Cricket looks to gain foothold in D.C.

STERLING, Va. — Next to soccer, it’s the world’s most popular sport.

But with its aristocratic roots, ties to the British Empire and complicated rules, cricket has been hard sell in the United States. As such, it is rarely covered on American television, and the game remains largely unknown to many in the States. However, a small but growing faction of expats from cricket-mad countries are out to gain an American foothold for their favorite game.

That’s why, on a cold winter Sunday, a team of young cricket players has traveled all the way from North Carolina to the Wicket Club, an unassuming white building in a business park down a quiet, suburban cul-de-sac, to face the local team. It’s the second day in a row of competition between the host Golden Bails team and the North Carolina squad, one of the best in the eastern U.S., coached by cricket legend Alvin Kallicharran.

Cricket was a game for the wealthy in England, but despite hosting or co- hosting the first three World Cups from 1975-83 (and finishing as the runner- up in three of the first five competitions), the game has fallen off in its home country. Meanwhile, it has grown in other reaches of the world — mostly remnants of the old British Empire such as Australia, Sri Lanka and, of course, India.

The sport lives on as a relic of that era, still fielding a team from the so-called West Indies. But it is not reserved for the rich, the way it once was. It is played in the streets in India; it is their soccer. And as the world’s most populous country, it carries with it a billion fans, enough to remind you that its popularity is greater than the NFL, MLB, the NBA or whatever your favorite sport might be.

Kallicharran gives a pep talk to his players before their match. (WTOP/Noah Frank)


“In the West Indies, it is the number-one sport,” Kallicharran says of cricket. “Forget the recognition part, the fame part. It gets you out of the ghettos.”

The sport has its own World Cup — a sprawling, six-week affair that takes place once every four years, and begins in mid-February 2015 in Australia and New Zealand. The roster of competing nations may come as a surprise to some, including countries such as Bangladesh, Scotland, The United Arab Emirates, Zimbabwe and even Afghanistan.

The World Cup is where Kallicharran rose to fame. He was born in Georgetown, British Guyana, now simply known as Guyana, along South America’s northern coast, just to the east of Venezuela. As such, he competed for the West Indies, leading them to World Cup titles in 1975 and 1979, the only times they have ever won the sport’s premiere event.

While that accomplishment sets him apart, Kallicharran is best known for his deconstruction of one of the greatest bowlers in Australian cricket history, Australian Dennis Lillee. His performance in the video below was somewhat akin to launching three home runs against Clayton Kershaw in a playoff game.

That made him a legend in his home country, and in other nations that love the sport. Now, Kallicharran’s long, winding career has landed him in the States, where he’s unknown to most. But he is revered by players and parents alike this day, all of whom understand his history. And he has brought his team here because the Loudon County facility is one of the nicest on the East Coast.

Shaista Chaudhry and her husband, Nasr, opened Wicket Club in the summer of 2012. Their investment has allowed an outdoor game to go indoors, letting players train and play at night and in the winter months.

“It’s of tremendous value, what they brought here,” says Kallicharran of the Sterling facility.

The players here on this day, ages 8 to 13, are sons of mostly Indian and British immigrants — parents who grew up with the game in their homelands. There is a strong cultural tie, as the center serves traditional Indian pastries to the parents in attendance. But both the Chaudhrys and Kallicharran know that if it is ever to expand beyond this niche, the game will need to attract other Americans.

“We’ve been focusing too much on the expatriates,” says Kallicharran as he watches his team warm up.

That’s why the goal is to spread the word outside of those small, tight-knit communities, to help introduce the game to others. It requires many of the same basic skills as baseball — throwing, catching, fielding, hitting — and can be a quick learn for kids looking for a different athletic endeavor.

Cricket Ball
The cricket ball is slightly harder and has only one seam, but is of similar construction, size and weight as a baseball. (WTOP/Noah Frank)

“I have kids who come here who have never touched a bat,” says Chaudhry. “And within six months, they are playing good cricket.”

It’s easy to see how a good baseball player could quickly find his footing. The cricket ball is about the size and weight of a baseball, with a cork center and a leather covering. Rather than the curved, stitched seems of its American counterpart, though, there is simply one raised seem running the circumference. This allows the bowler to use many of the same techniques — various grips, applying pressure with different fingers — to add spin to the ball and deceive the batsman.

And with a scoring system more like basketball’s, with the potential and expectation for points on nearly every play, the action is much quicker. Even the format has been adjusted, from one that could take up to five days to play a game down to a match that wraps up in a tidy two hours.

“We needed a shorter version of the games to suit Americans,” Kallicharran explains.

The center is often bustling Thursday and Friday evening, then all day on the weekends. The small playing area can be divided by nets into three bowling lanes, helping to accommodate players from the 48 adult teams in Loudoun County alone. But Saturday and Sunday mornings are saved for the youth players — the real reason the facility exists.

“Nobody’s teaching these kids how to play from scratch,” says Chaudhry.

Now someone is.

The Wicket Club is located at 45698 Elmwood Court, in Sterling.

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