Ah, spring, when the first crack of the bat signals those sweet, sanguine afternoons around a ball field. Today, a dreary Saturday, a team of a dozen or so guys gathers at an indoor batting range where, for two hours, they take turns hitting and bowling.
They . . . what? Cricket.
“Is it jai alai?” asks a young dad, wearing a New York Yankees ball cap and taking guesses, some as wild as the Greater Greenville Cricket Club’s dazzling array of pitches. No, this definitely isn’t jai alai, the Latin American racquetball-like game whose hand baskets happen to be wicker. At least, wicker sounds like “wicket,” the most prominent term in what has to be the world’s most fascinating ball-and-bat game.
Our spectator, sitting on a metal bleacher alongside two equally perplexed boys, both about 10-years-old and grasping baseball bats, takes another swing at the goings-on inside the Strike Zone’s green nets.
“Cricket? Isn’t that what they play on the horses in England?”
Strike two. So much for being the second most popular game on Earth. Just behind soccer, cricket is venerated in more than 100 countries, many of them former British colonies. Most, if not all, of GGCC’s members hail from South Asia, primarily India.
“When I came to the U.S., I had to play cricket because cricket was kind of a religion for most of us,” says team captain Hari Krishnan, 27, the 2017 Division I Champion Player of the Year in the Carolina Cricket League, with 29 teams from Columbia to Greensboro.
Krishnan, who played professionally in India, really does talk with a fundamentalist’s passion about the game. “I love this sport. Because it’s a sport and you learn about people—how to get the best out of them and how to get the best of you when the chips are down—it gives you a taste of success.”
The team has seen its share of that, too, beginning in 2008 and now boasting around two dozen players. The 2014 Division II champs credit the city of Woodruff for boosting the game here, thanks to a large field created for them at the Woodruff Leisure Center.
“There was nothing around here where people could come out and play, people with like-minded interests,” says Guru Raghuram, 37, GGCC’s longest-playing member, who arrived here in 2007. “It’s grown quite a bit. It’s pretty satisfying, especially when it started out with four members. It’s nice to see it grow so much over the years.”
Cricket is action-packed—within the first 10 minutes of practice, the guys break into a sweat. At one end of the rectangular pitch, the center of the game’s action, a bowler races several feet toward one wicket—the game’s three signature “stumps”—to hurl a ball at the other. There, the opposing player, the batsman, tries to swat the ball away. He can hit in any direction, where the opposing team’s 10 fielders entirely surround the pitch. Incidentally, the ball, with a sewn center seam, is really hard. But only batsmen wear gloves. Scores can hit three digits and games can last as long as five days, though cricket’s three different formats determine the length of play, usually based on number of pitches.
“There’s a lot of strategy,” says Ashwinraj Thiagarajan, 26, an electrical engineer who came to the area from India in 2013. “You have to choose your team: a person who can just bat, a person who can just bowl, and a person who can do both.”
As fluent as they are in the game, so they are in multiple languages. Spend any amount of time with these players, and it feels like a visit to far-flung ports-of-call with a stew of exotic languages, such as Hindi and Tamil. English is the game’s lingua franca, of course, because cricket began in England.
Said to have originated in the thirteenth century, the game was first referenced as an adult sport in 1611—long before the founding of the New York Knickerbocker Baseball Club in 1845. Cricket’s laws, as they’re called, were adopted in 1787 and now fill 82 pages, with the first page titled, “The Spirit of Cricket.” These days, it’s the country’s fastest growing sport according to the Washington Post in 2012, boasting some “15 million fans and an estimated 200,000 players.” GGCC’s players, among the nicest bunch you’d ever meet, are nothing if not steeped in a game who’s spirit is catching on.
“The people that get interested get into it,” says K. Bapat, 44, who started playing when he was eight years old in Mumbai, India. “It’s a little complicated initially, but, like for us, if someone tells me, ‘Do you know anything about baseball?’ I don’t know anything about baseball, but I can learn it.”
Swapnil Kabu, 27, also an engineer, echoes Bapat: “I mean, people who are out for trying new stuff, it’s just like people who like Indian food—a lot of people like Indian food right? But if they’ve never tried it, they don’t know if they would like it or not.”
Team captain Krishnan hopes to retire one day and spread the game throughout his adoptive sports-hungry country. “In the U.S., the sporting structure here is so good. It’s just phenomenal. When I think about it—look at football, look at baseball, look at basketball—the sports structure to groom sportsmen from school all the way to pro leagues, it’s just phenomenal.”
Originally published March 2018