March 9, 2017

Houston, we have a cricket league

Thomas Neumann
Over the past four decades, expats from India and elsewhere have built up a vibrant cricket scene in the Texan city
19

Ishan Rao of the Houston Indian Cricket Club bowls against the Houston Stallions © Houston Indian Cricket Club

In Houston, land of pickup trucks and cowboy boots, a group of expats from India have built a cricket club of dynastic proportions.

The Houston Indian Cricket Club has won eight Houston Cricket League championships and recorded four runner-up finishes in the past 15 seasons. The club is so good that a number of first-class cricketers, such as Ranji Trophy player Milind Kumar, have competed here as a way to compile statistics and stay active during the rainy season back home.

Former West Indies international player Ricardo Powell competed and coached for HICC in recent years. Niraj Shah and Amir Nanji, former professionals in India, have also played with HICC. Both Shah and Nanji have represented Team USA internationally. Kumar played for HICC in 2016, and the club hopes to have the 26-year-old back on its top team this year if his pro commitments in India allow him to do so.

"I'm pretty sure [Kumar] enjoyed our activities after the games and enjoyed being in another country," said Monik Patel, 36, an Ahmedabad native who plays for HICC's second team and serves as club treasurer. "During the games, he brings a lot of experience for our team-mates. Obviously, he puts up some numbers so it benefits our team and it benefits him."

While the NFL helps connect Indian transplants to new friends here in the States, cricket forms an integral part of a cultural thread back to their homeland

Varun Singh, 32, a Mumbai native who plays for HICC's top team and serves as club secretary, said his team-mates greatly enjoy competing alongside someone as skilled and insightful as Kumar.

"Although he is younger, our players learn from him -- the way he thinks about the game and the way he thinks about certain situations," Singh said.

A highlight of the schedule for the Houston cricket community is the annual Independence Cup exhibition match held each summer, pitting expats from India against counterparts from Pakistan. The competition commemorates the dates when those countries mark their independence from the British Empire in 1947 - Pakistan on August 14 and India on August 15 - and Singh has played in the annual event six times.

"When I wear the blue [India uniform], in front of 300 or 400 people, I feel like I'm on the national team," Singh said.

This is all pretty heady stuff for a club existing in the large shadow of American football in the Lone Star State. To realize how much HICC has grown over the years, consider its humble beginnings when it was founded as Jolly Cricket Club nearly 40 years ago. There were very few Indian families and no dedicated cricket venues in the region at that time.

Nilesh Patil of the Houston Indian Cricket Club faces up to Houston Stallions bowler Ali Hussain © Houston Indian Cricket Club

"There was only a few grounds available at that point in time," said Singh. "There used to be only three teams. There were not a lot of people who were playing cricket back then. It was a bunch of guys who were either working in one of the oil and gas companies."

Today, metropolitan Houston has approximately 130,000 residents of Indian descent, and there are 13 cricket organisations in the region. HICC, with approximately 60 full-time members and another 40 or so who play occasionally, occupies its own playing ground in suburban Richmond. Most area clubs field multiple squads, accounting for close to 30 teams that compete in the HCL. There are three divisions that utilise a system of promotion and relegation and play 40-overs and 20-overs formats. Players from Australia, England, Pakistan, South Africa and the Caribbean also have competed in the HCL.

In addition to the top-flight HCL, there are a number of "taped ball" recreational leagues held on Saturdays that allow players to compete in less strenuous setting that doesn't require all the equipment necessary to play traditional cricket with a hard ball. Competitors range in age from about 20 to 50-plus.

Amrish Ghodasara, 38, is an Ahmedabad native who plays for HICC's second team and helps organise the Saturday leagues as club vice president. Because many more players participate on Saturdays than Sundays, he said that organisers jokingly refer to the Saturday leagues as "Bollywood" in a nod to the much larger quantity of movies produced in India compared to the United States. The Sunday league is "Hollywood" because of the higher skill level.

A highlight of the schedule for the Houston cricket community is the annual Independence Cup exhibition match held each summer, pitting expats from India against counterparts from Pakistan

"They want to come play the T20 format in an organised [setting]," Ghodasara said of the Saturday players. "They want to be part of an amateur league. They want a field that's dedicated to cricket. They want a schedule. They want the playoffs, the quarterfinals, the finals and the cups. The competition is there. The intensity is there."

Combining both formats, approximately 1000 cricket players participate on a typical weekend throughout the Houston area, including women and children. But this isn't meant to imply that Texas cricketers reject American sporting culture.

Singh, Ghodasara and Patel, for example, follow pro football. Singh is a fan of the New England Patriots, while Ghodasara and Patel support the local Houston Texans. But while the NFL helps connect Indian transplants to new friends here in the States, cricket forms an integral part of a cultural thread back to their homeland. To wit, most of the HICC membership travelled together to watch India play against the West Indies in a T20 match last year in Lauderhill, Florida.

That said, the HICC is more than a sports group. Members and their families socialise far beyond the playing ground. They hold frequent extracurricular events, culminating with a large annual banquet.

"Everyone knows each other," Singh said. "The families hang out. We have the same circle of friends. That's how we have been able to successfully promote this culture into our club. It was passed onto us by the founders of the club, and we have been able to maintain that over the years."

