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Cricket in Fort Bend

The sport keeps spreading.

When Malay Vyas played cricket as a child, there were no fields near his home in western India. So he and his friends took to playing in the streets. He remembers getting grounded after hitting a ball into a house and breaking glass, and, years later, one of his own children broke a window in their home, while playing cricket inside.

Now, with the opening of the Jones Creek Cricket Park, Houston-area children will have a safe, convenient place to enjoy the world’s second most-popular sport. Vyas, the president of the Sugar Land Youth Cricket Club, said the proximity of the field will also encourage more families to get involved in cricket.

“The kids could only come practice when the parents had the time to take two hours out of their schedule,” he said. “What this will do is enable parents to bring kids to practices more frequently. “

Precinct 3 Commissioner Andy Meyers said the county acquired the Richmond park to expand recreational facilities and to attract more kids to the area. It was community members, such as Vyas, who urged them to add the cricket pitch.

As we know, there is already the Houston Cricket League, and a cricket complex being built in Waller County. There’s a large population in the region that plays and enjoys cricket, and this is just a matter of the facilities catching up to that demand. It’s cool to see.

The Prairie View cricket complex

I love stories like this.

Growing up, Tanweer Ahmed’s mother, Kalsoom, always discouraged him from playing cricket. They were a poor family. His mother sold vegetables and milk from the few cows they had in his hometown of Sialkot in Punjab, Pakistan.

“Cricket doesn’t cost that much, but every penny matters when you don’t have anything,” Ahmed said.

Kalsoom put those pennies toward getting him and four siblings through the best school in the city. He had one school uniform, one pair of shoes, and one pair of clothes to wear at home.

“That’s all we could afford,” he said.

Today, Ahmed is owner of more than 150 franchise restaurants in four states, plus an energy company and half of a medical research venture. And he is busy pouring millions of his own dollars into building one of the nation’s largest cricket complexes. It will serve children and adults when it opens in early September, and later it could host professional international matches.

The project is rising from the plains of Prairie View, less than a 15-minute drive from the Grand Parkway on the outskirts of Houston, in prominent view of drivers on the newly refurbished U.S. 290.

Plans for 10 to 12 fields on 86 acres have raised eyebrows among some locals who question the viability of such a facility in the rural expanse around a college town of about 6,000. But this is no quixotic attempt to recapture some piece of a lost childhood far from home. Houston has been waiting for this, observers say. If he builds it, players will come.

“There’s certainly a large demand” in Houston, said Eric Parthen, U.S. project manager for the International Cricket Council, which is not involved in the project. “It will immediately be one of the larger facilities in the country, if not the largest.”

A recent study by the council, in concert with the market research firm Nielsen, found 200,000 people playing the game in the United States, and it counted millions of fans.

“It’s untapped potential in the youth market,” Parthen said. “The U.S. has the largest immigrant population in the world, a lot of those coming from South Asian cultures, and these are children growing up in families passionate about cricket.”

I would assume this venue will be of great interest to the nascent Houston Cricket League, as well as the US cricket team. It’s not hard to imagine Ahmed’s venture becoming not just the premier location for cricket in the US, but also a major attraction for the region. I wish him all the best with this project.

Cricket in Houston

If cricket ever becomes a big deal in the US, the Houston region will play a key role in that.

Houston has had adult [cricket] leagues since the 1970s. Most players, then and now, are from Commonwealth countries – nations once ruled by the British Empire where cricket remains incredibly popular – including India, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Caribbean nations. In that way, American cricket remains insular. The sport continues to grow in popularity as more immigrants from Asia, Africa and Oceania settle in Houston, but native-born Americans rarely encounter a cricket pitch.

Yet the same could be said for the relationship between Americans and soccer before the 1970s and ’80s. Since then, soccer has thrived at the high school and college levels, and the sport’s popularity supports men’s and women’s professional leagues. Millions of Americans watch European soccer leagues, whose games are now broadcast by U.S. networks. Cricketers see a similar path for growth.

Cricket is the second-most popular sport in the world, behind soccer. More than 1.5 billion fans watched the 2015 Cricket World Cup. Created in England in the 16th century, cricket is a parent, or at least an estranged uncle, of baseball. The sports are similar in that a batsman (batter) hits a ball to score runs while a bowler (pitcher) and fielders try to get him out. The similarities dwindle after that, but both could be summed up as being played at a sometimes leisurely pace punctuated by moments of excitement.

But to have any hopes of following in the footsteps of soccer, American cricketers have to surmount two glaring obstacles: how to convince local governments to build more pitches and how to nudge Americans without a Commonwealth heritage to give it a try.

The Houston Cricket League plays on 10 grounds in the Houston area, stretching from Wallis to Pearland to Humble. Several coaches were quick to praise Harris County Judge Ed Emmett for favoring public support for cricket, but conceded that lobbying politicians is often a challenge.

“The city officials, probably when we go talk to them, you first have to explain what cricket is. They have no clue,” Sushil Nadkarni said with a chuckle. “It could be as simple as some other game they’ve never heard of, or it could be like croquet, as far as they’re concerned.”

