In the early 2000s, on a crisp Saturday afternoon, I was driving to my night shift at a newspaper in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, when I came upon an oddly familiar sight — a group of people in white playing in a school field, with a bat, ball, gloves, pads, and wickets.
Whoa! Cricket in full swing in — of all places — America! You could say I was clean bowled.
The players all looked like "desis" — a term South Asians from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka use for each other — with a few West Indians thrown into the mix.
It was a heartwarming spectacle. A few years earlier, I and a fellow South Asian journalist at an upstate newspaper helped organize a game of cricket to introduce the curiosity to our baseball-crazy colleagues, and it was quite a day. Some of our friends seemed to get the hang of it, but others were still puzzled about how a leg before wicket got you out.
The sport has been slowly catching on, spurred by the steady desi influx into the tristate area and cities like Austin, Texas. Now comes the announcement that part of the T20 World Cup, an important international cricket tournament, is coming to Eisenhower Park next year.
It will be a collision of bat and ball, an explosion of fancy footwork and hits to the boundary and over, a burst of spin and pace bowling, skillful fielding, and audacious runs. Tensions will mount as teams chase their targets. And fans will yell, "How's that?"
Trust classic English etiquette: The dismissal of a batsman always is a question of the umpire, however deafening.
But cricket is also more than the sum of its parts. It is woven into the psychology of post-colonial pride in former British colonies, happy to give the sahibs the comeuppance they deserve.
Matches between India and Pakistan are contests of excellence and patriotic fervor, occasionally erupting into trouble when the Pakistan team's secret Indian admirers (both Hindus and Muslims) cheer the wrong side. But connoisseurs cannot help applauding a good player, regardless of the outcome. I saw this happen in New Delhi, when Pakistan's fast bowler Imran Khan — who later became the nation's prime minister — drew oohs and aahs from fans as he raced up to the wicket to make his deliveries during a match with India in 1979.
I come from cricket-crazy Kolkata, where love of the game knows no boundaries, national or otherwise. When I was a young boy, my father took me to a five-day test match between the Nawab of Pataudi's Indian eleven and the West Indians led by the legendary Gary Sobers, back in 1966. Tickets were oversold and delirious fans invaded the pitch, causing a riot. I got tear-gassed at an early age. But not before I watched Sobers and Rohan Kanhai demolish the Indian bowling attack on their way to victory.
Today's heroes are Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and coach Rahul Dravid. Batsmen wear helmets. Five-day tests, more like extended picnics, are fading into oblivion and limited-over one-day games are all the rage.
The T20 will be a feast for Long Island's burgeoning South Asian population. These cricket-loving immigrants are caught in an awkward spot — too old to develop an interest in baseball or football, too young to give up their passion for a sport they grew up playing or watching, one they see as a metaphor for style, patience, agility, and killer action.
Chances are, it's going to be a long innings.
Columnist Nirmal Mitra's opinions are his own.