Cricket forging bonds of Valley's immigrants
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 7, 2005
Game helps foreigners with new lives
Cameron Eickmeyer

On a makeshift field in Chandler, where small orange flags mark the boundaries and batsmen wait their turn on lawn chairs in the shade, 22 cricket players enjoy a ritual that for some is a reminder of home and for others is simply a game.

A distinctly foreign game to most Americans, cricket is vastly more popular elsewhere, and as more immigrants from South Asia and other parts of the former British Empire move to the Valley, they are bringing the game, plus other traditions, with them.

The rules of cricket can be confusing, even to diehard players, and games last for days, which stretches most Americans' attention spans.

Nevertheless, the Arizona Cricket Association, which was founded in the early 1990s, has grown to 13 teams from its initial six, adding two teams in the past year.


A tie to home

When Australian Darren Jackson immigrated to America three years ago, he didn't just want to find a place to play cricket, he needed a place to play his favorite sport.

"I was going to play cricket," said the 42-year-old, who lives in Avondale. "It's part of me, it's in my blood."

Jackson found the Arizona league on the Internet, and he now is captain of the Phoenix Cricket Club.

Dinesh Helapitage, 45,of Tempe, is from England but was born in Sri Lanka. He said the sport is also a way for foreign-born people to find countrymen in America.

He said his transition to America was easy because he had friends around him from England, but he noticed the effect cricket had on Jackson, his teammate.

"He didn't have many friends and he was new to the country," Helapitage said. "You tend to identify with people who have been in the same situation, just to get your bearings, I suppose."

CK Barlingay, 42, who lives in Mesa and immigrated from India, said that clubs have been able to recruit players Valley-wide who hail from nations famous for their cricket.

For some players, the game is a way to stay connected to their homeland. For others, it is a way to meet fellow expatriates and share a common bond. For still others, it is a way to assimilate into their new country.

Jackson said his team, like most of the clubs in the league, contains a mélange of cultures.

"Our team has a mix of just about every country you can think of," he said while rattling off such countries as Australia, England and India.

The cultural mix is evident with religious practices, too. Jackson said Muslim players will pause to pray during breaks in the game.


By the numbers

The 13 teams in the Arizona Cricket Association come from across the Valley as well as Tucson. Since each roster can hold only 11 players, new teams are formed whenever enough new people join the league.

The Arizona association is part of a national organization of 38 leagues that feed into the U.S. team whenever the country qualifies for international competition.

League Chairman Paul Ward said teams have formed at a steady pace in Arizona and the association relies heavily on immigrants to field teams.

And in Maricopa County, there is an adequate population of potential cricket players.

According to the 2000 census, the most recent numbers available, there are nearly 10,000 immigrants from the United Kingdom, with nearly 7,500 from India; 1,000 from Pakistan, 1,100 from Australia and New Zealand; and about 3,500 from the West Indies.

And the cricket market seems to be growing, Ward said. He cites his own side business, which he started in his garage with imported cricket equipment from England, as evidence. After players encouraged him to post a list of his inventory online, his business quickly grew to serve players in 23 states and five continents.

The game's growth depends on better fields and the association's efforts to tap the large population of people from cricket-playing countries.

"I know there are a lot of people who want to play cricket," Ward said. "More people would play if it were more convenient."


More than a game

Jennifer Glick, an Arizona State University associate professor of sociology, said athletes who play sports with ties to their homeland, such as cricket and soccer, are experiencing what people go through when they face a new situation.

"Most immigrant groups look to re-create or find comfort in the familiar," she said.

Glick, whose research focuses on immigrant adaptation, among other things, said sports is one of the many pastimes that help people adapt to new situations through social networking.

Most cricket players come from countries that don't make up a large percentage of the population in Arizona and therefore don't have social programs in place tailored to their needs.

Glick said the Hispanic population, for example, has a social structure already in place in Arizona to depend on while smaller immigrant populations need social support systems to gather information.

In this case, cricket becomes the avenue.

Immigrants can use the cricket club as a means to share information and experiences, which aren't usually similar to those of neighbors and co-workers.

"When questions do arise, you have a group to which you can turn," Glick said. "We call this the strength of weak ties."

Glick said people can use sports teams to discuss problems they've had or even such simple topics as tips for finding food from home. "These informal networks might also be the only source of that type of information."


Culture ties

Ward said the sport has a strong following in many countries because it is engrained in a nation's psyche, much like baseball in America.

"Places like India, England and Australia, people play cricket because it's built into the culture," said the Chandler resident who immigrated from England 20 years ago. "And it's local. It's right there."

Cricket has its heart in England, Australia and the Asian subcontinent.

"You're realistically talking about the British Commonwealth," Ward said.

"Oddly enough, that's one of the reasons why cricket hasn't spread in the U.S. nearly as much."

Ironically, the first international cricket match was played in 1844 between the United States and Canada, but the sport never really caught on in the United States.

Ward said the game's popularity spread due to the former British Empire's stretch across the globe and any person living in Arizona from a Commonwealth country is a potential cricket player.

"We're a nation of immigrants," he said.