a quarter of a million people watching in the Bay Area,” he says. “And remember, these are games that happen at 6 a.m. in the morning or midnight and some go on for a few hours.”
Building a foundation at the grass roots
The question for cricket advocates is whether they can tap into that enthusiasm, and build a competitive team of players born in the United States.
Building cricket fields for practice is one of the biggest barriers, says Prakash Giri, president of the Northern California Cricket Association. He says coaches can also find more affordable housing in other regions with more land for playing, like Texas, which has become an international hub for the sport.
Ramesh Immadi, president of Cricket for Cubs, is not giving up on turning the Tri-Valley into a United States cricket capital. The goal of Cricket for Cubs is to promote cricket “one school, one community at a time.”
Over Thanksgiving week, he shows up early for the Pleasanton San Ramon Dublin Youth Cricket Tournament, which he describes enthusiastically as the only cricket tournament in the country co-hosted by cities.
He says that since Cricket for Cubs was founded six years ago, he and other advocates successfully campaigned for several cricket fields dedicated to young cricketers, including a cricket field at Fallon Sports Park that opened in Dublin in November. Pleasanton officials are planning a new field at Ken Mercer Sports Park.
This effort is personal for Immadi. When his mother died a few years ago, he says, the entire village showed up for her funeral. He thought of ways cricket has the power to hold generations of families together.
"Thousands of people turning up to my mom's funeral told me something. It’s not about money,” Immadi says. “And that made me think that I want to do something different. People think cricket is just a sport. Any sport is more than a sport.”
But, Immadi says, advocating for cricket has not always been easy, and some people were appalled by the idea of cricket fields in the Tri-Valley. He says some residents directed their anger at him.
“They came to my house shouting, yelling at me, at my door. They called on my phone, saying, ‘There's no place for cricket in the community,’” he says.
“Today cricket is an upcoming sport. There may be a new sport coming down the road, and we should be more receptive to any game. And these are all public parks. Nobody owns it.”
Bay Area players earn spots on national teams
The success of rising cricket stars in the Bay Area could inspire more generations to take on the sport. Anika Kolan, a junior at Dublin High School, is the vice captain of the Under-19 (U19) Women's Cricket Team and a member of the United States women's national cricket team.
She’s been playing cricket since she was 9 years old. She went to watch her brother play to get out of doing her math homework, and she was intrigued by the sport. Her dad, Suresh Reddy Kolan, encouraged her to try wicketkeeping (like a catcher) and she grew to love cricket more and more.
“My dad actually built some cages in our backyard, so I spent a lot of my time there practicing with him,” Kolan says. “And in my off time I would think about cricket and I would just want to do everything I can to get better at it.”
Anika’s mom, Manjula Kolan, was skeptical at first, and had hoped to start a vegetable garden in the backyard-turned-cricket-training-ground.
“I was the most furious enemy my husband ever had in those times,” she says.
But then her daughter made the U.S. national team.
“Sky was the limit for them. And I had no other option than to open up my doors,” she said.
Next month, Kolan will compete in South Africa in the first-ever U19 Women's T20 World Cup.
Back at the cricket tournament
During the tournament for Tri-Valley cricketers, the San Ramon Cricket Association plays on a football field, an irony not lost on Vik Vaidhya, who sits on the grass with his wife and daughter, a tennis player.
“It’s a football field. We're playing cricket on it. But guess what? We have nothing else. We need space,” he says.
His son, Eshaan, is the cricketer of the family, and during the game he’s on fire.
His dad chants, “S-R-C-A!,” to the tune of the Village People’s "YMCA."
Vaidhya remembers how his son and other cricketers would wake up at 4:30 a.m. to get to a field by 5 a.m., and play for a couple of hours before school started.
“We called them Five-to-Seveners,” he says, then nods his head toward the team.
"Sports is a great connector," he says. "You will see, there is a green-colored cap sitting in a sea of blue. He is cheering for Pakistan. These kids are cheering for India. Everybody can coexist together. What's the problem with that? This is a kid learning something. Encourage that. Bring the standard of the game together to a level that it replaces war.”
His son scores yet another few runs.
"Beauty! That's amazing,” he says.
His son wants to play professionally someday, and this could be just the beginning.
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