Houston, we have a cricket league
In Houston, land of pickup trucks and cowboy boots, a group of expats from India have built a cricket club of dynastic proportions.
The Houston Indian Cricket Club has won eight Houston Cricket League championships and recorded four runner-up finishes in the past 15 seasons. The club is so good that a number of first-class cricketers, such as Ranji Trophy player Milind Kumar, have competed here as a way to compile statistics and stay active during the rainy season back home.
Former West Indies international player Ricardo Powell competed and coached for HICC in recent years. