The sun had just started to peek out over the treetops on a cool July morning, illuminating a small field in South Park hidden from the nearby road by a thick forest. The chirping of birds filled the air, and a small creek bubbled in the background.
Then those natural sounds were struck by a familiar sound, the crack of a leather ball against a wooden bat. Players in green uniforms yelled directions at each other as the white ball sailed through the morning air. As the ball smashed through the trees and landed on the forest floor, the batter’s yellow-clad teammates let out a collective whoop of excitement.
But this was not a game of baseball. The group of mostly Indian and Pakistani players were gathered on the soccer field – with rusty goals still in place – for a cricket match.
Sohail Chaudhry was one of the players dressed in the yellow jerseys of the West Virginia University cricket club, which made the almost 1½-hour drive to play at 8:15 on this Sunday morning. As the team’s captain, he kept his eyes focused on the field as he talked about the game he grew up playing in Pakistan.
“People are crazy about cricket,” he said. “Even if it’s like, OK, I’ll drive three hours. You feel like your day is wasted if you didn’t play the game.”
Despite a very busy schedule — Mr. Chaudhry is the imam for the Islamic Center of Morgantown and a professor of Arabic language and Islam at the university — he still finds time to organize the collegiate club cricket team that he first joined as an international student in 1999.
“My wife is always complaining. She’s like, ‘Can’t you miss this game this weekend?’ But for me this is like, if I don’t do this I lose my sanity. This is what relaxes me from all the work and the other stressful stuff I deal with.”
When Shailesh Bokil and Paul Mackay founded the Pittsburgh Cricket Association 10 years ago, their vision for the league was modest.
“We were just like, ‘If we can get a couple of teams and we can play on the weekend and get it going, that would be nice,’” Mr. Bokil said with a chuckle. “But it just sort of took off. Every year we kept adding a team or two.”
Like many of their teammates, Mr. Bokil, who is from India, and Mr. Mackay, who is from Australia, were just looking for a way to play the game they grew up loving in their home countries.
This season, the PCA (pittsburghcricket.com) has 17 teams and well over 300 players ranging in age from 18 to their 50s. Teams come from as far as Cleveland to play in what is considered one of the more competitive leagues in the country.
A large majority of the league is made up of Indian, Pakistani and other South Asian players. Cricket, which was introduced in these countries during their time under British rule, is more than just the most popular sport there. It is a way of life.
“In Pakistan, they have a tennis ball and wrap electric tape around it to make it heavier, so you get the feel as if you are playing with a real ball,” Mr. Chaudhry said. “Kids do that from a very young age, 6 or 7.”
For the players of the PCA, cricket is a way to rekindle the connection to home that is lost when moving to a new country.
“You know, it takes us back home,” Mr. Chaudhry said. “We feel were still somewhere in Pakistan or somewhere in India or wherever.”
The biggest challenge for the growing league is finding places to play. Players pay anywhere from $100 to $250 each depending on the size of the team, but it is still difficult sometimes to deal with the financial burden of paying for umpires and field rental. Currently, the PCA has only two fields – Edgebrook Field in South Park and Linbrook Field in Franklin Park – and can rent them only on weekends. With two three- or four-hour matches scheduled at each venue on Saturdays and Sundays, the field situation limits further expansion.
“If we don’t get grounds, then there is no future,” Mr. Chaudhry said. “The best thing would be to have our own permanent ground.”
While the PCA struggles with growing pains, the future of cricket in the United States is still hazy. Most people in this country know very little about the sport, and even fewer have ever watched a match.
Trying to gain any ground on the major revenue sports like football or baseball seems daunting, but there is a solid groundwork to build on. There are currently more than 25,000 active players who compete in more than 50 leagues and 1,100 clubs across the country, according to the United States of America Cricket Association (usaca.org).
On March 16, ESPN broadcast a cricket match played in the United States for the first time, the 2014 American College Cricket National Championship finals between Auburn University and the University of South Florida.
Sabooh Akram, an incoming freshman at Penn State Greater Allegheny, says that TV exposure for collegiate cricket is a big first step in increasing the popularity of the sport. Mr. Akram, who immigrated to Pittsburgh from Lahore, Pakistan, when he was 10, is playing his first season for the Warriors Cricket Club, based in Monroeville.
“The more publicity you get to a new game, the better it is for the game,” he said.
According to the players in the PCA, the thing that will solidify cricket’s place in the U.S. is not just having it shown periodically on television but introducing it through demonstrations and participation in schools.
“We have to show the people the game. That’s what will spark interest,” Mr. Chaudhry said. “If we just show them a bat or a few guys bowling here or there, that doesn’t really help.”
Local cricket players and fans dream that one day the sport will not only become popular in the U.S., but also that the country will compete at the World Cup. While the U.S. fields a national cricket team, it would need to improve a great deal to make the cut. In the contest’s nearly 40-year history, only 18 teams have qualified. The tournament, which is held every four years, will next be hosted in Australia and New Zealand in 2015.
If the players of the PCA are any indication, it will not be for a lack of passion if American cricket fails to catch on.
“If you don’t have passion, after a while things like this would just disappear,” Mr. Chaudhry said.
Alex Nieves: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @alexdnieves5.