The Ottumwa Courier

August 19, 2013

Cricket participation growing slowly in Iowa, US

MARCO SANTANA
The Des Moines Register

---- — WEST DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Rajesh Chalamalasetti has an alter ego.

During the week, the 36-year-old husband and father of two works in Principal Financial Group's marketing department, building statistical models to predict conditions that optimize the company's products for its customers.

But on weekends, Chalamalasetti is captain of the Avengers.

The Des Moines Register reports (http://dmreg.co/14wM839 ) Chalamalasetti plays in a weekend cricket league in West Des Moines with others from his native India, and countries in Asia and Africa. Chalamalasetti said the league lets him preserve some of the culture he grew up with in Hyderabad, in central India.

Cricket also has allowed Chalamalasetti to get to know his co-workers better, feeding their curiosity every Monday when they ask about his team's performance.

"I think sports has that magic where you can connect with people and talk the same common language," he said. "That is what helps us assimilate with not only our Indian community, but others here in the U.S."

The Des Moines Cricket League is now in its third season, but the eight-team league is more organized this year and for the first time will hold postseason competition, in September, league officials say.

The sport permeates every aspect of Indian culture, and sharing that with U.S. colleagues and friends has helped boost the sport's popularity in the metro, said Rafeeq Shaik, a league co-founder and teammate of Chalamalasetti, who works as an information specialist at Farmers Mutual Hail Insurance. The league, in turn, has built unity among the area's Indian community.

"Growing up, every Indian is dreaming of cricket," Shaik said. "We have varied cultures in the country, but the one unifying factor is cricket. Regardless of class or creed, the passion for cricket is very high."

Most league members are information technology workers from some of Iowa's largest employers, such as Principal, Wells Fargo and Farmers Mutual Hail. They come primarily from India, but other prominent native lands include Pakistan, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

The Des Moines league is one of about 75 formally sanctioned leagues across the country that play every weekend, according to national cricket experts. Many of the leagues have similar demographics. Some of the largest compete in the technology hotbed of California's Silicon Valley.

Still, the sport remains an afterthought to most Americans.

The nation's growing population of immigrants from countries like India has increased cricket's exposure here. That's good news for USA Cricket CEO Darren Beazley, as long as nonimmigrants embrace the sport, too, he said.

"These people are coming to the country and bringing their game with them," Beazley said. "When you think about it, cricket is the second-largest sport in the world behind soccer. If we can harness that energy and enthusiasm, but take it out of the realm of just this immigrant game, it has tremendous potential."

The sport has long been played in the U.S., which hosted cricket's first international match, in New York in 1844.

But cricket has struggled to take hold in America. Beazley thinks that's primarily because of its reputation as a long, drawn-out competition. Some cricket matches last up to five days.

But a relatively new version of cricket called T20, which is what the Des Moines Cricket League plays, usually ends in about three hours, similar to baseball and football games in the U.S.

"The five-day 'test cricket' is not the right market over here," Beazley said. "I love 'test cricket,' but we don't sit there for five days and watch a chess match."

In India, in contrast, five-day matches continue to draw spectators.

In cricket hotbeds, the sport is almost a religious experience. Entire nations take days off when their country competes in major matches.

"It's huge," said Hitesh Kapadia, director of the Indo-American Association of Iowa. "Most cricketers in India, the superstars, are considered demigods."

Today's U.S. cricket leaders are working to accelerate its growth.

"We are trying to create an infrastructure which, by the bare minimum, we can capture those children of expatriates who have drifted to mainstream American sports because there is nowhere for them to play," said Jamie Harrison, president of the U.S. Youth Cricket Association.

"The game will grow exponentially when we expose children to it. The progress is steady, but it's completely dependent upon how many volunteers join the pursuit."

Harrison's agency has created youth programs in several states, primarily those surrounding his home state of Maryland.

But some cricket enthusiasts disagree about how best to grow the sport. Some leaders say cricket evangelism must go beyond exposure to skills development.

Exposure hasn't had "any impact on getting kids to migrate to the sport," said Beazley of USA Cricket. "If you went down to my son's elementary school and showed him soccer, and let him run around a bit, he'd have a fantastic time, but he wouldn't be a soccer player."

USA Cricket has rolled out skills development camps around the country.

"Right now, I think cricket is only scratching the surface," said Beaz-ley, who estimates that 30,000 people play cricket across the country every weekend. "I want to make cricket in America, American. I want American moms and dads to say, 'We think this is a cool way to spend the summer.' "

The weekend Des Moines Cricket League is a family affair for Rajesh Chalamalasetti and his wife, Sanju. Every weekend, the couple pack up their two children and head for the grass cricket field, a makeshift one that sits just north of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in West Des Moines.

The church has donated the land and manicures the field during the summer.

Just as Rajesh and Sanju will pass on their Hindu religion to their sons, 5-year-old Rohan and 9-month-old Aakash, they plan to pass on their love of cricket.

Both families in Hyderabad were devoted to the game, and Rajesh wants his son to be familiar with his family's background, which includes the sport.

"It's his ancestral identity," he said. "I don't want Rohan to grow up and not know where his parents are from. If someone asks him about a ritual or about cricket, I don't want him to not know."

So Rohan comes to the matches, gets to know the game and the players and takes a few swings with the bat.

Just as Rajesh shares his passion about game and country with his son, he'll do the same with colleagues come Monday.

"It makes me proud to share the game and explain how it fits in our culture," he said.

"It's great to tell how India is united based upon a game. It's the competitive spirit.

"For that moment, when a team gets an out, it's like that team becomes one country."

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Information from: The Des Moines Register, http://www.desmoinesregister.com