Whack! The sound of a bat slapping a ball reverberates across a grassy field and mingles with sounds of children’s glee. A boy in a striped shirt runs away, while a group of his friends sprint toward the ball.
It’s a summer pastime in Edison, but the ball isn’t a baseball. It’s a cricket ball.
Cricket is the second most popular sport in the world, but has gone virtually unrecognized in the United States. Yet tucked in corners of New Jersey parks and school playgrounds, the game is alive and growing.
With a large Indian population sparking interest in the sport, Edison is a pocket of hope for fans who want to see the game become more popular throughout the country. Players say the one thing preventing the sport from exploding in the Garden States is a lack of space for fields.
“What is holding cricket back (here) is the infrastructure,” said Alan George, who leads a recreational team in Hillsborough. “Parks will cut their fields to the classic four-inch here in America, which is great for walking your dog but not playing cricket.”
The game is simple in theory: two teams compete against each other. Each bowler (or pitcher) tries to hit the wicket (which looks like three wooden sticks in the ground) and topple the bail (two small wooden pieces that lie horizontally across the wicket). The batter defends the wicket and tries to hit the ball as far as they can. The team with the most runs wins.
There were about 35 adult and youth recreational teams in Edison five years ago, according to Recreation Program Coordinator Bernie Maguire.
Today there are 67.
Maguire said the township would have even more teams if they had space to play. Demand is high for playing time on one of Edison’s eight fields. Even without the demand, scheduling games is already rough: a single cricket game can stretch on for days.
Modified rules limit most games to seven hours, and a “soft ball” version usually runs about three and a half hours, Maguire said.
“The challenges is that there are so many teams and not enough spots to put them. We have them at some of the schools, but really they are just makeshift fields,” Maguire said.
The game started in England centuries ago and has remained popular in former British colonies, like India. Experts estimate that it has 2.5 billion fans worldwide, topped only by soccer. Some investors seem to think it could take off in the States, too.
In May, USA Cricket and American Cricket Enterprises announced the organizations would jointly invest over $1 billion into developing the sport in America. Their partnership means the launch of youth academies around the country and a professional cricket league in 2021.
It may seem like a lot of money, but it isn’t much of an investment for nation already saturated with sports, said Dr. Fred Cromartie, Director of Doctoral Studies United States Sports Academy in Alabama.
While immigrant populations are introducing cricket to small areas of the U.S., the sport still has a long way to go before it takes off like soccer or lacrosse did, he added.
“Cricket is just not going to happen,” Cromartie said.
No U.S. universities or colleges have a team and few towns have proper fields, he explained.
A good cricket field has a long, flat strip of grass where the bowler and batters play, called a pitch, and an oval-shaped outfield. In Edison, only a few fields have a pitch. Many are on sloped surfaces or with grass that is too long, according to Maguire and players.
Even the ones with a pitch can be poorly irrigated, making the ball stick to the ground instead of bounce when it leaves the bowlers’ hands.
Maguire said the Edison teams are okay with the makeshift fields for now, but some are discussing building a cricket stadium.
A local stadium would be a dream come true for the children in Tim Weber’s gym classes. Weber taught himself the sport after he noticed his students’ excitement when international matches were on TV. He then integrated it into the curriculum at Menlo Park Elementary and James Madison Intermediate three years ago.
Weber’s students learn skills in class and play modified scrimmages. There is also in a well-attended after-school cricket club and a cricket class put on by the township.
“They go nuts,” Weber said. “Hopefully, when they get to high school, they will have varsity cricket.”
Businesses are capitalizing on the Central-Jersey-cricket-mania, too. ShopRite in North Brunswick invited former Indian national cricket team captain and cricket world champion, Kapil Dev, to visit in July. Hundreds of fans gathered at the grocery store in hopes of meeting the athlete.
Skeptics say the isolated excitement for the sport will never grow and turn it into an American staple. Critics point out that cricket made only one appearance at the Olympics in 1990.
George estimates there are about 60 or 70 adult league teams in New Jersey. Recreational teams, like those in Edison, are harder to count.
The Amwell Valley Cricket Club in Hillsborough Township, where George and his team plays, is located on a private golf course. The grass is cut to international standards and well-irrigated. They have a storage shed for supplies and set up a marquee tent for shade. Teams come from all over the East Coast to Hillsborough just to play on a proper field, club secretary Nigel Armitage said.
Despite their superior facilities, even Amwell Valley has to take whoever they can get to play; grabbing guest players to fill in when one of their regulars can’t make it. George and his fellow Amwell volunteers teach interested kids how to play, but often, they are lured away from the club for more established sports.
“I don’t think Americans are ready to take to it, there is too much baseball,” Armitage, who is originally from England, said.
According to a Cromartie, a true cricket-revolution would require grassroots efforts for both boys and girls to play, adults who know how to coach them, schools establishing competitive teams — and of course, a place to play.
This article is part of “Unknown New Jersey,” an ongoing series that highlights interesting and little-known stories about our past, present, and future — all the unusual things that make our great state what is it. Got a story to pitch? Email it to [email protected].
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