Cricket gaining in popularity as population shifts

Sunday mornings at parks across metro Atlanta, the bats and balls are joined by bowlers and stumps.

On baseball and soccer fields throughout the region, cricket enthusiasts — largely immigrants — gather on homemade pitches to play a modified version of the sport they grew up with. They’re looking for exercise and camaraderie, but they also hope their visibility will help cricket make the leap that soccer has, from select audience to broad appeal.

“It’s still not at that point, but it’s catching,” said Anj Balusu, president of the Atlanta Cricket League. “It’s fast-paced, exciting, entertaining.”

A decade ago, the idea of a permanent cricket field would have seemed absurd. But the foreign-born population in Gwinnett, Fulton, DeKalb and Cobb counties increased by 61 percent between 2000 and 2013, to 564,790 people, according to census data. Now, both Gwinnett County and the city of Johns Creek have cricket fields in their parks master plans, though there is no time frame for when they might be built.

The adjustment is one of several accommodations governments are making to adapt to their changing populations. Others include court translation services, documents printed in multiple languages and efforts to hire diverse employees, in order to better represent — and connect with — communities.

Cricket is hugely popular in India and in other former British colonies. In Georgia, the Census Bureau estimates nearly 70,000 residents emigrated from India. After Mexico, it’s the largest country of origin for Georgia immigrants.

“In the U.S., it’s a way to keep your ethnic identity as you’re melting into the melting pot,” said Mark Dyreson, a professor of the history of sport at Penn State.

When the Atlanta Cricket League began in 2007, Balusu said, it had 22 teams. This year, there are 100, and he expects more in the future. Balusu’s company, FutureTech, is sponsoring a $10,000 tournament this weekend, and hopes to create enough enthusiasm for the sport to start a semi-professional regional league, as well as to begin a cricket academy. FutureTech is willing to invest millions in infrastructure to support the sport.

“Awareness is coming, but not because of us,” said Sravan Vellanki, a cricket enthusiast and FutureTech’s chairman, president and CEO. “We played cricket. We want to invest in the things we understand.”

Balusu said 90 percent of the Atlanta Cricket League’s players are foreign-born, and 80 percent are South Asian. Increased interest in cricket is a sign that new immigrant groups are getting large enough to carve out their own community spaces.

“It’s nice to have this here because our population, our culture’s changing,” said Lisa Cherry, the deputy director of the Alpharetta recreation and parks department, which rents fields to the Atlanta Cricket League. “We’re glad we’re able to provide some space for them because there’s great interest in it.”

While cricket players are waiting for their own fields to be built, they make do — removing bases from baseball diamonds or playing on soccer fields. They shorten the match, which traditionally runs for days, to end before church lets out and baseball, softball or soccer players take back their fields.

When State Farm Insurance opens its national operations center in Dunwoody, even more cricket players could be taking to the fields, Balusu said. At the company’s Indiana headquarters, four years of coaching clinics have led a lot of employees who had no familiarity with the sport to pick it up, said systems department manager Venkata Komaragiri. About half of State Farm’s players are new to cricket, Komaragiri said.

Clinics for children can help sports make the leap to mainstream, said Tina Fleming, the operations division director for Gwinnett County parks and recreation. She said the players’ passion for the game can help more people learn about it. And the county is trying to diversify its offerings to meet the needs of its population. In addition to cricket, the parks department is looking for other sports that have high immigrant interest, Fleming said. It has added table tennis tables and is creating badminton courts in county-owned gyms.

Such sports aren’t fads, said Kirk Franz, the recreation manager for Johns Creek.

“It’s important to see the shift, to not ignore the segment of the population that wants to do other things,” he said. “I’ve been telling people here that cricket’s coming. It’s even on ESPN, they’re showing highlights.”

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