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Immigrants Fuel Growth in Cricket

It’s not easy to find the cricket fields at Lake Fairfax Park.

Just one small sign points the way to the fields, nestled in a far corner, separated from the park’s popular water slides and bustling picnic area by a dense stand of trees.

But last Sunday two teams, a total of around 30 men, put on their traditional all-white uniforms and made their way to the fields. The game went on for six hours, from 1 until 7 p.m. The Bengals, from Maryland, ended up beating the Fairfax Cricket Club’s second team by over 100 points. The loss dropped the Fairfax club to a 3-3 record. The Bengals improved to 5-1.

After the game, players from the Fairfax team surrounded team captain Dan Sinha, a Fairfax resident who runs a software company. The players were tired, sweaty from the long game played in 90-degree weather. But they listened carefully while Sinha talked.

The captain said the game was a learning experience, and that they should not be ashamed. The Bengals are one of the top three teams in the league, he said. The Fairfax team is an expansion team, created this year to accommodate the growing number of players interested in joining the Fairfax Cricket Club’s first team, created in 1996.

When Sinha first started playing with the club, four years ago, there were few members, barely enough to field one 12-man team. Now there are a total of 40 players on the two teams. Both teams are part of the 28-year-old Washington Cricket League, which has 26 teams from throughout the Washington, D.C. area. When John Pinnock took over as league president six years ago, there were just 12 teams.

Both Sinha and Pinnock attributed the growth of the league to an influx of immigrants, most of whom work in the technology industry, from countries like India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Cricket is one of the most popular sports in those countries, all of which are former British colonies.

BECAUSE OF THE POLITICAL tension between the two countries, India and Pakistan will not play each other in international competition. But Pinnock, originally from Jamaica, said the border dispute between India and Pakistan has not manifested itself in the Washington Cricket League.

"We are aware of that tension," Pinnock said. "We're going to have a special game for July 6, on the Fourth of July weekend, to show the brotherhood in our league. Right now those countries do not compete internationally, but we want to show that we still do."

Balaji Kanji, a player from Reston who grew up in India, said cricket is like a religion in his home country. He said people will take off school, or work, and will stay up all night to watch a big match.

"Cricket is like soccer," said Fairfax club member Sahid Khan, from Ashburn. "Every kid that grows up in Brazil wants to be Pele. But everybody in the subcontinent want to be Sachin Tendulkar, the world's best batsman, or Wasim Akram, the world's best bowler."

And many said cricket in some of the former colonies is more competitive than in Great Britain, where the sport originated.

"The reason cricket is not as popular in Britain anymore is that the national side [team] is not the best, like it used to be," said Sinha, who is originally from India. "I think one reason people are losing interest is because of the fact that it takes so long to play. It's losing out to soccer. Soccer is more of a blue collar game. It doesn't take much to play soccer, just a ball. Cricket takes much more equipment."

THE UNITED STATES fields a cricket team, but it has never been good enough to compete in the international world cup competition, held every four years. Some local players think this may soon change, though. Kashif Hashmi, a chief technology officer from Pakistan, said cricket is becoming more popular as fans move into the United States.

"In the 18th and 19th centuries, most people came to the United States from Europe," Hashmi said. "Now everyone is coming from Asia. And with the media, global television coverage, the popularity can spread even quicker."

He pointed to the U.S. Women's Soccer Team, who recently won the 1999 World Cup, sparking national interest in the game. He said the same thing might eventually happen with cricket.

The two Fairfax teams include players who were formerly on college teams in South Asia, Australia or the Caribbean. Team member Nabeel Ahmed, a Germantown, Md. resident originally from Pakistan, said the talent in the Washington Cricket League may not stack up with the first class leagues from home, but that it is better than other United States leagues.

"I used to work in Kansas City, where I played cricket as well," Ahmed said. "We played with a tennis ball there. This [the Washington Cricket League] is the most organized cricket I've seen in years. This is the highest amount of decorum."

Cricket is similar to baseball in that it pits a ball thrower (called a bowler in cricket) against a ball hitter (called a batsman in cricket). Players score points by hitting the ball, then running back and forth between two wickets. Batsman are ruled out if the bowler knocks down one of three wooden stakes behind the batting area, if a fielder tags a wicket with the ball while the batter is running between wickets, or if a fielder catches the hard leather ball after it is hit. Just one of the fielding players is allowed to wear gloves, so broken fingers are not uncommon.

"There is very little physical contact," said Shereenath Shetty, from Maryland, who was visiting Lake Fairfax for an informal game with friends. "People play with the physical skills they have. Physical ability doesn't have a lot to do with it. It's a lot like golf. A lot of it is mental."

To find out more about the Fairfax Cricket Club, or to join, visit www.fairfaxcricketclub.org.