Nadkarni, a former captain of the U.S. national team who is regarded as one of the best Americans to ever play the game, lives in Katy and runs a cricket academy for youth players. An Indian immigrant, he moved to Texas to get his master’s degree in engineering.

He envisions a cricket farm system similar to baseball that develops young players and feeds the best to the national team. A tinge of envy in his voice, he described how Ireland and Afghanistan, despite their small size, recently were promoted to test status, the highest level of international cricket.

Surely, the U.S. should follow. With more kids joining leagues, talk of cricket becoming an Olympic sport and the ability to watch international cricket through streaming services, Nadkarni believes cricket is on the verge of exploding in popularity here. He brought many of his academy players to watch last Sunday’s match.

They play cricket in San Antonio, which also has a decent-sized South Asian population, as well. As the story notes, the first cricket stadium in America, a 2000-seat facility financed by a local businessman, was built in Pearland in 2013. International professional cricket players have settled here and are working to build the sport. I can see this happening, but crossing over from the population that already loves it to the much larger population that knows nothing about it will be the big challenge.

There is an obvious, if unstated, flaw in the let’s-do-what-soccer-did argument. Soccer is easy to understand for players and fans. Cricket, to a novice, is incomprehensible – a major barrier to attracting newcomers. Even for baseball fans who embrace their sport’s complexity, like those who delight in debating what is or is not a balk, keeping track of the silly point, fly slip, gully, square leg and deep forward mid-wicket positions on a cricket pitch may be a bridge too far.

The length of a cricket match is also an obstacle, though there is a version of the game that takes about two and a half hours, which is perfectly fan friendly. Picking up the basics of the game is another matter. I’ve encountered enough cricket to kind of get the idea, but I don’t understand it well enough to explain it to anyone else. Teaching people the hows and whys of cricket will be very necessary. I wish them all good luck.

San Antonio’s “Little India”

I love stories like this.

On a recent Saturday morning, about two dozen men in team jerseys gathered on grounds in the far North Side with their kits of helmets, bats and protective gear, pumped to play cricket.

The scoreboard went up. Stumps were placed 66 feet apart, defining the wicket. Morning drizzle gave way to sunshine, and the match started, with a jumble of sounds — the crack of leather-covered balls against willow cricket bats and eight Indian dialects as players shouted encouragement to teammates on the pitch.

While the only “hard ball” format in town, which because of the weight of the ball isn’t necessarily for beginners, it wasn’t the only game of cricket played that day in San Antonio.

South Asian immigrants, primarily from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, have been a growing presence here, with many of them taking high-skill positions with economic powerhouses such as Valero Energy Corp., H-E-B and the South Texas Medical Center.

Off the job, they gravitate toward the game most have been playing since preschool.

Some of the players are transitory, in town on one- or two-year work contracts. But many others have brought their wives, are starting families and are pursuing permanent residency or U.S. citizenship.

As a result of the influx, clusters of Indian and Pakistani grocery stores and restaurants — known as “little India” — have sprouted near the headquarters of USAA, a major importer of South Asian information technology workers, and close to the Medical Center, the workplace of scores of Indian-born physicians and medical researchers.

[…]

[Sol Hooda, a real estate agent who was one of the founders of the Alamo City Cricket League] who was born in Bangladesh, estimates between 250 and 400 South Asians lived here when he moved to San Antonio in the early 1990s. Now, he said, the number is in the thousands.

“A lot of people are coming from California, Chicago, New York, Atlanta,” he said. “I have several clients that were (on) temporary visas, but now they’re permanent. So they decided, ‘Hey, let’s buy a home.’ And they make good money, their credit is good, so they can afford to buy.”

Dr. Jayesh Shah, president of the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, said there are now as many as 3,000 families of Indian origin in the city and about 300 physicians.

Largely because Shah lives here, the city hosted the association’s 32nd annual convention last week. The gathering of doctors from around the country included appearances by U.S. surgeon general nominee Dr. Vivek Murthy, Miss America Nina Davuluri (the first Indian-American to win the crown) and a live video address from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Part of the event was a celebration of “Mexican-Indian” culture, Shah said, including a tribute to La Meri, a San Antonio dancer who became proficient in Indian dance.

There also was daily yoga, a fashion show and a performance by Bollywood music stars.

It was be a chance to show off San Antonio’s charms to a well-heeled demographic.

“It matches the Indian climate, kind of,” Shah said. “And San Antonio is a nice city. It’s a big city, but it’s small, you know, and everybody’s well connected to each other.”

The Indian population here is small-scale compared with cities such as Houston, New York, Chicago and San Jose, California. But its growth fits in with a wave of immigration that has made Indians the U.S.’s third-largest immigrant group by country of origin, behind Mexico and China.

One in seven patients in America is now seen by Indian-born physician, Shah said.

I worked two summers at USAA while I was in college in the 80s, and I was reasonably familiar with the “Little India” area described above, but suffice it to say it was different back then. Consider this separate but related to the other recent stories about demographic changes in Texas’ cities. The emergence of not one but two cricket leagues is a bonus.