Madison takes a crack at cricket

by Thomas Hill

On a sunlit fall day in Fitchburg’s Gunflint Trail Park, upward of two dozen athletes stand in two distinct, tight-knit huddles discussing final preparations for their championship game. Exactly what is being said is impossible to discern as both teams consciously keep their voices low and measured, but the tense tones conveys the intensity and importance of the upcoming match. 


As the clock strikes 12:10 p.m., both teams break from their huddles and take to the field. 


Or, more correctly, one team takes to the field. The other sends only two batsmen to the center of the pitch, each wielding wide, flat wooden bats. 

Illustration by Thomas Hill.

The Madison Cricket Association final is about to begin.


“Cricket is everything for us,” says Dax Patel, a batsman for Patidar 11. 


Patidar 11 is one of the two teams competing in this season’s final. Patel chats and explains both the game of cricket, and how Madison’s cricket community operates. 


Without any hesitation, Patel begins to explain the format of the sport, expertly refining its complex ruleset into easy to understand bits and pieces.


“There are 11 [players] that are fielding right now, and two players from the batting team who are trying to put [the ball] in the field,” Patel says. “The bowler and the rest of the players will be trying to keep the ball in the field, and make sure [the other team] are not able to score.”


In its simplest form, cricket can be thought of much the same as baseball. One player will bowl the ball to the batsman, similar to a pitcher throwing a pitch, and the batsman will attempt to hit the ball into the field of play. The key differences between the two sports comes primarily in the scoring and shape of the field. 


“If [the batsman] hits [the ball] directly outside of the boundary, it’s six runs. If it bounces or rolls out of the boundary it is four runs. Other runs are whatever they run between the wickets,” Patel says. 


To put that in baseball terms, home runs are worth six runs, ground rule doubles are worth four, and instead of running around the bases to home, batters run back and forth between their batters boxes to score runs every time there’s a hit that doesn’t clear the boundary. Batsmen continue batting until they’re out, and each batter only bats once. The entire batting order goes at once, instead of taking turns like in baseball, and the team with the highest run total after both teams have batted wins. 


More or less, that’s it. That’s cricket. Of course, there are a handful of other rules regarding how batters come out, game length and other nuances — but they aren’t critical for understanding the basics of the game. 


After his explanation of the basics, Patel begins to explain how his team came together. Patidar 11 is composed almost entirely of Indian migrants to the U.S., as are most of the teams that compete in the association. Patel, along with a handful of his teammates, come from Gujarat, a state in India.

“We grew up together, and we used to meet up here and there and play,” Patel says. “They spread the word around like, ‘Hey, there’s a cricket game going on’ They come to watch, and if they’re interested they obviously join the different teams here.” 


While Patel speaks casually about the team coming together, what he fails to properly emphasize is how committed he and his teammates are to the game. While a majority of Patidar 11’s roster comes from the Madison area, many commute each weekend from various parts of Iowa to compete in the Madison Cricket Association. 


“So me, the player who’s bowling right now, the guy who was just able to [stop] the ball from hitting the four. That one — the one in the back? We are coming together from Iowa, three hours away,” Patel says. 


While for most it’s hard to imagine traveling upward of three hours to attend or even play in a recreational spotting event, for members of the Madison Cricket Association, it’s more or less the norm. Patel talks about another team, composed mostly of hotel owners who travel more than four hours on weekends just to play in the league. 


“It’s kind of hard every weekend because hotels are usually busy,” he says. “But we make it just for cricket because cricket is everything for us.”


Community drives this loyalty and commitment to what is essentially a recreational sport for its players. 


“Most of the cricket in Wisconsin happens in the Milwaukee area, but given the greater influx of international students [and] people in Madison, cricket has started to pick up pace,” says Abhishek Singh, a Madison-based cricket fan. “Unfortunately Madison cricket isn’t associated with any of the national cricket associations, so we do not have any professional tournaments happening here. Some of our cricket players do travel to Chicago to get exposure to higher-grade cricket tournaments.” 


While the cricket-playing population in the U.S. may be small, in India, it’s massive. Almost everyone in India follows the game to some degree, and the world’s best league, aptly named the Indian Premier League, is based in the country. While those who follow sports in the U.S. may have their interests spread out over as many as six or seven different sports or leagues, in India, cricket reigns supreme. It’s this overwhelming unity of following one sport that allows Indians who’ve moved to the United States the ability to instantly connect over the game. 


“So cricket is the purpose we met, but cricket made us friends,” says Akash Shakunala, a batsman for Indie Blues, the other team competing in this year’s association final.

