The Cricket World Cup kicks off in Texas, an American hotbed for the sport

HOUSTON – In further evidence of what a polyglot melting pot this metropolis has become, it is now possible to weave from one cricket field to another to another to another until it almost makes you dizzy.

“They’re popping up everywhere, left and right,” said Tayyab Naqi, a 22-year-old University of Houston student who plays in a league and whose family emigrated from Lahore, Pakistan, 18 years ago.

“The grounds we have now you can play every weekend, and more are coming,” says Kishore Bandlamuri, 33, who has been in Houston since 2018 after growing up in Indian behemoth Hyderabad and also in a league.

Over coffee, mentioning that a visitor had mapped 22 sites around the gigantic city, restaurant magnate, philanthropist and cricket ground financier Tanweer Ahmed of Houston replied: ‘Now there are actually more. Now over thirty.”

All told, as they are spread out, they tell of the world’s second-biggest sport experiencing an American nascent just as the T20 Cricket World Cup kicks off next to Dallas on Saturday before continuing in the Caribbean in June area and the United States.

Far east of downtown Houston, in Baytown, they play on grass between a football field and four baseball diamonds in front of a water park, with the occasional squeak of the surf slide. An hour west of there, across the street from the sprawl, in a town park in Stafford, just beyond six busy basketball hoops in a tidy pavilion, there’s a cricket tournament with a table full of trophies waiting on their various home shelves, plus the always welcome fact that someone has brought a large drum.

The cricket hunting map features well-maintained, world-class grounds and unkempt, modest fields. Sakhi Muhammad, who built Pearland’s Moosa Cricket Stadium a decade ago while those around him wondered about its poise, notes that more than fifty teams in greater Houston are “playing the hard ball,” as used in tip-top leagues, and that more than 100 teams ‘play the hard ball’, as used in top competitions. play softball cricket,” using a rubber or tennis ball wrapped in electrical tape. Waleed Zaman, a 22-year-old whose family emigrated from Peshawar, Pakistan, 12 years ago, said: “The growth has been tremendous because when I first got interested in (playing) cricket, there were far fewer teams than Houston has now. ”

He now lists six competitions, one premier and five amateur competitions, plus other “Saturday competitions” where players can showcase their skills.

There’s also this: “In Houston,” Naqi said, “there’s a lot of cricket in parking lots.”

Cricket hasn’t hurt King American Football or taken eyeballs away from the Astros, and it’s easy to live in a big city and not notice it. But as South Asian immigrants have arrived in increasing numbers and helped fuel Houston’s dazzling diversity, the cricket fields have become part of the tapestry.

They are there on the boulevards and side roads near minimarts with gas pumps or farms with horses standing in the heat or a towing company called ‘All-America’ or a bakery with goodies from the Indian state of Kerala or signs for election candidates or charter schools, churches, used car sales. Or they are in the middle of arable land in Valais, far west of the city, where six light stanchions rise along dual carriageways and occasional houses and those who play there tell of occasional fog and dew adding to the extensive nuances of cricket.

Along a fast stretch of busy road in Sugar Land, which exudes the region’s diversity, lies an Islamic center, an “Iglesia Christiana,” a Buddhist temple, an Assembly of God church called Firebrand and then, tucked behind a brick apartment building, a nice cricket field.

In a park fairly northwest of downtown Houston, an appealing scoreboard exudes a bit of cosmopolitanism. It is ready to track runs, overs and wickets.

About 53 sometimes slow miles northwest of the city, the six-field Prairie View Cricket Complex hosted top-level matches between the United States and Bangladesh last weekend. A women’s tournament was held in April. A 26-team college tournament was held in March. It can accommodate 10,000 people and has a turf, expensive to maintain, but which gives Ahmed “a little pride” because of its quality. As Naqi put it, it is “a good facility” where “you can see the ball behaves differently.”

The pitch and the international matches played on it and the T20 World Cup in the United States together constitute “a dream come true, to be honest,” says Ahmed, a Houstonian since 2007 and based in the US since 1988 with enormous strength . His life story went from child poverty in a village near Sialkot, Pakistan, to one of the many highlights in 2018 when he bought the first 14 hectares of land. “I never thought it would come to this. It all started with literally trying to play myself, and then suddenly I decided to buy more and more land.”

