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By Shajia Abidi, Bay News Rising staff reporter
The scorching heat, the sticky humidity, and the salty smell of sweat made the restless players anxious to call it a day after a five-hour match. The contest was almost over. The home team needed seven runs to win with only balls left to play.
All the eyes were fixed on the field. The batsman needed to hit a six on the ball delivered by the bowler while the fielders tried to stop the hit. “Hit that six,” cheered some of the players on the bench.
The batsman took a shot and, yes, it’s a six.
Talha Sheikh, 27, is wearing his leg guard to protect his leg from the hard ball before he goes in the field.
Every weekend these players drive several miles to play cricket – the sport they grew up playing on the streets and in their backyards. Today’s match is at Fairmead Park behind Highland Elementary
School in Richmond. Cricket unites South Asians from different countries despite their lingual, cultural and traditional differences.
“This is the sport we most rejoiced, followed and played while growing up,” said Shaqib Shaikh, who has been playing cricket for more than 15 years. “It’s very much a part of our childhood, our early years. I was lucky enough to watch many matches live in Sharjah [United Arab Emirates] where I fell in love with my cricket idols – Tendulkar, Akram, and other greats of the game.”
Most of the players in today’s match are south Asian-Americans who come together to play cricket every weekend. Their teams are organized by the Northern California Cricket Association league which was established in 1892, and now has 34 teams.
Cricket isn’t popular in the U.S. but is widely watched and played among the south-Asian community. Most of the biggest cities like Detroit, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and New York among others have amateurcricket leagues.
Although the exact origin of cricket is unknown, historians believe it started somewhere in northern Europe. The game quickly spread to the Indian subcontinent with the expansion of the British Empire, and remained popular even after independence and partition.
A game played by few people developed into a match played between two teams of 11 players. Each team gets the turn to bat and ball. Cricket is a bit like baseball: The pitcher throws the ball at the striker, who then hits the ball to score some runs without getting out.
The striker can score either four runs if the ball bounces before it hits the boundary or six runs if the ball passes over the boundary, the “six” the batsman in Richmond needed to win the game. The team that scores more runs, wins.
“Cricket throughout the USA has become more prominent than ever before,” Shaikh said in an email exchange after the match. “There also have been cases of ‘sponsors’ even bringing in semi-professional players from Pakistan, India, West Indies from abroad to come in and help their respective teams win the tournament – needless to say, money has brought in better completion – never before seen at local levels.”
Many players have played for different teams within this league. Syed Salman Ali, the captain of the victorious San Francisco Cricket Club (SFCC), joined the team just two months ago. Before joining SFCC, Ali used to play for the now defunct Vallejo Strikers.
SFCC joined the league last season. They used to play with a soft practice ball on Fridays, but then last winter decided to play for the league.
“You have to put a team in,” said Talha Sheikh, 27, one of the players from SFCC. “As long as you have 11 players, you go and tell them you want to put a team, you pay $175 per person, you pay for the ground fees, and balls.”
The Northern California association does more than host the teams:
“My niece plays for the youth team,” said Sudhakar Arumugham, who has been playing cricket long before he moved to the East bay from India. “The youth team encourages the youngsters to play, coaches and teaches them cricket,” And helps instill a passion for the game, he added. Despite the popularity among the south-Asian community, local matches over the weekends don’t attract spectators. Even though the players on the bench cheer for the players on the field, they all would love to have a crowd cheering for them.