Cricket mania: Why centuries-old sport is bowling over the suburbs

  • Arjun Narshima, 9, releases a pitch during a cricket training session at MVP Field House in Lake Zurich. Pitchers -- known in the sport as bowlers -- get a running approach.

      Arjun Narshima, 9, releases a pitch during a cricket training session at MVP Field House in Lake Zurich. Pitchers -- known in the sport as bowlers -- get a running approach. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • Professional cricket player and coach Calvin Savage works with Michael Titus, 13, of Gurnee and Dhruv Gorintla, 11, of Buffalo Grove, right, as they practice batting at MVP Field House in Lake Zurich.

      Professional cricket player and coach Calvin Savage works with Michael Titus, 13, of Gurnee and Dhruv Gorintla, 11, of Buffalo Grove, right, as they practice batting at MVP Field House in Lake Zurich. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • Shounak Sawant of Naperville takes a running start to bowl during a cricket training session at MVP Field House in Lake Zurich.

      Shounak Sawant of Naperville takes a running start to bowl during a cricket training session at MVP Field House in Lake Zurich. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • Cricket balls are wrapped in leather and are similar in size and weight to a baseball.

      Cricket balls are wrapped in leather and are similar in size and weight to a baseball. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • Sahaana Kailash, 10, seen here during a recent practice, plays the wicket keeper position and is the only female player in training at MVP Field House in Lake Zurich.

      Sahaana Kailash, 10, seen here during a recent practice, plays the wicket keeper position and is the only female player in training at MVP Field House in Lake Zurich. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • Professional cricket player and coach Calvin Savage, right, works with Michael Titus, 13, of Gurnee and Dhruv Gorintla, 11, of Buffalo Grove, left, during cricket training at MVP Field House in Lake Zurich last week.

      Professional cricket player and coach Calvin Savage, right, works with Michael Titus, 13, of Gurnee and Dhruv Gorintla, 11, of Buffalo Grove, left, during cricket training at MVP Field House in Lake Zurich last week. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • Mittansh Nithiya, 17, of Libertyville wears a helmet and face guard during cricket training at MVP Field House in Lake Zurich.

      Mittansh Nithiya, 17, of Libertyville wears a helmet and face guard during cricket training at MVP Field House in Lake Zurich. John Starks | Staff Photographer

 
Updated 9/25/2023 6:34 AM

The familiar sound of a bat whacking a ball can be heard weekday evenings at the MVP Field House in Lake Zurich.

But that may be where the familiarity ends for many.

 

Instead of a cylindrical bat, these paddles bashing balls are flat. And rather than a pitcher throwing from a mound, the balls are tossed by a bowler, who runs up to a line before letting loose with an overhand motion.

This is cricket, an international, centuries-old English sport, and it's growing rapidly in the suburbs, especially among South Asian immigrants and their children.

Suburban communities are taking notice.

In July, Vernon Township broke ground in Buffalo Grove on a 22-yard cricket pitch, the central area of the field where batting and bowling occurs.

In June, the Barrington Crescent Cricket Club debuted the area's largest cricket ground in South Barrington. As that was happening, the South Barrington Park District unveiled a proposal for two youth cricket pitches elsewhere in town.

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Des Plaines, Hanover Park, Naperville and Hoffman Estates are among other suburbs with cricket pitches. And this summer, a developer pitched plans for a cricket stadium in Oswego. The plan is to start small, a seating capacity of about 2,000, but it could one day could hold up to 25,000 spectators.

Cricket is played on all levels -- ranging from local clubs that participate in the Midwest Cricket Conference to two minor league teams, the Chicago Tigers and the Chicago Kingsmen, that play matches at Tigers Park in South Elgin.

The Chicago Youth Cricket Academy provides a pipeline for young talent by offering a travel team program and training sessions at the MVP Field House. Within a space enclosed by white netting, Shounak Sawant, 17, of Naperville and Mittansh Nithiya, 17, of Libertyville, worked out recently at the Lake Zurich facility.

"I picked it up at a young age, and I used to play it for fun with my dad, and then I found out that there were local clubs," said Nithiya, who plays for the Chicago Tigers. After a couple years of playing, "I realized I could take it professionally."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Nearby, children of various ages learned the sport from "Coach Subbu," as Subramanian Doraiswamy is known.

Subbu, who came to the U.S. about three years ago from Mumbai, teaches children under 12 cricket skills.

It's not a sport for the timid -- players wear helmets with face masks, along with shin guards. A bowler's pitch can reach speeds as high as 92 mph.

"All my fingers have been fractured," said Subbu, who also plays the game. "I'm a wicket keeper (similar to a baseball catcher, he stands behind the batsman), so when the bowler bowls and the batsman misses, there is a good chance of getting hit in one of the fingers."

Subbu said cricket is still developing in the U.S., but the recent launch of Major League Cricket shows potential.

It's also opened up new horizons for ambitious young players such as Nithiya.

"Before, you could play cricket professionally, but there wouldn't be that many opportunities to make a living," he said. "But with Major League (Cricket) and how much money those guys are getting paid, it's something people can think of as a profession to do in the U.S."

Although its origins go back to England, cricket surged in interest here because of its popularity among those whose family roots are in Asia, said Fox Lake resident Sunny Singh, president of the Midwest Cricket Conference.

"It is very popular in countries like India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka," he said.

Singh also credits the uptick in interest to the rise of a new, shorter format used by the Indian Premier League, similar in impact to baseball's pitch clock.

Previous formats Test Cricket, consisting of five-day matches, and One Day International, played for up to nine hours, weren't accessible for the casual fan.

The new format, launched in the early 2000s and known as Twenty20, features matches typically ending in about 2 hours.

"From that point, cricket became a mainstream entertainment business," Singh said. "It used to be a long game, where people were spending hours and hours watching cricket, and it was not exciting at that time."

The surging interest is reflected in the growth of the Midwest Cricket Conference, which in recent years has gone from 20 teams to more than 70.

The conference provides opportunities for players like Naperville resident Karan Kumar, a 34-year-old software architect who plays for the conference's Deccan Mavericks, as well as the Chicago Tigers.

When he came to the U.S. from India, he was concerned about finding a place to play. Now, it seems, there is no limit of opportunities.

Well, almost none.

"(My wife) is always saying that I play a lot of cricket," he said. "So, I kind of have to manage it better in the future, because I have a baby as well. I have a daughter who is growing up."

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