Passion for cricket runs deep on South Quad

Another student walks through the South Quad, unaware he’s interrupting athletes in the midst of their practice.

Rather than take issue with the student, one of the athletes apologizes.

“Why are you apologizing?” sophomore Salman Khan asks his teammate, cricket bat in hand.

“Because this is not the place to play,” responds Ph.D. student Zeeshan Fazal assertively.

A sinking sun and chiming bells mark the start of Tuesday’s last practice on the South Quad, by no means an ideal location, before the Illini Cricket Cup final on Sunday. Donning a mixture of shorts, T-shirts, khakis, polos and even dress pants, the men in attendance comprise a bunch hardly fitting the stereotypical athlete profile. Filled with quips and friendly gibes, this evening is a casual one littered with laughs and cigarette drags.

But underneath this relaxed demeanor, there is a passion in each ball bowled, each bat, and each ball thrown back.

Separate from the Cricket Club of Illinois, which has been around since the 1980s, this group is participating in the Illini Cricket Cup, a tournament that was organized in part by Khan and which has returned after a several-year hiatus. Khan, who grew up in Urbana, saw cricket prosper here when he was a child. His older brother graduated from Illinois in 2009, but by the time he started school, the sport had taken a backseat for most students.

“My dad played first-class cricket in Pakistan, which is like semi-professional, so cricket has always been really big in my family,” said Khan, who also plays for the Cricket Club of Illinois. “I want people here to know what cricket is. A lot of people don’t understand that cricket is one of the top five sports in the world.”

The hope of such a revival is to inspire new generations of cricket lovers and bring the sport greater appreciation in the United States.

“There is nothing like the mental strength it builds,” Khan said. “It’s a long game, tensions rise really quickly. With school, with relationships, it has really taught me how to approach things in life outside of the cricket field.”

Many see it similar to baseball as Fazal notes, but cricket in its own right is a complex game that differs in format and duration across multiple platforms.

A game of cricket usually comprises two innings; each team has one inning to bat and the other inning to field. The goal is to score more runs than the opponent. In the center of the circular field is the pitch where much of the action occurs. Two batters stand on opposite sides of the pitch, and the bowler, essentially equivalent to baseball’s pitcher, stands ready to bowl.

In the Cricket Club of Illinois and, furthermore, most professional cricket teams worldwide, the team of 11 players uses a hard ball made of cork and leather, thus forcing the batters and pitchers to wear safety equipment. The Illini Cricket Cup is less formal and has been played using tennis balls, and has only eight players per team due to lack of players.

The Illini Cricket Cup games are also about one-fourth of the length of club games.

Following the finale of the Illini Cricket Cup, which is to be played Sunday at 10 a.m., there will be an India-Pakistan student friendly at 12:30 p.m., which will also be held on the South Quad.

Recreating one of the world’s most intense sporting rivalries, this match touches on how cricket is more than just a game.

“Cricket is just like religion in Pakistan,” said Fazal, who plans to teach his 2-month-old son the game as soon as possible. “It’s the second religion in Pakistan. We are all emotionally tied to cricket.”

With three wars between them since the Partition of India in 1947, the relations between India and Pakistan have been anything but easy. But the role of cricket diplomacy has fostered an opportunity to bridge the gaps between the countries.

“I’ve always admired cricket because in a baseball game, you see a manager come out who doesn’t agree with an umpire’s call,” said Khan. “It’s not like that in cricket. If there is a call that doesn’t go your way, you can’t do much about it. It’s a really disciplined game. It’s a gentleman’s game amongst the players.”

Enraptured by not only the game, the 2011 high stakes political match up of India-Pakistan in the semifinal match of the ICC Cricket World Cup drew an estimated 1 billion viewers worldwide, according to various reports.

Freshman Manvendra Singh, whose team was eliminated from the Illini Cricket Cup, was able to attend an India-Pakistan match back in 2009 in Abu Dhabi where he witnessed firsthand the heightened encounter.

“During the game, there was lots of tension and gut-wrenching moments,” said Singh. “Cheering from both sides never stopped. The atmosphere was almost more memorable than the game itself, and this seems to always be the case when it comes to India-Pakistan games.”

Reflecting a civilized game on the field, the game of cricket in these men’s eyes has the potential to not only heal deeply seeded divides, but to also emerge in the U.S. as another thriving sport.

Though the South Quad is close to 8,000 miles away from the famed 2011 match and filled with students constantly interrupting the games, there is a hope to not only spread the passion invoked in each game of cricket, but a general interest in the sport as well as with tournaments and events such as these.

At a glimpse, the South Quad appears a terrible location; but it may prove to be the best one yet.

Charlotte can be reached at [email protected] and @charlottecrrll.