Back in the city and south of downtown in Pearland, Muhammad’s Moosa Stadium features a referee’s room, commentary box, media center, VIP box and more.

“The majority of my community and business people told me, ‘Look, you’re doing something that’s not going to happen,’” said Muhammad, a Houstonian since 1996 from Karachi, Pakistan. “’Cricket isn’t going anywhere.’ And so: “I was called a crazy guy ten years ago.” And so now: “Sometimes not every dream comes true, but this is one that came true.” He notes that Moosa held twelve one-day international matches in 2022 alone.

At Babar Noor’s high school, the other kids know that he and another student are cricketers, but they can seem vague about what exactly that means. On a recent Sunday, Noor carpooled from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. with four fellow players from Clear Lake, far south-southeast of downtown Houston, to Katy, far northwest. “I feel happy,” he said about the participation, the World Cup and all that.

“I wish there was a high school team, but that’s OK,” said Noor, 17, born in Houston to parents from Karachi. “It’s the one thing I wish was there.”

In fact, there is a sense of pleasant surprise among many players at Sunday’s game on the field in Katy.

“So when I came to the United States 12 years ago, I actually thought, ‘Am I going to play cricket? Is it as common as back home in India?’ said Hyderabad-born Nadir Husain, 35, who emigrated at the age of 23 for his master’s degree. “To my surprise, my university (Houston Clear Lake) had a cricket team that competed at the regional and national levels.”

The meaning of just landing here has changed in terms of cricket.

“People who moved here 30 or 40 years ago didn’t expect this to happen in the United States,” said Pradeep Dasu, 24, also from Hyderabad, who lived here for three years. Now he sees “every country” with “its own players playing in Houston”, by which he mainly means Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans.

Sairam Mandhadi, 31, from Hyderabad and in the United States for the past 18 months, said he has found more cricket available to casual players in Houston than in India. “I feel really blessed to be a part of Houston,” he said. He stopped playing when he was about 22 years old, then moved to a neighborhood near the Texans’ NRG Stadium, where many Indian students live.

“That gave me another push,” he said. “That is the biggest reason for me to love this city. And I just feel like I’m not going anywhere else! Believe me.”

It has led him to an unexpected cricketing wonderland alongside his career in IT, which often means obsessing over one, two or a few balls during a match during the week and talking about cricket whilst on social occasions. At this point his wife sometimes asks if he can move on to other topics.

“Believe me, even my family members feel very bored when we get together because all the boys will be talking about cricket,” he said.

So they gather. “It’s about being together,” Bandlamuri said, “and it’s also about being together with the other team,” often with nationalities they otherwise wouldn’t have met alone in this melting pot.

And they investigate the circumstances. “The grass wasn’t mowed on Sunday because we just had a storm,” said Naimesh Patel, 42, who has lived in Houston since 2014 and is a former US soldier. “So that interfered with the ball. The second thing was that there was a crosswind in the last half hour, so I was able to use that in my bowling.”

And they feel the deep-seated feelings, like nostalgia. “It’s a game where you forget everything external because you’re so focused on the game,” Husain said. “Those two to three hours are just for the game, and then you come back to reality.”

In the coming weeks they will all be focusing on the latest World Cup in T20, the fastest and newest of the three main forms of cricket, designed to limit attention spans with its approximately three-hour matches. Texas A&M student Samad Alnawaz, 21, born in Galveston to parents from Karachi, is heading to Grand Prairie, next to Dallas, with friends for the June 6 match between the United States and Pakistan. “I never miss an opportunity to see Pakistan for the first time,” said the lifelong American.

A well-thought-out plan is ready. They drive to Dallas-Fort Worth the night before. They’ll get some sleep. Then, as close to sunrise as allowed, they will reach the stadium, which is next to the Lone Star Horse Track and the walls display banners of the six American Major League cricket teams. They don’t want to miss warm-ups.

“Going out and seeing what they do before the game is just as fun as the game itself,” said Alnawaz, who imagines being there for “maybe eight hours straight.”

Shortly afterwards, another remarkable match takes place in a remote place – Long Island.

“Imagine Pakistan playing India on June 9,” Ahmed said. “I guarantee you that 1.5 billion people worldwide will be watching. Who would have thought in 2016 that we would be organizing international competitions here in 2024? It’s unbelievable. It’s a very good feeling.”

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