For most of the world, cricket is the second-most popular sport, behind soccer. For some countries, it is near religion status, with hundreds of millions of people living vicariously through the national team and entire countries shutting down for World Cup matches. India’s semifinal World Cup matchup with Pakistan last Wednesday was viewed by hundreds of millions of people and shut down Parliament in India.
America, obviously, is not one of those countries. Most Americans would struggle to identify a single famous cricket player, let alone admit to knowing the rules of the game. But a growing community of Pacific Northwest residents is bringing one of the world's most popular games to the area.
Cricket in the Northwest
The Northwest Cricket League (NWCL) boasts more than 80 teams and 750 active members. The league, which was started in 1995, includes clubs from Washington and Oregon and is mostly comprised of immigrants from Southeast Asia, who grew up watching and playing the game.
NWCL and similar organizations, like the Seattle Cricket Club, have seen huge amounts of growth over the last 15 years. When Bunti Sharai became involved with the SCC in 1990, the club, which formed in 1964, was the only of its kind in the area. Today, it is one of several and has hundreds of members.
“It’s definitely grown by leaps and bounds,” Sarai, who is currently the president of the SCC, said. “There’s still definite potential for growth for cricket in this area.”
The leagues play at Magnuson Park in Seattle, as well as at School and . Sarai said the league's biggest problem is finding enough field space to accommodate the growing number of teams. A cricket field essentially needs the space of two soccer fields resting next to one another.
“That is the single biggest challenge we have as a league,” Sarai said. “We cannot find grounds fast enough to fill the demand of the growing amount of cricket.”
The leagues in the area are not just for everyday fans. The Northwest regional team (made up of players from northern California, Oregon and Washington) recently won the U.S. Championship. The team features eight players from the Seattle area.
Four players who live in the area and participate in local leagues have U.S. National Team experience. Nasser Jamali played with the under-19 U.S. team, while Saurabh Verma and Samaryh Shah played for the U.S. men’s team. Rohini Prabhune, another player from the area, played for the U.S. women’s team.
“A big factor (to growth in the leagues) was to develop the infrastructure and open other avenues for players here to represent at the regional and national levels,” Northwest Cricket League President Phani Chitneni said.
Abroad at Home
There is no real secret to the growth of popularity in cricket in the Pacific Northwest. When the IT boom hit, immigrants from countries such as India began flocking to the Northwest to work for companies such as and Amazon. With them came an affinity for cricket.
“The biggest contributor was the influx of IT in the Seattle area,” Sarai said. “That brought a great number of immigrants from the sub-continent … students that came in to work for these companies brought their cricketing skills and the passion for the game into this area.”
Despite the massive growth over the last 20 years in membership, interest in the game by most Americans has not risen with it. Sarai said this comes as no surprise, given the length of the games (6 to 7 hours) and rules that do not easily translate to other American sports.
“It’s one of those sports where you have to grow up with it to really understand it, to enjoy it,” Sarai said. “The other thing that is a detriment to it becoming more popular is the sheer time that’s involved in watching it.”
The sport is taking steps to make the game more spectator-friendly. A recent, shortened version of the game, called T20, has reduced the average time limit of a game to something equitable to that of a Major League Baseball game. Although Chitneni said purist fans of the game still prefer the one-day format (the original form of the game, the Test Match, takes five days to complete), the T-20 format has become increasingly popular.
“It has caught up quite a bit actually,” Chitneni said of T-20. “Everyone realizes the importance of different styles of the game and people have adopted all three versions.”
Sarai said the leagues and clubs in the area have seen some interest from younger members of the communities, but that the sport has yet to cross over to being actually played by those unfamiliar with it.
“The last couple of years in a row, some younger kids were interested in learning the game,” Sarai said. “But that’s at a very basic level, nothing that’s contributed to somebody who’s actually picked up the sport and wants to contribute it down the road.”
Understanding cricket-loving countries' obsession with the sport can be seen clearly in how those countries react to their teams' performances in the Cricket World Cup. During the India-Pakistan matchup, Parliament shut down and business closed in order to watch the game. The attention is comparable to soccer-loving countries during the World Cup and would be probably only be equitable in importance to America if there was an international football competition.
“It would be absolute pandemonium,” Sarai said when asked what the reaction in India would be if the national team won its first World Cup since 1983. “It would be like the Super Bowl if one nation could win the Super Bowl instead of a city; it would be that kind of reaction. There would be partying in the streets for at least a week, if not more.”
Time zones and a lack of a market in America have made it difficult for immigrants living abroad to watch the games in real time. Most games begin between 1 and 2 a.m. and are available only online. Still Chitneni suspects that fans of the game make time to watch the seven-hour affairs.
“It was known that productivity in America was down 5 to 10 percent (during the India/Pakistan game),” Chitneni said with a laugh.
India will play Sri Lanka in the Cricket World Cup final at 2 a.m. local time tomorrow. You can bet on a community of cricket fans in the Northwest being up to watch.