Bats and balls — but not baseball — win over Texas kids

The growth of Dallas’s South Asian community and their obsessive love for cricket is turning North Texas into an international hub for the sport

Young members of the Crown Cricket Academy attend practice in North Texas in April.
Young members of the Crown Cricket Academy attend practice in North Texas in April. (Christopher Lee for The Washington Post)
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DALLAS — Puuna practices thrusting her hands forward so her cricket bat strikes the ball perfectly. Suchiit just likes to run between the wickets. Asher, his coach Jig Thakkar says, shows promise when he bowls the ball toward the batsman.

The 4- and 5-year-olds are some of the youngest players of Dallas’s burgeoning youth cricket league, an enterprise of acceptance and appreciation built slowly and organically over the last decade by some of the most obsessed fans in the world: Texas’s South Asian immigrant families.

Asian Americans, particularly those from cricket-loving nations, represent the fastest-growing immigrant communities in the United States and Texas, according to 2020 census data. That growth has transformed Texas’s neighborhoods and culture, from food to business to politics. Now, much as Latin American immigrants helped propel soccer to the masses decades ago, they are ushering in, at ever younger ages, love for a new sport in places where football and baseball often take precedence.

In the cities and suburbs of Houston and Dallas, immigrants and their U.S.-born children spend entire weekends playing the bat-and-ball game rooted in southeastern England. Two teams of 11 players — batsmen, fielders and bowlers (or pitchers) — battle to score runs on a grass oval in a game that resembles baseball but is far more grueling. The heavier, smaller cricket ball is “bowled” at the same velocities as baseballs and are caught with bare hands. Two batsmen try to score against the opposing team simultaneously and can be thrown “out” 10 different ways.

Cricket spread and remains wildly popular wherever the British Empire colonized — from the West Indies to the Indian subcontinent, Australia and South Africa. It was the game of choice for the Founding Fathers but fell into obscurity after the Civil War.

It surged back in U.S. coastal communities after immigration law changes in the 1960s attracted thousands of skilled workers from Asian countries to the San Francisco Bay area, New York City and Southern California. But it is Texas, and Dallas more specifically, that is drawing coaches, parents and players to an increasingly sophisticated cricket development infrastructure. The added benefits of plentiful tech jobs and decent weather are turning North Texas into the American hub for international competition — and place of belonging in a country where Asian immigrants may not always feel welcome.

U.S. Major League Cricket — backed by investors such as Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and billionaire Ross Perot Jr. — has chosen the Dallas suburbs as their headquarters. It is breaking ground this year on its first sanctioned complex, transforming a former minor league baseball diamond into a world-class cricket oval, said Tom Dunmore, the league’s vice president of marketing. The goal is to host the 2024 World Cup for T20 cricket — a version of the sport played here, which shortens the game from international rules.

“My dream is to one day see an Olympian cricket player from Dallas,” said cricket booster Babu Venkatachalapathy, who is running for a spot on USA Cricket’s board of directors. “Politicians and businesses are paying attention. They know that the Asian community is built on trust and relationships so as a community, we will show up if needed.”

Some local school districts are now incorporating cricket into physical education classes.

“We are past that stage where people don’t confuse it with croquet,” said Anwar Shahabuddin, who helped organize the North Texas youth cricket league. “Even in Texas, people don’t do a double take when they see us out there.”

All the feverish ambition surrounding North Texas cricket doesn’t impress Thirunavukkarasu Kumaran, known by all as “Coach Kenny.” The Tamil immigrant is a former professional cricket player who represented India’s national team. He grew up playing the game in any alley, ditch or patch of dirt he could find.

Still, by the time he moved to the United States a decade ago, Kumaran said, he wanted nothing to do with the game. His experience in the subcontinent where cricket is a billion-dollar industry, and dogged by corruption, scandals and politics, soured the coach on the sport.

But when a friend in Dallas asked if he would give his son private lessons, Kumaran couldn’t refuse. Teaching children to play the game felt innocent enough, he said.

One player turned into scores of athletes, his coaching prompted more coaches and soon he was founding Dallas’s first youth cricket academy. Other academies opened as well and the North Texas Youth Cricket League was born, boasting more than 300 players, boys and girls, who spend the bulk of their weekends on the pitch. And their parents — the majority of whom work in information technology — are just as cricket-crazed, watching their kids play for hours and serving samosas and biryani between matches.

Kumaran’s under-13 team known as the Stallions was down a player at their mid-April matchup in McKinney, Tex., against the formidable Avengers. A family emergency took the team captain to India unexpectedly so Angad Raut, 12, had to step up.

“You can say what you want, but don’t make it personal,” Angad admonished his teammates in the huddle as coach Zanher Aulam watched from a few steps away. He smirked as the nervous boy tried to set the tone for the game.

“I want to hear you all talking out there,” the 12-year-old continued. “Senior guys, take a role.”

The team knelt and touched the ground in prayer before running toward the cricket oval.

Aulam coached at the college level in the United Kingdom, Australia and later Los Angeles. But the Sri Lankan said he saw something magical happening in North Texas.

“I moved here just for the cricket,” Aulam said laughing. “There is something pure about how much these kids love this game.”

