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posted: 4/19/2010 12:01 AM

Lake County residents make pitch for cricket in Vernon Hills

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  • Mukarram Raheel of Mundelein, left, and Bobby Tuli of Buffalo Grove explain the rules of cricket to Tom Ritter, superintendent of recreation for the Vernon Hills Park District.

      Mukarram Raheel of Mundelein, left, and Bobby Tuli of Buffalo Grove explain the rules of cricket to Tom Ritter, superintendent of recreation for the Vernon Hills Park District.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer


The master plan for major improvements at Century Park in Vernon Hills includes several amenities one might expect, such as new paths, shelters and a sand volleyball court.

But there's also something unique to the Vernon Hills Park District - and to Lake County - that may have some doing a double take.

At the midpoint between the two ball fields in the northeast portion of the park, a narrow rectangle marks the location of a cricket pitch, the central element of the game created centuries ago in England.

"It's like a skinny driveway," explained Tom Ritter, the superintendent of recreation for the park district.

At about 22 yards long and 10 feet wide, the pitch is planned as having a concrete base covered with artificial turf. It would sit in the middle of an oval grass field 120 yards in diameter.

That such a feature is included in an overall park improvement plan reflects a powerful local push and a new offering that could become a marketing tool for the district.

"There's an opportunity now and obviously you're showing me there is a demand," Ritter said during a recent on-site gathering with members of the Vernon Hills Hawks, one of 36 teams in the American Cricket Conference.

No practice had been scheduled, but nearly every Hawks member showed up for the occasion dressed in full uniform.

They also had a video loaded onto a laptop computer to explain the game, and a color handout providing other details.

Supporters brought freshly made samosas, a spicy, stuffed treat.

"We are very busy but we wanted to show you how important this is to us," said Sandeep Bhardwaj, another team member from Vernon Hills.

The team, comprised of white collar professionals from Vernon Hills and neighboring communities, has been together five years.

Every game has been on the road, however, as the team travels to communities with cricket pitches, such as Chicago, Glendale Heights, Naperville, Plainfield, Schaumburg, Carol Stream, Bolingbrook and Hanover Park.

That makes for a long day, as even the shortest games can take three or four hours.

"We don't have a home field," said Bobby Tuli, the Hawks' manager. "It's a whole day commitment."

The Hawks had been one of four outside teams playing in a separate league at Abbott Laboratories. However, the company this year apparently has more players available and is limiting play to Abbott teams, Tuli said.

He and others say there are 300 to 500 cricket lovers in Vernon Hills and surrounding communities who would use the park district facility. Supporters also suggest training sessions or a youth cricket league as possibilities.

Ritter said more park districts have been installing cricket pitches, but finding enough relatively flat open area to dedicate to the game can be an issue.

Interest in having a facility in Vernon Hills surfaced a few years ago but the timing wasn't right, as space was at a premium and the extent of local interest in cricket was unclear.

Since then, the opening of the Vernon Hills Athletic Complex has eased the space crunch.

Last year, paths, picnic shelters/gazebos and playgrounds were listed as the top amenities in responses to a community interest survey commissioned by the park district.

A cricket pitch was included in the Century Park plan in response to e-mails and calls from residents, according to information presented in a grant application to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

"It's not anything major. A pad for them to pitch and pad for them to hit from," said Craig Most, project assistant for 3D Design, the Grayslake firm drawing the plans for the district. The firm also designed a pitch installed last summer at Dee Park in Niles, part of the Golf Maine Park District.

"There's nothing to it other than a slab of concrete out there," said Josh Zoberis, recreation supervisor. The pitch is well used, although the district does not offer leagues or classes yet, he added.

In January, IDNR announced the Vernon Hills Park District received the maximum $400,000 grant.

Applications are graded on a point system that rewards unique features that can benefit various age groups, for example.

The main expense in the Century Park improvement is an 1,800-square-foot activity building. But the plan also includes three gazebos, a fishing pier and two overlooks of Big Bear Lake, an osprey nesting platform, an ice rink, two bocce ball courts, a teen fitness playground, and space for "bags" games and horseshoes.

While the cricket pitch helped the application, it wasn't a deciding factor, according to David Sellman, senior grant administrator for IDNR.

"The project has enough other good things about it," he said. "It is a well-rounded project."

Jeff Fougerousse, executive director of the park district, said a final design meeting is scheduled for today, with a presentation to the park board Thursday.

The hope is to go to bid on the project in May, award the bids in June and begin construction on the activities building after the Fourth of July, he said.

The cricket pitch likely will be left in even if costs of the overall project are higher than expected, he added.