Posted: Monday, September 15, 2014 11:38 am
By LAURA KEBEDE Richmond Times-Dispatch
Wicketkeeper Haroon Pasha ousts batsman Raj Shekhar. In cricket, there are two bases marked by wickets, or wooden poles.
Cheering for both teams in a cricket match is a common practice for Kuppili Bharani.
He walks across the field to the other set of bleachers when two of the area’s eight teams switch fielding because the sport, though highly competitive, is about community.
“Every team I have friends,” he said during a recent game at the cricket field behind Holladay Elementary School in Henrico County.
He dishes out advice from his years of playing in India and in Richmond with a passion younger players have come to know and love.
If Bharani is the area’s cheerleader, Zulfi Khan is the advocate.
As one of the senior players since the field came into use in 1994, Khan’s name is known by area parks and recreation departments as he seeks improved facilities for the beloved sport of a growing immigrant population in the region. He heralds the game, still relatively unknown in the U.S., as the most family-friendly of all.
“In Pakistan, grandmothers would know the names of the players,” he said. “My mother would not make breakfast if the game is on.”
Richmond’s relationship with cricket dates to the 1700s and rebounded in the 1990s as an organized league. The influx of South Asian immigrants, especially Indians, has helped bolster the sport in the region.
The cricket field behind the school off Staples Mill Road in Henrico is marking 20 years in the county and has planned a special tournament to mark the occasion.
Team members have grown accustomed to explaining the game in comparison to baseball, the sport foreign to them but learned over time from living in the U.S.
In cricket, “pitch” is the infield strip of clay, not the throwing of the ball. That’s “bowling” performed by the bowler. There are two bases marked by wickets, or wooden poles, that if toppled by the bowler or tapped by the wicketkeeper as the batsman runs toward the base, ousts the batsman.
The bats are similar to canoe paddles with longer blades often marked with red lipstick-like stains from the ball. Bowlers hurl the rock-hard balls at upward of 90 mph at batsmen who often daringly wear only shin guards and forgo a helmet for protection.
Mallik Pullela of the Barbarian Cricket Club defended the practice and gladly assumes the risks to up his game. The balls are allowed to bounce before reaching the batsman instead of following a mostly straight line from the pitcher in baseball, making it more difficult to track and hit.
“Helmets skew vision,” he said with a smile as he recovered from a hit that swelled his chin during a game this summer.
In the Richmond region, the game has blossomed with the growth of immigrants from India, most notably in Henrico.
The Indian population has nearly quadrupled in Henrico from 2,560 in 2000 to 9,846 in the 2010 census. The jump, Khan says, is mostly thanks to Capital One hiring information technology specialists.
One team in the league, the One Cricket Club, was founded by a Capital One employee and included co-workers until it became clear they would need more teams to accommodate all interested players.
But Richmond-area teams have also included immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, New Zealand and Sri Lanka or other former British colonies. Australians and South Africans had a strong showing a few years ago. The Mid-Atlantic Cricket Conference consists of 17 teams from Roanoke to Virginia Beach, Charlottesville and Blacksburg.
Richmond-area teams have reigned as champions of the conference since 2010.
And the sport isn’t lost on Henrico and Chesterfield officials.
“Every person from the groundsmen to the manager knows cricket,” Khan said of Henrico’s Recreation and Parks department.
Neil Luther, the department’s director, said the field has become a cultural and social hub and that more improvements are on the way. The circular fields do not translate well to other sports but require less maintenance than most. Last year, the department installed an additional batting cage with a cement pitch similar to competitor’s fields so teams can practice hitting off a different surface. A department-sponsored program guide for school-age children is in the works with the league.
“We’ve grown and learned a lot (as) they’ve expanded their presence,” he said. “It’s been a great relationship. They’ve been great to work with.”
Chesterfield’s chief of parks planning and construction services, Stuart Connock Jr., said the field at Beulah Elementary School is retro-fitted for cricket use. The county’s parks and recreation master plan is under consideration, and a cricket field has been discussed to meet the growing demand.
The Central Virginia Cricket Association and the Mid-Atlantic Cricket Conference even garnered attention from the General Assembly last year when Del. Betsy B. Carr, D-Richmond, and Sens. A. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, and Henry L. Marsh III, D-Henrico, commended the organizations for their efforts to promote the sport.
A copy of the resolution is framed in the equipment shed at Holladay Elementary School “as an expression of the General Assembly’s admiration for the cricket leagues of Virginia’s work to encourage growth in local cricket and best wishes for the future,” it says in part.