Thomas Neumann is an international writer at espn.com

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • BrianCharlesVivek on March 10, 2017, 16:03 GMT

    I am in Htown and played a couple of times. Mostly its a "enthu" group who wants to play rather than some real cricket. Here also Paks and Indians do not mix together, they have their own teams. Patels have their own teams . Something is better than nothing though.

  •   Pavan H Kulkarni on March 9, 2017, 18:24 GMT

    Michigan Cricket Association (MichCA) leagues are no less attractive either. In Metro Detroit area, we got players from Asia who represented their countries in the U19 world cups. The competition is fierce in both 40 over and 20 over tournaments and have 3 divisions with a promotion-relegation system. This is purely leather ball Cricket only. There are multiple T-ball, tape ball tournaments. We have teams driving in from Canada every weekend to play games too. But the outdoor tournaments last till October only due to the Michigan climate! *sob* *sob*

  • johnthekiwi on March 9, 2017, 17:52 GMT

    I agree with Timmy J, not about division over Trump which is primarily rent-a-mob stuff, but about the game in the US. When I was in grad school over here I played in a league of ex-pats, primarily from India, for a couple of years. I even had my parents ship up my bats and pads and other gear. The locals would occasionally come across us playing on a strange looking fake surface (one place actually did have a grass wicket of sorts) and shake their head. It will never ever be a sport of consequence in the US because the vast majority of cricket fans have no idea of the sports reality here. @ESPN30857310: There are some not bad ockers filtering through the minors right now and one kid (U of Georgia?) that came to the US to punt and wandered into baseball has a high 90's 4 seamer and a great curve and I think got drafted. Alan Border was a damn good baseball player apparently.

  • SreenathJ on March 9, 2017, 16:52 GMT

    I compete in DCL in Dallas/Fort Worth. There's again two different organisations here in DCL and NTCA. The latter runs through 40 over and 20 over games in the leather ball format. Former has 20 over games in leather ball and tape ball. Either way, there are atleast 50 teams playing in any league at any time. I would say the active weekend cricket-playing community is around 1000-1200 members strong. Depending on which division you play in, the intensity levels vary but I can tell you there is no shortage of drama and talent. There is one guy who hit a 200 a couple of weeks back in a T20 game, and a lot of players showed up early for the next game just to watch him play.

    Nevertheless, the demographic is dominated by Indians and Pakistanis. Of late, there is a bunch of Bangladeshis and Nepalis getting into it but that's about that. Mervyn Dillon, Ricardo Powell and Orlando Baker play here in NTCA. Hopefully the talent base gets more diverse in the future!

  • timmyj on March 9, 2017, 15:51 GMT

    If Americans are more deeply divided politically over Trump than ever before its even worse with cricket in this country. The expats are content to keep cricket to themselves. They don't really care if Americans take up the game (some don't even want Americans in the game) and those that do have no idea how to get Americans interested. Meanwhile mainstream Americans view it as an arcane, alien, institution and continue to totally ignore it The result: cricket remains in the USA as it always has: an insignificant, obscure, inconsequential, ethnic, sport only played by foreigners. Locked deep in the dungeon of the expat community, cricket sees no hope of escape.

  • espn30857310 on March 9, 2017, 15:08 GMT

    Again, just because some expats play cricket on teams within leagues in America does not mean cricket will ever have any relevance here. About 35 years ago some cricketers from India played some matches in New Jersey. I believe I got an autograph from Sunil Gavaskar. Anyway, the Indians played a side comprised of local ex-pat Indians who played weekly in New Jersey. My point being, 35 years later and it is still the ex-pat community still playing recreational cricket. Not Americans. It will not take off like soccer. BTW, just did some fact checking, and found that as of 2003 (I know, ancient history) there were 57,000 registered baseball players on over 5000 teams in Australia. And approximately 60 native born Australians have or are playing in Major League Baseball. Would you say baseball is taking over from cricket in Australia? So why will cricket become popular in the US. Because some posters want it to happen, doesn't mean it will. And curious bystanders are just curious.

  • S.Mallya on March 9, 2017, 6:08 GMT

    @ESPN30857310 how does it matter if Americans play cricket or not. The important point is cricket is played by people in US even if it happens to be mostly expats. The league in San Francisco you refer to is - as organized as any - and mind you all of them have grown without any organized support from ICC or any such body.

  • amotu on March 9, 2017, 4:23 GMT

    Houston cricket was even featured on the Anthony Bourdain show about Houston! Seriously, look it up, Houston cricket is rising and surely will be a pool of talent for future American cricketers

  • Desihungama on March 9, 2017, 2:50 GMT

    @espn30857310 - The said the same thing about soccer in USA. As of today, there are more kids registered to play youth soccer than football, basketball and ice hockey combined. It is just a matter of time. The sport is picking up in Northern Virginia, Maryland, DC area and catering several cricketing clubs all over. In fact many baseball grounds are being rented by these leagues for cricket and I have seen first hand locals are asking questions and stopping by to take interest This is how it starts.

  • agent001 on March 9, 2017, 2:10 GMT

    Great to read about cricket in the Houston area where several teams from different nationalities play. I myself played for MCC (Memorial Cricket Club) around 1978 against an Indian and Pakistani teams. MCC, if you did not figure out was made up of mostly Brits with guest players from other countries to get 11 players on the field !