The game they play is cricket, and its emergence here reflects the incredible diversity of the nation’s fourth-largest city and its sprawling reach. Prairie View, situated about 45 miles from downtown Houston, might seem an unlikely place for an international cricket destination, but Houston businessman Tanweer Ahmed is looking to change that.
Ahmed is turning an 86-acre lot into a massive sports complex with seven cricket fields, a youth academy and a stadium big enough to host professional teams.
“Cricket is the second most popular sport in the world after soccer, and the U.S. is missing out on that part of the world,” he said. “But the U.S. has huge potential.”
Over the past several decades, Houston’s growing immigrant population has profoundly changed the local culture. Hispanics now represent the largest racial or ethnic group, but the Asian population is the fastest growing. There are thriving Vietnamese, Indian and Pakistani communities, and the metropolitan area is home to arguably the best curries, kebabs and nihari in the South. The city is dotted with halal butchers and international grocery stores that sell South Asian staples such as chickpea flour.
And socially, it’s just as common to hear immigrants and the children of immigrants talk about Virat Kohli or Jasprit Bumrah — both men are professional cricket players in India — as it is to hear others talk about quarterback Tom Brady. In Ahmed’s view, that makes the area perfect for cricket.
The first four fields in Ahmed’s complex opened in early September, and the inaugural games involved half a dozen teams, which played for hours despite the heat, humidity and mud from days of rain. With every bowl — a running, full-circle windup pitch — and every “thwack” of the ball — a different sound from baseball, given a batsman’s flat-fronted blade — shouts of “oy, oy, oy!” rang out.
Cricket has long failed to capture much interest in this country, but that’s changing, in large part because of the nation’s changing demographics.
“What is the fastest growing sport in the United States?” George B. Kirsch, professor emeritus at Manhattan College, wrote in the Journal of Sport History in 2016. “Surprisingly, with the possible exception of lacrosse, the answer is cricket.”
Many immigrants, especially those from South Asia and the Caribbean, have found that it gives them a way to connect.
Saad Motiwala, a 27-year-old Pakistani immigrant on the field during that first Sunday in Prairie View, appreciates the polyglot nature of the sport and the different cultures and communities it brings together.
“Playing cricket allows you to meet people you’d never meet otherwise,” said Motiwala, who works at a BMW dealership and plays with Ahmed on the Gaous Azam Cricket Club.
The sport is already so popular in the area that more people want to join the 31-team Houston Cricket League than the available fields can accommodate. Ahmed decided to set up a batting cage and bowler’s pitch on vacant property he owned in Prairie View so that his teammates could practice. Soon after, they asked whether he would consider using the land to build additional fields for the league to use. That’s when the idea for the cricket complex was born.
Ahmed’s passion shines through his often-serious demeanor. And his own story might seem as improbable as the massive sports facility he intends to build. He grew up in Punjab, Pakistan, where his parents were farmers, and was 19 when he immigrated to California with his family. He immediately started to work in fast-food restaurants. Over a period of eight years, he advanced from cashier to manager.
“Where I come from, you have to sacrifice a little bit to gain something,” said Ahmed, who is 50. “So, for me at that time, I sacrificed my daily activity, daily entertainment and just kept focusing on the work. And that determination basically took me to where I am today.”
Today, he owns more than 150 KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut franchises across four states, plus an energy company and construction firm. He recognizes that he is living out the classic American Dream, but he’s modest about it.
“If I can do it, anyone can do it. That’s how I look at it,” he said recently. “If you really go back and see, a 19-year-old kid comes here, has nothing in his pocket and just starts working.”
He jokes that as soon as his four children get their college degrees, they should take over the food business so he can get back to cricket full time. Ahmed played at school in Pakistan but dropped the game for decades after moving to the United States. He picked it up again in 2016 on the suggestion of some of his employees.
“I stopped playing because I couldn’t afford the time,” he recounted from his office in North Houston. “I was working three jobs and barely had time to sleep.”
In the month since the complex hosted its first games, a parking lot has been paved, the pavilions have been covered and signs have gone up. Ahmed plans to open a cricket academy there next May where local children can learn the game and, he hopes, become lifelong fans. For now, Ahmed is funding the bulk of the project himself and already has spent several million dollars, but he’s seeking community donations to complete and help maintain the future complex for years to come.
His ultimate goal is a stadium that could hold up to 50,000 fans.
If Ahmed’s vision becomes a reality, Prairie View, population 6,400, could become a major destination for cricket fans from around the world. Mayor David Allen is working to ensure the city will be ready. He has begun speaking to developers about building more hotels and restaurants, as well as to the state about making the fields more accessible from the highway.
“Cricket is not a few hours like a football or baseball game,” Allen said. “It can easily be a few days.”
Some Prairie View A&M University students and faculty members are also excited about having the complex nearby. Pankaj Chhetri, 30, a former student and current IT professional with the School of Architecture, has wanted to start a cricket team at the university for the past two years. With no place to play, he and several international students set up on the school’s tennis court.
“Most of them are Asian students, faculty and staff from Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh,” Chhetri said. “But some of my African American friends are interested, too, because this is something new for them. I told them, ‘This is like Indian baseball.’ ”