It’s an Old World sport trying to gain a New World foothold. Cricket not only has a rich history, but its backers see a promising future in the Commonwealth.
“Cricket was first played in 1300s, whereas baseball started in 1839” according to legend, at least, said Ravi Rao, a 42-year-old native of Hyderabad, India, now living in Hopkinton. “Cricket is the second-biggest sport on the earth [after soccer], with over 1.6 billion followers worldwide.”
The first cricket game in the US was played in 1709 in Manhattan, but it took almost two centuries — 1906 —before a game was played in Massachusetts, according to Rao. By then, of course, the other ball-and-stick sport — baseball — had become our national pastime. But a sport long relegated to curiosity status here seems to be making inroads, thanks in part to the region’s melting-pot diversity and two organizations, the Massachusetts State Cricket League (MSCL) and the New England Cricket Association (NECA).
Both groups have created fields that allow the game’s 360-degree playing format, and adopted a shorter version allowing games to be completed during an afternoon.
“I moved to Boston in 1999,” said Rao, who started playing at age 9. “I was looking for opportunities to play cricket in this region and learned about the MSCL, and started our own team in 2002 – Eagle Cricket Club – along with my good friends Ravi Uppalapati, Anil Kumar, and Kumar Potluri.
“We started with one team and soon found a lot of like-minded folks with equal passion and commitment,” said Rao, now president of the league. “That made us expand our club to three more teams. Currently, we have over 80 active players in the club, and 1,200-plus players in the state.”
Locals say they’re encouraged by cricket’s growth over the past decade. The NECA lists 25 clubs. The MSCL currently has 23 clubs and 36 teams, with some clubs supporting multiple teams playing at different levels (the league has four divisions). Teams play 14 to 16 games from May through August, with playoffs set for September.
“Any sport will find its place when it’s adopted in the early stages of life,” said Rao, adding that soccer took a while to catch on here.
“We need to organize cricket clinics and coaching camps, and educate kids about the game at a very young age,” he said. “But given the wide variety of options – swimming, tennis, gymnastics, hockey, baseball, basketball, soccer, softball – it’s a tough choice.”
The MSCL has developed youth programs and several clubs have started organizing youth clinics during the summer. There are also women’s programs.
If people try cricket, they’ll like it, said Sandeep Chiniwar, a 39-year-old native of Bangalore, India, now living in Mansfield.
“My initial attraction was the sheer excitement of smacking the ball with a cricket bat,” said Chiniwar of the Lagaan Cricket Club . “Over the years, as I learned more about the game, I learned about teamwork, discipline, and dedication needed to succeed.
Most participants grew up playing cricket, and falling in love with the sport, overseas.
“I was born and brought up in India, where cricket is seen as a religion, so I have been a cricket fan since my childhood, just like most of the team members,” said Kumar Putravu, 33, a native of Hyderabad, India, now living in Billerica.
“Cricket is truly a team sport,” said Putravu, vice president of the Merrimack Valley Cricket Club. “It’s played with 11 players on field at any given time. Cricket doesn’t require superheroes; it requires team effort. It requires immense concentration, patience, and constant re-evaluation of game strategies. On top of it all, the gatherings with families and kids at the grounds makes it feel like a carnival.”
The MSCL includes players from other countries where cricket thrives, including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Australia, New Zealand, England, South Africa, and Caribbean nations such as Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, and Guyana. But not all the league’s players learned the game elsewhere.
“I have been a cricket fan since I was 5 years old,” said Vidit Munshi, 29, who grew up in Needham and now lives in Waltham. “My father used to take me to his friend’s home in the middle of the night to watch matches in India on the satellite TV.
“Part of the attraction was just a connection to India,” said Munshi, a member of the Boston United Cricket Club. “It was a game that allowed me to keep in touch and talk to people from India about something they also enjoyed watching.
The barriers to entry, say participants, are minimal, especially since cricket is not an expensive sport.
“Similar to baseball, all you really need is a ball and a bat, and perhaps a surface where the ball you are using can bounce,” said Munshi. “In Massachusetts, there are dozens of cricket clubs that are highly welcoming of new players who are interested in learning and playing the game.”