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Cricket growing in popularity on American college campuses

Northeastern’s Mihir Shah swings and misses in front of Harvard’s Norris Guscott at Jordan Field.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

Northeastern’s Mihir Shah swings and misses in front of Harvard’s Norris Guscott at Jordan Field.

When the Harvard Cricket Club snatched a seeming victory away from their new rivals from Princeton recently, the hero of the day was not one of the team’s players from a cricket-playing country. The batsman who secured the win with an impressive series of “not outs” grew up playing baseball and street hockey in Lynn.

“I’ve played a lot of sports, but cricket is by far the best,” said Dan Yetman, a sophomore philosophy major, preparing to stretch before a Harvard home match earlier this month. “It’s such a gentleman’s game.”

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After years of dormancy in America, cricket is making a rapid comeback at American colleges and universities, and the players are from a number of foreign nations — and from here in the United States. From the five teams (including Boston University) that took part in the first modern college championship tournament in 2009, there are now 70 clubs competing across the country, made up largely — but not exclusively — of students who are first- or second-generation immigrants from nations such as India, Pakistan, and parts of the Caribbean where the game is popular. And the game has caught on quickly in education-rich New England, where Northeastern, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Bryant University, and Worcester Polytechnic, to name a few, have each established cricket clubs over the past few years.

There was a time, believe it or not, when cricket was the most popular team sport in the nation. Harvard’s original cricket team was formed all the way back in 1868. The club lost its varsity status in 1902, when interest in cricket had died off here, victimized by the emergence of those other, more “American” games like baseball and football, which began to appear on college campuses in the latter half of the 19th century.

But the game, fueled in part by an influx of overseas students, is suddenly thriving again in this country. As a Harvard sophomore two years ago, Ibrahim Khan joined a small group of fellow enthusiasts who played the casual form of cricket, with a tennis ball covered in electrical tape.

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“The first year, we struggled to put a team together,” recalled Khan, who is now the captain of the Harvard club. Last year the team competed for the first time in matches sanctioned by American College Cricket, the four-year-old ruling body. This year they are ranked first in their league. In all, the ACC has member teams from schools as diverse and far-flung as California State University Long Beach and the University of Southern California to Indiana University, Northwestern, and Cleveland State to Virginia Tech and West Texas A&M.

“If we can win the league in my final year, I think that would be a fantastic step for the club in only its second year,” said the tall, poised Khan, who wore the number 1 on his black warmup suit. He’d just unlocked the gate of Jordan Field inside Harvard’s sprawling athletic complex, where the team practices and plays.

The team’s home field is actually the field hockey pitch, which is covered in synthetic turf that sometimes gets soaked by rain, making the heavy leather cricket ball even heavier. It’s not ideal, said Khan, but the team is happy to have earned its club status, which means more access to facilities and some financial support from the university.

Khan is one example of the student leaders who have taken it upon themselves to establish cricket programs that will outlive their own undergraduate years, said Lloyd Jodah, founder and president of American College Cricket, based in New York.

“We’ve had clubs come on board that get a strong grasp of what we’re doing,” Jodah said. “We’re not just about showing up for tournaments — we’re about developing the game in this country, and raising its profile on and off campus.” Ultimately, Jodah and the ACC would like to elevate the game to varsity status, though that may be years from now.

But the movement is growing. Boston University’s Hayat Khan (no relation to the Harvard captain) is now teaching a one-credit phys ed class in beginners’ cricket — as an undergraduate. Khan, who chose to attend BU in part because of its cricket club, has about 10 students in his class, some of whom have already shown enough aptitude that he can imagine them playing for the BU club.

The game of cricket, a precursor to baseball, involves a bowler — the equivalent of a pitcher — throwing a ball (typically bounced) to an opposing batsman, who tries to prevent the ball from hitting the wickets behind him and hit it far enough to run to the other end of the 22-yard pitch in the middle of the field. Runs are scored when a batsman and his partner can safely cross to the other side of the pitch without the fielding team first hitting a wicket with the ball. The rules run much deeper and, for the uninitiated, can seem daunting. But Khan said his students have picked it up quickly.

BU’s cricket club started back in the dark ages of American cricket, about 10 years ago, when competition on the college level was practically nonexistent. But the team didn’t earn its club status until September, when it was recognized by BU’s Department of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance.

“Now we have more access to facilities,” explained Khan, a Pakistani native who moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., when he was 10. “We get an adviser and a lot more attention.” BU hosts Harvard at the New Balance Field at 4:30 Saturday afternoon.

The commitment level has been high, said Harvard’s Ibrahim Khan, standing at the edge of the field hockey pitch as his teammates began to arrive. One pair of players began a “throw down” — a leisurely, half-speed version of baseball’s batting practice.

To play in the ACC championship tournament last spring, the team drove 26 hours to Florida. “We practice three hours, two times a week, and we play two games each weekend,” said Khan. “That’s a lot for a club sport.” The teams play Twenty20 cricket, the abbreviated version of the game, with each team batting for a single inning. Those matches last about three hours, as compared with so-called Test cricket — endurance matches that can last as long as five days. That’s not going to happen at the college level.

“Everyone’s busy,” said Khan with a smile. “A Harvard kid doesn’t have the time.”

The Bryant team pulled into the parking lot just in time for the match to begin. Newly established, they wore an assortment of black athletic clothing that looked mismatched alongside the Harvard club’s official jackets. But a few of the Bryant players, said their captain, Akshay Poonia, actually played for state teams in high school in India.

With the game underway at dusk, the muffled rush of the nearby traffic on Storrow Drive was pierced by the frequent cries of players. When a Bryant batsman hit a ball out of the facility for a “boundary” (six runs), a Harvard player scaled the tall fence to retrieve it.

In the otherwise empty stands, Harvard student Kartiek Agarwal sat with his friend Saloni Jain, a BU student who grew up in Pennsylvania. Though he wasn’t particularly athletic, Agarwal said, he played cricket as a boy in New Delhi: “It’s the only thing you play growing up there.”

One thing about the game, he said as he admired the batting skills of the Bryant player: “It’s an opportunity for non-athletic people as well.” Certain bowlers are known as “spinners,” who rely on deception more than speed.

Whatever their athletic ability, the growing ranks of college cricket players are learning life skills, said Jodah, the ACC founder, who grew up playing in the West Indies.

“People love to say ‘It’s just a game,’ but no. Sports are very much a part of your identity. It’s part of how you conduct yourself.”

After dismissing one of the Bryant batsmen, the Harvard players jogged in from their positions across the pitch and locked arms in a brief, ritualized display of camaraderie.

“Hey!” they shouted in unison.

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.
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