Cricket U.S. Fans and Players Are Watching

“After about 200 years since its introduction in the U.S., cricket remains an underground movement—a well-kept sporting secret”
By Wendy Grossman
The 10th Cricket World Cup has been watched by millions of fans and thousands of players who live in the United States. People have played cricket in the United States since the country was a British colony. The troops of the man who would become the nation’s first president, George Washington, played cricket. The grandfather of the nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, played cricket. Today, there are more than 100,000 active cricket players in America, says Rohit Kulkarni, director of the documentary film, “Pitch of Dreams: Cricket in America.”

“After about 200 years since its introduction in the U.S., cricket remains an underground movement—a well-kept sporting secret,” says Kulkarni, 35. “People from cricket-playing countries, when they think of the U.S., they don’t think of cricket. They think of football and baseball and basketball. No one thinks that people actually play cricket in the U.S.”

When Kulkarni moved to America from India, he had no idea there were millions of other cricket fans in the country. He grew up in Pune and says he started playing cricket when he was 3. When he moved to Carbondale, Illinois, in the American Midwest, he found himself missing cricket.

But the more he looked around, the more he found the game he loves. “I saw players everywhere in the U.S.,” he says. There are 15 to 20 million cricket fans in the United States, says John L. Aaron, secretary of the USA Cricket Association. Aaron grew up in Guyana where his father was a cricket commentator and his brother was once captain of the national cricket team.

“The whole world is becoming a smaller place—we live in a virtual world,” he says. “It’s part of the DNA of the expatriate. They’ve grown up in these cricket-playing countries.” The 2011 World Cup started February 19, hosted by India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. For the last World Cup in 2007, India had the most television viewers. “But guess who was the second-largest viewership of cricket? The United States,” Aaron says. “It’s unheralded and nobody knew.”
R. Singh, batsman for Richmond Hill, prepares to defend the wicket as a bowler from the Aviation Flyers attempts to bowl him out, during a high school cricket match in New York City.
Photograph by STUART RAMSON © AP-WWP
U.S. openers Carl Wright (center) and Aditya Mishra run between the wickets as Jamaica’s Carlton Baugh looks on during a Pearls Cup T20 series cricket match at the Central Broward Regional Park in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Photograph by JEFFREY M. BOAN © AP-WWP
A cricket match in progress in Los Angeles, California, below the Hollywood sign.
Photograph © Getty Images
A cricket match in Van Nuys, California, organized by the Southern California Cricket Association.
Photograph by BOB GALBRAITH © AP-WWP
A match between United States (in blue) and Jamaica at Fort Lauderdale Stadium in Florida.
Photograph courtesy Rohit Kulkarni
York Cricket Club batsman Raj Singh Bhangu keeps an eye on the ball during practice as wicket keeper Anand Modali waits for the throw during a match in York, Pennsylvania.
Photograph by JOHN PAVONCELLO © AP-WWP/York Dispatch 

Trinidad and St. Lucia face off in New York’s Van Cortlandt Park.
Photograph by ED FORD © AP-WWP

Publicity poster for “Pitch of Dreams,” shown at film festivals across America.
Photograph courtesy Rohit Kulkarni

Eddie Phillips of Brighton, England, hits the ball during an exhibition game on a St. Louis, Missouri street. The wicket keeper is Tom Alford of St. Louis.
Photograph by FRED WATERS © AP-WWP 
The first international cricket match, depicted in this drawing, took place in what is now Central Park in New York City.
Photograph courtesy Rohit Kulkarni
In 2008, Kulkarni bought a video camera and started learning how to shoot and edit film at school; he now works as a multimedia producer for Voice of America. He started research into the history of cricket in America. The more he read, the more fascinated he became.

“I realized there is literally cricket everywhere in the U.S.—and people are quite serious about it,” he says.

Soon, he was spending every weekend traveling at his own expense around the country, researching and shooting his documentary. He traveled from San Francisco to Chicago, New York to Miami. “I combined my passion for the sport and for filmmaking,” he says. “I bought the equipment on my own, I travelled on my own. I did it on my own.” In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Kulkarni filmed at the only International Cricket Council-approved stadium in the United States. In New York City, he shot a nationwide kids’ cricket tournament. In Philadelphia, he went to a cricket library, filled with historic bats and balls.

As he made the film, what surprised him most was the long history of cricket in the United States. For example, he says, he didn’t know that cricket was once played on the White House lawns. He was also surprised to learn that the first three members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame were also cricket players. The National Baseball Hall of Fame is planning a Cricket Weekend in June to highlight its newest exhibit, on the relationship between baseball and cricket.

“Before baseball became baseball, it was cricket,” Kulkarni says. “Cricket was the number one team sport in the country. Since the U.S. was looking for its own identity, I guess baseball evolved and cricket went down. But thanks to the immigrant community, cricket is coming back.” When Kulkarni lived in Baltimore, Maryland, he watched the 2003 Cricket World Cup matches at Johns Hopkins University with hundreds of other fans.

“There used to be 400 students watching the cricket match,” he says. “There were people from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan—everyone getting together, eating and watching a cricket game throughout the night.”

Kulkarni’s goal in making the film—which has been shown at film festivals in the United States—was to raise awareness of the sport. And he wants people who don’t understand the game to learn the rules.

“So now, if someone says, ‘I went to India and the only thing I saw on TV was cricket— it?’ I can say, ‘Take a copy of my documentary, and you’ll understand,’ ” he says.

Freelance journalist Peter Della Penna, based in New Jersey, lives and breathes cricket as he covers the sport for multiple Web sites. But watching Kulkarni’s movie, he learned more. “I was enlightened,” he says. The movie shows not only the history of cricket in the U.S., but its potential for the future, he says.

“It’s not embedded in the daily lives of most people like it is in countries like Australia or India or England, where it’s on the front page of the sports pages,” he says. “We have baseball, basketball, football, hockey and soccer and then golf, tennis, boxing, horse racing and lacrosse. There are a lot of options here. Cricket is about 12th or 13th down, which is not where it should be, ideally. It hasn’t really breached that mainstream.”

Which means cricket has room to grow in popularity, Della Penna says. “It’s confined to the expatriate community from the West Indies or South Asia. So 99 percent of people playing cricket in this country are from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Jamaica or Guyana. You have a lot of first-generation immigrants playing the game.”

But Della Penna himself is an example of how those demographics can change. Della Penna grew up playing ice hockey and tennis, and comes from a long line of fans of the New York Giants professional football team. He didn’t know anything about cricket until he studied in Australia and saw cricket on the front page of the sports sections, and decided if he was going to fit in, he needed to learn the rules.

“I dedicated myself to it and became obsessed with it,” he says. “Ever since I stumbled into cricket it’s taken over.”

Kulkarni is hoping that his film will encourage even more people to love cricket. 

—Courtesy SPAN

April 2011

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