Cricket starts to make noise in the United States

Liz Clarke, in The Washington Post, 21 May 2012

With the ear-popping crack of a bat, shouts of “Shabash!” rang out on a recent Sunday afternoon at Silver Spring’s Galway Park. “Shabash!” “Shabash!”  The Urdu word for “excellent,” shabash also is a term among cricket players worldwide — whether from India or Pakistan, England or Australia, Jamaica or Guyana — to cheer on outstanding batting, bowling and fielding, the game’s essential skills.

Among cricket’s stateside adherents, the most pressing goal at the moment is making Americans equally fluent in the world’s second-most popular sport, eclipsed only by soccer. To most Americans, cricket is a puzzlement. Even savvy sports fans know little more than it’s traditionally played in white trousers, involves a flat wooden bat and lots of running back and forth. Fewer still realize it has a rich tradition in the United States; it predates by 140 years the national pastime of baseball, which is cricket’s direct descendant.But cricket hotbeds exist — particularly in New York, Florida and California — spurred in the late 1970s by immigrants from the West Indies, which ruled the sport at the time. It was fueled anew as a wave of workers from south Asia arrived for the tech boom of the late-1980s and ’90s.

And it’s thriving in the Washington area: There are two cricket leagues that field more than 40 teams for nearly 2,000 weekend players. “It represents the diversity that the D.C. area has,” says Rohit Kulkarni, 35, one of those weekend players who traveled the country researching a well-received documentary, “Pitch of Dreams: Cricket in America.

According to Peter Della Penna, cricket is the country’s fastest -growing sport, with 15 million fans and an estimated 200,000 players. It can be found in all 50 states, including Nebraska, where the New Jersey native played club cricket as a Creighton undergraduate after falling in love with the sport while studying in Australia.

“It’s kind of like underground sport — a secret society — in the sense that it’s everywhere if you know where to look,” says Della Penna, 27, who is the cricket editor at ESPN. “But if you don’t know where to look, you wouldn’t know it existed.”

From the first week of April to early October, Washingtonians might spot a cricket match at West Potomac Park near the Jefferson Memorial or on makeshift pitches in Hyattsville, Oxon Hill, Reston, Manassas or Woodbridge.

But cricket isn’t played exclusively by expatriates longing for home. American University and George Washington University field club teams. And some of its more enthusiastic converts can be found at Bowie’s Whitehall Elementary School, where third-, fourth- and fifth-graders play with scaled-down plastic bats, balls and wickets and delight in explaining the rules to their parents.

Baseball without the boring parts is just one way youngsters describe cricket. “It’s very fun,” says Sofia Hired, 10. “You get to bat. You get to pitch. And you get to run around.”

The equipment was donated to Whitehall’s gym teacher, Jonathan Jones, after he attended a workshop staged by the U.S. Youth Cricket Association, based in Glen Burnie.

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