When Neeraj Kher came to live in the United States, he thought he’d made a mistake. He couldn’t find any cricket.
He had always been a cricket player. Born in New Delhi, India, he had learned the sport young, and then lived in two other cricket-playing countries, Australia and England.
But then, he settled in Newport, New Jersey, in 2011 for work and to be closer to his sister.
“The first year here I almost went into depression,” Kher says. He thought, “I can’t live here. I have to go back to England or Australia.”
Luckily, one day while driving past a Target store, he saw a man “wearing whites” — traditional cricket-playing clothing. Kher pulled over and approached the man to ask where he’d played cricket that day.
Kher was surprised to learn there was a massive cricket organization serving the greater New York metro area called the Commonwealth Cricket League.
The Commonwealth Cricket League has more than 70 teams with players as diverse as the city and its outlying area.
But then again, perhaps it’s not actually that strange to think the sport would be beloved across the tri-state area. After all, cricket is played in more than a hundred different countries, and that section of the Northeast is home to well over 5 million immigrants.
Kher quickly began playing for the nearby Hoboken Cricket Club, a team in the CCL. And today, he serves as the team’s vice president, working side-by-side with its founder and president Darragh Dempsey, an Irishman.
“What I really like about the CCL is that you don’t have to be from a specific background to play,” says Kher.
League games give people a chance to become friends with players, their families, and fans from all around the world.
According to Kher, there are other cricket leagues in the area that only cater to people from individual countries, aimed at strengthening bonds within their particular immigrant communities. But in the CCL, “As long as you have 11 players who are committed … you can play in the league,” he says.
The players set a beautiful tone of inclusion — willing to put aside bitter sports-based rivalries originating in their respective homelands.
“Given that I’m from India, we have a huge rivalry with Pakistan,” Kher says. On the field of play, Kher admits those in the CCL are highly competitive, but off the field, he says, “there’s no anger, or animosity; there’s no turf war, nothing like that.”
That said, cricket has faced challenges catching on in the majority of the United States.
Traditional cricket games can span three to five days, though there’s a shorter version where games last about six hours. Such lengthy gameplay can make it virtually impossible for working-class people to get into cricket, even though less equipment is required for a contest, compared to the likes of hockey or golf.
Moreover, the weather experienced by much of the U.S. means cricket can’t be played year-round, which obviously isn’t the case in the warmer, cricket-crazed regions across Africa and Southeast Asia.
Still, the highly inclusive CCL is growing, and many in the league are taking action to expand it further to ensure its future.
Kher’s Hoboken Cricket Club has done local outreach and set up camps where children can learn the sport. He’s sure that there will be interest in the sport, even with communities that have had less exposure to it, like the local Hispanic community.
“We want to send invites to local baseball clubs, so they can come, see the game, and learn the game,” Kher says. Like many others, he believes baseball enthusiasts might find joy in cricket, as the two sports share similar characteristics.
Cricket itself is also evolving, becoming far more exciting than ever. Over the course of the past decade, an even shorter version of cricket — called T20 — has taken hold, with games lasting about as long as a baseball game. The contests are action-packed, with players taking more risks with fewer opportunities to score. Some speculate this incarnation could help cricket gain greater fandom in the U.S., offering opportunities for cultures once separated by oceans to find common ground.
A day at the cricket field can be enjoyed by anyone who loves sports, no matter their cultural background.
The feel-good atmosphere is built on traditions reminiscent of those at football, baseball, or soccer games. Barbecue and all sorts of food and drinks are staples at cricket games — some of which have built-in breaks for chowing down and socializing.
So if you ever stumble upon a game of cricket, chances are you’ll be treated to a fun, educational experience that was once nonexistent in America. And if you run into an enthusiastic player and fan like Kher, you’ll no doubt leave the field with your curiosity peaked.
This story was produced as part of a campaign called “17 Days” with DICK’S Sporting Goods. These stories aim to shine a light on real occurrences of sports bringing people together.
Correction 2/28/2018: Photo captions have been updated to correct identification.