A week after immigrating to the U.S. from India in the early 2000s, Vijay Eshwaran called his father and announced he was coming home.
“I said, ‘I’m not going to stay here, I’m going to come back because there is no cricket,’” Eshwaran, 47, recalled.
Despite its status as the second-most popular sport in the world (behind soccer), cricket is relatively unknown to many Americans. But that is changing fast in Howard County, where Eshwaran and several of his friends co-founded a cricket league a decade ago that now has more than 40 teams and 1,000 players.
“When we look back, it’s amazing to see the journey,” Eshwaran said. “We started playing cricket [in India] and we flew 8,000 miles here and started cricket and it’s growing big time. We are definitely proud of ourselves to get this game to this level.”
Originating in England, cricket is similar to its American cousin baseball and features a pitcher — called a bowler — who hurls a ball at a wicket that a player on the opposing team must defend with a bat. Points are scored when the batsman hits the ball and runs to the opposite wicket 22 yards away and back as many times as he can before the other team fields and returns the ball.
In 2007, Eshwaran and others began playing a modified version of the sport on baseball fields at Meadowbrook Park and at other locations. Their dedication didn’t go unnoticed, and the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks soon partnered with them to create the official league and invest in cricket-specific facilities.
“They were showing up at Meadowbrook at the crack of dawn on a weekend to play,” said Patrick McGinnis, a recreation and parks supervisor who oversees cricket. “They were completely committed to the sport and the field arrangement wasn’t anywhere near what they had hoped. We realized there was a passion for the sport.”
Howard County now boasts six cricket pitches, including its first designated youth pitch that opened at Lake Elkhorn Middle School in August. The crown jewel of the facilities is the cricket field at Schooley Mill Park, where the county has invested more than $1 million since 2012 to level two football fields and create the county’s first true pitch. The Schooley Mill Park renovations enabled the county to host the eighth annual National Youth Cricket League tournament that brought together 93 teams from around the U.S. in July 2021.
“Just standing there gives you goosebumps,” said Ellicott City resident Murali Padmanaban, 47, another co-founder of the cricket league who now serves as commissioner. “It’s something that we have accomplished which we didn’t even dream of.”
Players drive across county and even state lines to come to Schooley Mill Park, which is one of the best cricket fields on the East Coast outside of Florida, according to Eshwaran.
Cricket’s rising popularity also reflects the increasing diversity of Howard County, where the Asian population has grown by more than 50% since the 2010 census. While a significant number of players are South Asian, league officials say individuals from other former British territories, including New Zealand and several Caribbean countries, have also joined team rosters.
Adnan Fayyaz, 31, is captain of the 786ixers team and commutes from Owings Mills to games. He immigrated from Pakistan when he was 17 and says Howard County’s investment in cricket has fostered a key sense of community.
“I would say most of my family is back home in Pakistan, but my real friends are here on the cricket ground,” said Fayyaz, who used to have to play the sport on tennis courts.
Even though Schooley Mill Park can now simultaneously host two adult games or three youth games, Eshwaran and Padmanaban have not stopped advocating for improved facilities. Next on their list is installation of lights — so that games can be played at night — and Bermuda grass, to help the ball roll faster.
“We’re at a ribbon-cutting ceremony and they’re shaking hands with the county executive, and they literally start the conversation by thanking them for the current project and finish the conversation while asking them for the next project,” McGinnis said. “They’re very determined.”
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Howard High School senior Dev Patel, 17, used to only be interested in basketball, football and soccer. That all changed when he started watching his father, Falgun, play in Howard County Cricket League matches.
“It made me fall in love with the sport and eventually I started playing youth cricket,” Patel said. “Now it’s just an everyday thing.”
Patel’s cricket career took off and this past summer he was selected for the under-21 D.C. Hawks minor league cricket team. Despite believing cricket would fade away after his generation, Falgun is now the director for Howard County’s youth cricket program.
The youth league formed in 2017 and has about 300 players, Patel said. He and other league officials also run cricket demonstrations at several Howard County elementary schools to teach kids about the sport and encourage participation.
“I can foresee that someone can [eventually] make a career of it, too,” Falgun Patel said. “A lot of big companies, a lot of big owners, they’re investing in cricket.”
With the youth league and facilities now in place, a sport many immigrants thought they would never play again has established itself as a permanent presence in the county.
“You see continuous growth of the game,” said Fayyaz, watching a match at Schooley Mill Park one sunny September afternoon. “I can envision already that [our kids] are going to continue to come here and get to play.”