It’s Saturday in Omaha. Time to play some cricket.
Sound obscure? Perhaps. But the Omaha Cricket Club boasts over 100 members and has been batting on its own pitch at N.P. Dodge Park since 1991. Vijay Yajjala, a transplant from India, joined the team after he first immigrated to Omaha seven years ago. “When I was on the flight to the U.S., I was like ‘Okay, my cricketing days are done,’” Yajjala says. “But I actually play more cricket here.” Yajjala, a microbiologist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, plays three games every spring and summer weekend, and sometimes during the week, too.
Fifteen years ago the OCC had about 20 members. Today, the club has three competitive teams—the Challengers, Hunters, and Chargers—and the Nebraska Cricket Club (a combined Omaha/Lincoln team) brought home the Midwest Championship trophy in 2003 and 2007. The club is made up primarily of immigrants who trace their heritage to the British Commonwealth, but the sport has a long history in America. And these players are hoping to bring back the grandfather of baseball.
As OCC head Bhaskar Setti explains, when the first Englishmen sailed for America in the 1600’s, they set out on their voyages with cricket bats in hand. On board the ships, pummeling a cricket ball into the floor wasn’t turning out very well. So the pitchers began throwing straight to the batsman. And of course, without a field, the batters let the balls sail into the ocean—some of the first home runs. At least, that’s the origin story Setti prefers. In fact, the beginnings of baseball are largely in dispute. (Some believe Abner Doubleday invented the game in 1839; others believe it’s a descendant of rounders, a popular game among English schoolgirls).
But origin story aside, even during Abraham Lincoln’s time, cricket was still popular in America. In 1844, what is believed to be the oldest international rivalry began with a cricket game between the U.S. and Canada, and a decade later, the Philadelphia Cricket Club was founded. That club is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.
In Omaha, Setti hopes to encourage a new generation of cricket-lovers in the Midwest. Over the past four years, the OCC has visited nearly 4,500 school kids in Omaha, Lincoln, and Council Bluffs, introducing them to the game. And this year, Setti hopes to establish Omaha’s first cricket youth league. Setti says cricket is perfect for the children he dubs “sideline kids”—those who’d love to compete in sports, but may not be tall enough for basketball, or strong enough for football. “You don’t have to be super-physical to play this game,” Setti says. “Any regular kid can play.” Sure, there’s baseball, which Setti admits is a fierce direct competitor. But even baseball can be so competitive that only the “super-kids” get a chance to play. “You don’t have to be a star,” Setti says, “and you can still do really well.”
Cricket is a game of strategy and discipline, says Hemandh Malempati, an Omaha Challengers player, also from India. “If you’re not disciplined, you can’t excel in this game,” he says. Players need to “keep it cool, keep it controlled. “Cricket also provides lots of opportunities for kids to run (back and forth on the pitch—see sidebar for more), and long stretches of time to play. Kids play a shortened version of the game, which can still last up to four hours: 20 overs instead of the usual 50. That faster pace is gaining popularity, and has been elevated to international competition by the International Cricket Council.
The U.S. does have a national cricket team, which competes against countries like Canada and Japan at the associate level, one below the Commonwealth teams. If the team improves, American cricket could, in theory, be bumped up to the big leagues. But for that to happen, Setti says, the sport needs to be streamlined so players can rise in competition from schools to colleges to leagues and nationals. Soccer, a much younger sport to the U.S., has grown wildly in popularity over the last two decades, and Setti attributes much of that to kids learning to love the sport at a young age. “That’s what we learned from other American sports,” Setti says, to “dedicate our time not only for playing, but taking it to the kids.”
Even if cricket doesn’t soar on the national stage, the team says introducing a game they love to new players is reward in itself. “It gives me great satisfaction that I’m able to give something to the sport,” says Yajjala, “and give something to the kids that puts a smile on their face.
“We’ve been playing this for a long time,” he says. “It’s time to give it back to the community.”