Talha Shahid tried not to think about cricket when he came to the Twin Cities in 2012. His family had sent him to study business at the University of Minnesota, not play games.
Still, moving halfway across the planet isn’t easy, and when Shahid found others in the metro who loved the game, sharing a little cricket on the weekends made life easier.
“When I first moved here, I had no social circle,” said Shahid, 31, who stayed to work in Minnesota and now captains the local Strykers Cricket Club team. “Cricket became my way to meet people who think like me, talk like me, and share jokes like me.”
Cricket’s become that kind of lifeline for many in Twin Cities immigrant communities. It’s helped ease the sometimes difficult transition to a new home and build bridges between faiths, cultures and nationalities regardless of the political climate back home.
It’s especially important to many of the state’s rapidly growing south Asian population. Some 56,000 Asian Indians now call Minnesota home, according to APM Research Lab, a sister organization of MPR News that specializes in analysis of demographics and surveys.
Every weekend, Shahid meets with a group of men from the Indian subcontinent to play cricket. (In Minnesota right now, it’s an all-male sport.) Sounds of “Howzat” and “Wait” reverberate in playgrounds across the Twin Cities.
There are two hardball leagues in the state, the Minnesota Cricket Association and TF Cricket. There’s also a Minnesota Tennis Ball Cricket League with 60 teams and the Tape Ball league, which has five teams.
That’s a huge improvement from 12 hard ball teams in the year 2000 when Masaood Yunus arrived in Minnesota.
“The cricket teams are staffed by immigrant players,” said Yunus, the former Minnesota Cricket Association president. “The size of teams reflects the government’s policy regarding visa and immigration. Liberal immigration rules translate into teams getting expanded. Lately, teams have reduced.”
In cricket, two teams of 11 players each compete by taking turns to bat and play the field. The bowler (like a pitcher in baseball) tries to hit the ball on the wicket and the batsman prevents him by striking the ball.
Until baseball rose to prominence during the Civil War, cricket was the most popular game in the United States, according to Jayesh Patel, the Connecticut-based author of “Flannels on the Sward, History of Cricket in Americas.”
It’s immensely popular in India, which has won the World Cup in 1983 and 2011, and in neighboring Pakistan, which was created as a result of India’s partition in 1947. A match between the two nations generates a frenzy on both sides of the border.
Kids playing crickets in streets and neighborhood parks, commonly known as “gully cricket” (gully is street in Hindi) is a common sight in India and Pakistan.
Pradeep Nalamada, 35, came to Minnesota in 2006. He was comfortable playing with people from his own region in the first two years. Then in 2008, he was selected for the Minnesota national team, representing Minnesota in competitions with teams in other states.
The Minnesota captain was from Pakistan and the vice-captain was a Sri Lankan national.
“It was my first interaction with people from those countries,” Nalamada recalled. “We traveled to Chicago for tournament and developed a very good rapport. We continue to remain friends.”
Woodbury resident Sriram Sitaraman said his friends discouraged him from joining Strykers Cricket Club because most of its members were Muslims with none from Chennai, his native state in India.
Sitaraman, though, saw how well the Strykers played.
“I was quite impressed by the quality of their game and was clear that I would play only with them,” he said. “The background of players did not matter to me.”
The Minnesota Cricket Association, older of the two leagues in the state, was formed in 1976 by Caribbean players. Around 1980s, players from Indian subcontinent started joining the league.
TF Cricket was established in 2018 by Maple Grove resident Saby Sengupta. He’s also developed a professional cricket facility in Belle Plaine that includes cricket fields for adults, youth and a training academy.
These days, it doesn’t take a lot of effort for people to pull together a game.
When Mohammad Tariq, 31, went looking for some weekend fun, he asked acquaintances from the Indian diaspora if they were interested in cricket. He was struck by how easy it came together.
“Within days, we were playing. I didn’t know it would be too easy,” said Tariq who plays tennis ball cricket with players from India, Nepal and Afghanistan.
While in Minneapolis, Tariq’s also learned a few things about people from other regions of his native land. Like Nalamada, he’s from Hyderabad city in southern India. It took immigrating to Minnesota for him to discover that people from the north of India are also fond of non-vegetarian food.
“I always thought it was something typical to people of Hyderabad,” Tariq, laughed.
And while political tensions may boil in Indian and Pakistan, they hold no importance on Minnesota’s cricket fields.
“Cricket is our religion when we play as a team,” said Masood Yunus. “On a few occasions, there were people who tried to sow the seeds of confusion. They were not entertained.”