Shakunala, who’s originally from South India, chats about the sport while he waits for his turn to bat. 


“Cricket brings you huge circles [of friends],” says Shakunala, who came to the United States to obtain his masters degree at Rutgers University in New Jersey 10 years ago. “They bring all the families together, so even [outside] of cricket we have gatherings. All the wives or partners of players are friends now, the kids are friends now. It becomes a huge community.” 


Work brought Shakunala to Madison, where he joined Indie Blues, a team that’s existed in one form or another for roughly ten years. The team plays in several different tournaments in Madison, all with varying rule sets that include differences from the type of balls used to the amount of overs — similar to innings — played. 


“[I’m] very happy to see someone interested in doing something for cricket,” says Shakunala, before being cut off by cheers and protests caused by a controversial play. A batsman has been stumped out after a trick play from the bowler. Instead of throwing the ball to the opposite batter, the bowler instead faked the bowl, kept the ball himself and stumped the batter nearest to him out. This is only made clear when Shakunala explains it amidst the continued cries of excitement and frustration from the two teams. In short, imagine a runner being caught trying to steal second.


With the out, Shakunala is called up to bat, and our conversation is over.

This flash of excitement has brought many players attention back to the game, and those on the sideline are now more interested in the game at hand then the conversations they’d been having previously. Like baseball, cricket’s pace of play often allows for more relaxation and conversation than sports like soccer or basketball. However, with the recent out and high-stakes of the championship game, there’s little that feels relaxed about today’s game. 


Despite the recent out, Indie Blues are, as far as an inexperienced eye can tell, playing well. Repeated cheers of “Good batting!” erupt from the Indie Blues sideline as a ball soars through the air and over the circular boundary of the field for six points. The cries, which confirm suspicions about how the game is going, interrupt a conversation with Abhishek Manikyala, a friend of an Indie Blues player who has come to watch the final. 


“For people that are moving here to Wisconsin … it’s instantly like you have a whole group of friends that you can do stuff with,” says Manikyala, who is originally from New Jersey, where cricket is much more popular due to the larger number of immigrants from cricket-playing countries. 


“In Madison I wasn’t really expecting there to be a league,” he says. “For people that are coming here on student visas … you instantly have a community. You don’t have to like to go out looking for people.” 


This sense of community can provide valuable support for those coming to the U.S. for the first time from other countries, specifically India in this case. 


“I think having these people there to, in a way, show them the ropes and show them how everything works … how the taxes work here compared to how they do in India, how to interact with people in a work environment … I think it’s good to have people that have to show you the basics of what you need to survive professionally and socially,” Manikyala says. 


This sense of community and relationship seems to be the overwhelming theme of the day. Recreational sports may offer residents a chance to stay in shape, make a few friends and play a sport they enjoy — but for this community of cricketers, it’s about much more. Cricket not only provides them a sport, but it gives them a community away from home. 


“You come here on a Friday night to hang out with your friends,” Manikyala says. “You have a game, let’s say Saturday and Sunday, and you leave after the game on Sunday. You just hang out with your friends the whole weekend. No one will hesitate if you say that you want to spend the weekend at their place.” 


Another cheer interrupts our conversation — this time from the Patidar 11 players. They’ve made another out (or taken another wicket in cricket terms), and the game reaches its first break, as Indie Blues are now halfway through their batting lineup. The game is roughly a quarter over and has been going on for nearly an hour and a half. 


As the Indie Blues batsmen trot in from the center of the field, the team huddles together and begins conversing in a tone best described as strategic. 


Despite Indie Blues strong start, the second half of their batting order fails to live up to their first, and the last two batsmen only score 38 runs between them. Their total is 111, a number that Patidar 11 match with ease. With only three outs — or wickets — of the required ten to end the game, Patidar 11’s Tejasmoyad Patel makes contact with the ball and sends it through the air and over the boundary bringing their total from 108 to 114 to win the game. While Patel and his fellow batsmen react calmly to the hit and subsequent win, the announcers who’ve been live streaming the game to YouTube erupt into celebratory calls. It’s not long before members of Patidar 11 have joined their batsmen at midfield, jumping up and down in celebration. 


The afternoon ends in handshakes, medals and trophies being handed out to Patidar 11, and despite the loss, a majority of Indie Blues players have stuck around to have their own post-game celebrations to mark the end of the season. 


The scene emphasizes a comment made by Patel at the beginning of the afternoon. 


“India is a nation of festivals,” he says. “When it comes to cricket, it brings us all together.” 

Featured photo provided by Pixabay.