Playing cricket will not yield the children athletic scholarships to top U.S. schools — it’s not an NCAA-sanctioned sport — or likely lead to a professional league draft, fame and fortune, at least not yet. But that is not Kumaran’s goal. He said he is training these children to help their communities flourish, build strong cultural networks and learn how to navigate the peculiarities of their adopted nation. The sport, in its unique U.S. iteration, is allowing families to share space with others who also obsess unapologetically about a game loved by multiple generations.

“When we grew up, all we could do was study, get good marks in school and get a job to go to the States. But here, people want their kids to have more of what they didn’t have — a chance to play,” Kumaran said. “If you look at football and basketball, you need height and physical strength. As South Asians, we lack some of that and no Indian mom is going to let their son play football.”

Nithilan Karthik, 12, was on the spelling bee track until he became mesmerized watching the Cricket World Cup on television in 2019, his father Karthik Sukumaran said. He wasn’t the best at spelling and a severe asthma attack jolted Nithilan into taking his health and fitness more seriously. From his first try as a wicket keeper, one of the most demanding fielding positions — not unlike a baseball catcher — Nithilan’s bookish and sedentary life was upended. School is still important, his father said, but the game has unveiled an entirely new set of possibilities, relationships and pursuits his son had never considered.

“When I look back, I see my values have changed,” said the 12-year-old, adding he is now friends with other “jocks” at his middle school. “I thought life was more centered around academics. But cricket helped me understand you can learn a lot more from sports.”

Nithilan and dozens of kids now spend several mornings and afternoons a week practicing at the English Indoor Cricket Academy. The cavernous 16,000-square foot warehouse outfitted with eight batting and bowling lanes is equipped with the same kind of pitching machines used in baseball cages. The machine is retrofitted for a cricket ball and stands higher to deliver a wicked-fast bowl, akin to a baseball throw.

Players use the long runways of turf grass to practice their elegant run-ups, kicking up their legs up and rotating their arms like windmills to send the cricket bail sailing. The young bowlers’ choreography is enough to leave their teammates’ mouths agape.

Professional U.S. team cricketers practice alongside 10-year-olds as their coaches’ rebukes and praise echo off the aluminum walls, while the owner of the academy, Mohammad Abid, huddles in his tiny office repairing bat handles. The children draw the aum, the Hindu symbol for the universe — representing the union of body, mind and spirit — on the knob of their bats.

“When I tried to explain to my landlord and zoning committees what we wanted to do, it was difficult. Few people got it,” said Abid, who opened with one 60-foot-long batting lane in 2017 and is now looking for a warehouse with double the space. “But the community has grown up.”

More than 200 parents are now part of the Dallas cricket parents’ group text. They commiserate over cracked vases, holes in the walls and dented front doors caused by their kids practicing inside the house. They plan birthday parties and sleepovers and track their athletes’ stats in a made-for-cricket app that pulls up team standings and baseball card-like profiles of each cricketer.

Chris and Meredith Opat said their son Gabriel is “not a typical North Texas cricketer.” He stands out with his blond hair and light skin, but the family from Dallas’s Southlake neighborhood is an integral part of the community. The family fell in love with the game while living in Scotland, and after moving back to the United States they sought out a cricket team for their 12-year-old.

“You can’t find a house here but there are seven cricket academies to choose from,” Chris Opat said, joking about skyrocketing home prices. The boys on Gabriel’s team get together for sleepovers, video games and practice.

“This whole thing is a family,” Meredith Opat said, gesturing to families gathered for a youth league’s awards ceremony.

Gabriel said the game is already shaping his ambitions. “I want to go to Cambridge University,” he said.

“To play cricket or to study?” his father questioned.

“Both,” the boy said coyly. “Good answer,” his father replied.

The best players were recognized with trophies at the league ceremony — delayed by the pandemic — at a packed Indian restaurant. When the moments finally came, beaming parents like Sudhakar Krishnamurthy popped up to take pictures of their little ones. A buffet of the aromatic seasonings of Hyderabadi cuisine filled the room as players boasted about the runs they scored the week before.

“My son is a little reserved in nature. I don’t know what happened in school but he was in a shell and not talking much,” Krishnamurthy said. “After Akhileshnandha started playing this game, he made friends and is a different person. It’s not just a game, it's a team sport that delivers social connection, teaches the children how to respect each other, build patience and how to get things done collectively.”

One of the best parts, the father said, is the new curiosity his 15-year-old has about India, its various ethnic groups, regions and languages — all of which he encounters on the cricket grounds. Now, when they visit India, the teenager said he feels comfortable talking to anyone as long as the conversation starts with cricket.

Kumaran, the coach, snuck into another room as the awards were presented. Texas represents a homecoming of sorts for Kumaran, who read Western novels as a kid in India, rides a motorcycle and walks around with the point of his cowboy boots sticking out the bottom of his dungarees. His return to the sport he previously loved and then loathed feels redemptive, he said, even if his 5-year-old son Arjun finds cricket boring.

“I am teaching them to be happy,” Kumaran said. “It’s about making the kids see what I see in them. We need independent thinkers to lead our community tomorrow.”

correction

An earlier version of this article misstated the name of a coach as Jig Thakkur. It is Jig Thakkar. The name has been corrected.

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