Cricket revolution in St. Louis


Aman Daggumati, 12 of O’Fallon, Mo,. hits out during practice with the American Cricket Academy at the O’Fallon Sports Park

ST. LOUIS: The St. Louis region makes plenty of room in its parks for sports such as soccer and baseball. Some residents are pleading with cities to make room for just one more: cricket.

Why cricket?
It has the second-largest fan following in the world, after soccer. It’s similar to baseball but came before it. For many residents who immigrated from India, largely concentrated in St. Louis and St. Charles counties, it’s the sport – not Cardinals baseball, not Blues hockey – that they grew up loving.

The number of area residents with such ties to India has grown quietly over the past two decades. In St. Charles County it rose to 3,456 people in 2014 – six times larger than it was in 2000 – and grew 84 percent to 11,401 people in St. Louis County during that same period, according to U.S. Census estimates.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that in the past few months, some of those residents have been knocking on cities’ doors to plead for a cricket pitch, only about half a dozen of which exist in the St. Louis region for at least 600 players.

A fledgling cricket club for children, the American Cricket Academy, celebrated when it convinced Dardenne Prairie’s Board of Aldermen to build a cricket field at BaratHaven Park.

The parent-run group is fronting the nearly $27,000 needed to build it, but the city will reimburse the group in the next five years by waiving and reducing field reservation fees.

The co-ed academy started last year not just to teach children how to play, but also to get this soccer and baseball-loving region to make room in their hearts and minds – and their parks – for cricket.

“If more kids play the game, then hopefully in the next few years things might change,” said Ranjeet Singh, the founder of St. Louis’ oldest cricket club. “What we are saying is, try this sport, too. Unless they try the game, they do not know.”

Cricket, which has roots in 16th-century England, is simultaneously similar to and different from baseball.

There are no strikes or balls, there are essentially only two bases and one inning, the bat is flat like a paddle, and instead of a straight pitch, a ball is “bowled,” or bounced at high speed, to a batsman on a 66-foot-long strip of firm ground called the pitch. The shortest matches last about six hours and the longest last days.

But the goal is the same – to whack a ball with a bat and score more runs than the other team.
The sport enjoys a practically religious following, especially in the Indian subcontinent, where it’s as integral to popular culture as baseball and football are to the US. Cricket is also highly popular in Britain, Australia and the West Indies.

Aromal Kozhikal 9, of O'Fallon, Mo., bowls on the pitch during  practice

Aromal Kozhikal 9, of O’Fallon, Mo., bowls on the pitch during practice

In the U.S., the sport was eclipsed by baseball’s introduction in the mid-1800s, and cricket remains a sport that, despite having billions of fans, most Americans know little or nothing about.

Still, cricket has been played in St. Louis for at least the past 140 years, most of that time at a field on Cricket Drive in Forest Park. Now, there are at least three adult leagues and two youth leagues, including the 4-year-old Missouri Youth Cricket Association. MYCA started the effort to make cricket a youth sport in St. Louis, by teaching the sport in its league and in schools in cities from Ferguson to Kansas City.

The Kutis team of St. Louis plays Kansas City’s Kansas Originals in a cricket match in Forest Park on May 27, 1962.

Now St. Louis has cricket fields in Ballwin, St. Charles, Collinsville, Edwardsville, Hazelwood and O’Fallon, Missouri – several of them because cricket groups came to them asking for a field.
Meanwhile, two cricket pitches have been torn down in the last decade.

The city tore Forest Park’s cricket pitch out about a decade ago after the club that had been using it left for a higher-quality facility, said Singh, who has been active in St. Louis cricket since 1998.

Maryland Heights’ jewel of a sports facility, SportPort International, had a cricket pitch that the Maryland Heights Cricket League used for years, but it was torn down this year to make a parking lot exit road, SportPort controller Vince Doder said. SportPort has been growing and needed more access to the lot, he said.

The academy currently uses two cricket pitches and holds practice three times a week for two hours apiece, each time handling two dozen to 60 children.

The parents running it have avoided advertising the program because they say they don’t have field space for more children. But the academy still ballooned to more than 100 children by word of mouth since launching last summer, said Ganesh Krishnamurthy, a board member and coach.

Parents have driven and flown their children to Dallas, Indianapolis, Atlanta and other cities to have another team to compete with, because they haven’t been able to secure a cricket field on weekends to host their own matches.

Pooja Ganesh, 8. Of Chrsterfield, practices bowling

Pooja Ganesh, 8. Of Chrsterfield, practices bowling

They’ve won less than a quarter of the matches. That could change if they get more fields to practice on, Krishnamurthy says.

“Dallas has 40 cricket fields,” he said. “We are trying to do with four here. And that is a troubling amount of folks who play cricket here but are unable to enjoy or nurture the sport.”

Those who run the academy think a cricket revolution can start in St. Louis if people just learn what it is. The academy has sent representatives to school assemblies to teach cricket and donate cricket sets.

It held an after-school cricket program for about 70 students at Green Tree Elementary in Wentzville and shows physical education teachers how to teach the sport.

“We are getting more and more people from around the world coming to our schools, and when we say we don’t know anything about it, I think that’s kind of sad,” said Char Wagman, a Green Tree physical education teacher. “We tend to think that everybody needs to do things the American way.

I think it’s better if we know there are a lot of other ways.”-AP