There’s a new sport in Nebraska. Actually, it’s an old one, but it’s making its way back to the heartland, and the U.S., through the most enthusiastic of sports fans: kids.
Early on a recent Sunday, a group of American kids stood on the sidelines of a game—getting crazy excited. Yes, it was in Nebraska, but no, it had nothing to do with Husker football. And nope, not even the College World Series.
The middle-school kids were shouting on the sidelines of a cricket pitch. You know, the bat-and-ball game that kind of looks like baseball? And, okay, most of them have parents from Commonwealth countries like India and Pakistan, where A) cricket is a big deal, and B) last names have several consonants:
“Kanthamneni, that’s my last name,” explained Sai Kanthamneni from the sidelines. “But people just call me Sai. Okay, Kanthamneni,” he continued, as laughter bubbled around him from his teammates. “Dude, you already mentioned that!” shouted one.
And sure, these kids may have seen their expat parents tuned in to pay-per-view cricket and reminiscing of home, but they like cricket for their own reasons. Two answers from the group below:
“You run and catch the ball, and you fall down and bump your head!”
“That’s the exact thing I like! You get hit!”
These young cricketers are players in Nebraska’s first inter-city youth league: the Omaha Ninjas versus the Lincoln Warriors. The league was organized by the Omaha Cricket Club, which has played at NP Dodge Park near Eppley Airfield for more than 20 years. For the past three years, the club has been setting up camps in local schools to introduce the game to young batters and bowlers. They have a running tally of kids they’ve reached on their website. Currently it’s over 4,474 in 49 schools, and if only a slice of that tally sticks with it, cricket in Nebraska is here to stay.
Peter Michaud, a transplant to Omaha from Washington, D.C., sat on the sidelines with other enthusiastic parents at the game. He said the energy of the coaches, the players, and the parents, is just fun to be around.
“That kind of enthusiasm is just contagious,” Michaud said. “That’s what I like the most about it, and it’s a new sport, it’s different. It’s off the beaten path for most traditional American sports.”
And does he play other sports?
“Yeah, baseball, um…basketball…”
“What are you playing this fall?” prompted his dad.
Oh right, soccer. That peskily popular game is actually the model the Omaha Cricket Club is following. Bring the sport to the kids so they can grow up and push for colleges to adopt the game. It’s a national strategy that the United States Youth Cricket Association is employing. Bhaskar Setti heads the Omaha Cricket Club and also works with the national group managing over 300 clubs. He says cricket is perfect for what he calls “sideline kids” – those who don’t have the build for football or the height for basketball.
“Twenty percent of the school kids are naturally athletic, they’re fit for playing basketball, baseball, and all other sports,” he said. “Around 80 percent of the kids are going back to PS3 and Xboxes. So we want to target those kids and bring them here.”
“Our best player in the world is around 5’6” and a normal build,” he said. “We don’t have to hit hard. We have to strategically place the ball in the field.”
Sure, it’s an uphill battle. And there are loads of sports to compete against. But Setti’s convinced cricket can find a new place in America. (It has an old place. Even Abraham Lincoln turned out for a game in 1849, and some argue America’s pastime—baseball—wouldn’t even exist if it hadn’t been for cricket.) The modern game is moving away from the traditionally slow-moving five-day test matches to the fast-paced “T20” games, which can be over in two to three hours.
Suman Vallabhbhai, a parent and immigrant from Panama whose own parents hail from India watched his son Deven, 12, from the sidelines, with his wife Michelle. She says her son participated in a youth cricket workshop and decided—on his own—he wanted to play.
“He tried basketball, he tried soccer and none of it stuck,” she said. “It was always something that ‘Ah, do I have to keep going? Can we stop now?’ This, I never get an argument, ever.”
“It’s really nice to finally find a group that’s he feels comfortable and happy with and he’s learning something and being active,” she said.
Being active, of course, and oh, so many reasons to like cricket. Another sampling from the Omaha Ninjas:
It’s a team sport we can enjoy with our friends.
You get hit when you catch the ball sometimes!
Bowling and batting.
You don’t get multiple chances to come back and win.
The Omaha Cricket Club will continue with youth camps and workshops in Lincoln and Omaha throughout the school year, with a possible league game over fall break. Depending on the enthusiasm.
For more on this story, and to watch a video of the Omaha Ninjas versus the Lincoln Warriors, check out the September/October issue of Omaha Magazine.