Tampa – On a Sunday morning, several dozen men are gathered in a field in the Tampa suburb of Seffner in a park abutting Interstate 4.
The soft thud of a ball against a bat echoes across the field and the ball zips through the grass, bouncing past a fielder, as the batter’s teammates on the sidelines jump up yelling, “Four!” – the number of points scored if the ball bounces or rolls off the field.
What might at first resemble a game of baseball to the casual viewer is in fact quite a different sport that is sweeping across the Tampa Bay region and the state alongside the growth of a population with immigrant ties to India.
Cricket – the sport with the world’s second-highest number of viewers behind soccer – is now played every weekend on three fields in Tampa’s Hillsborough County and also by leagues throughout Central and South Florida, which hosts the country’s first internationally certified cricket stadium near Fort Lauderdale.
The importance and passion behind the sport are such that local planners were arranging for a cricket exhibition match possibly at Raymond James Stadium for the 2014 “Bollywood Oscars” – an annual awards and extravaganza event to be held that year in Tampa Bay, and expected to draw 800 million viewers and tens of thousands of visitors.
Despite the sport’s popularity in India, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, parts of the Caribbean and other former colonies of Great Britain where it originated, the path to this grassy field was not an easy one.
“This is something we can all enjoy now without fear of the cops coming to evict us,” says Prasanna Meenakshi, 40, the captain of the Tampa Toons as he squints under a bright sun into the field to keep an eye on his teammates – one of the 20 teams that make up the Tampa Cricket League.
Many of the men here work jobs during the week in IT, or information technology, departments of companies like Verizon, the Home Shopping Network, Citigroup, Bank of America, WellCare and Nielsen, he says. They find a release from the stress of office work in the sport many grew up playing right through college – a passion so ingrained that many have smart phone apps on which they follow ongoing international matches during their work breaks.
For years, pick-up teams among Tampa Bay’s growing Indian-American community of doctors, engineers and IT workers would play where they could on unused soccer fields, including near the University of South Florida. But invariably other residents would tell them to leave as they gathered for their own sport.
Then, in 2011, community leader Dr. Vipul Kabaria met with Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who intervened. Officials with the county Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department found and began to maintain several fields in county parks to which the cricket players now have first dibs – this field at Evans Park, nearby Rodney Colson Park, and Hamilton Park in West Tampa.
“If you get cricket here, you will have bank office jobs and call centers,” Dr. Kabaria says he told county officials regarding the economic development possibilities that could be tied to cricket matches and regional tournaments.
“That’s it! That’s it!” Meenakshi is yelling as a batter has hit the ball into the field.
Unlike baseball, there are no bases. Instead there are two creases on the “pitch” – a rectangular strip of flat grass – and two batters stand near the creases, each with a bat, which looks like a long wooden paddle.
One batter at a time receives a pitch from a “bowler” – thrown overarm with no bent elbow – and tries to hit it or prevent the ball from hitting a wicket, or three wooden stumps, behind him. If he hits the ball, the two batters run back and forth between their creases to score points or runs.
If a fielder throws the ball at the nearest wicket and “breaks” it, or knocks off the crosspieces called bails, then this counts toward an “out.” Each team usually has 11 players. Once the first team’s players are out or their playing time is closed by the determined rules, the second team plays and tries to outscore the other team’s runs.
In this case, one of the fielders – none of whom is allowed to wear gloves except the catcher – throws the ball toward the pitch and knocks the wickets over, prompting the fielding team to jump up and down in celebration of the out.
While these players use a “soft” ball, or tennis ball, and are casually dressed in shorts and T-shirts, a few miles away at Rodney Colson Park the rules are slightly different.
This is where hard ball cricket is played every Sunday among the eight teams in the Florida West Coast Cricket League. The teams follow the standard and officially sanctioned rules, using the red, leather-bound hard ball and attire of white clothing – white shirts and white pants, some with brimmed hats.
Here, the batters wear helmets and shin guards. As on the other field, teammates from the sidelines call out encouragement in Hindi, Tamil, and Caribbean English. The teams in these leagues are diverse, made up not only of people who speak multiple different languages from across the expanse of India but also players from Bangladesh, Pakistan, the West Indies, Sri Lanka, and South Africa.
“We all speak the same language – cricket,” says Nirmal Menon, president of the league and also captain of his team, the International Cricket Association of Tampa.
The team’s members are sitting in the shade of a tree watching the action on the field and their teammates at bat. “It’s a stress release for us, even though our families are sacrificing,” he says, noting that when a team in the league is not playing here any given Sunday, they travel to play elsewhere throughout Tampa Bay and down to Port Charlotte.
Menon, 54, started the league six years earlier during an informal meeting of fellow cricket players at a local IHOP restaurant.
Now that cricket teams have a regularly maintained place for their matches – a feat he attributes to the unflagging and ongoing support by Commissioner Higginbotham and the parks employees – sometimes American families walking their dogs around the paths will stop to ask about cricket and how it’s played.
Menon and others hope next to introduce cricket into the school systems. His other goal is to get an adjacent empty field designated for cricket so that more matches could be played here on Saturday, too.
This, he knows, adding with a smile, might meet some resistance from their families, who would see even less of them on the weekends.
If you go…
Evans Park is located near Tampa at 1104 N. Kingsway Park, Seffner, Fla.
Rodney Colson Park is located near Tampa at 770 Gerard Ave., Seffner, Fla.;
Hamilton Park is located at 9213 W. Hamilton Ave. Tampa, Fla.
For more information about the cricket clubs, leagues and matches throughout Tampa Bay and Florida, contact:
The Florida West Coast Cricket League, call Nirmal Menon at (813) 334-7992.
The Tampa Cricket League: http://www.tampacricketleague.com/
Florida Southeast Cricket League: http://fsclcricket.org/
Central Florida Cricket Association: http://www.centralfloridacricket.com/
Sarasota International Cricket Club: http://www.sarasotaicc.com/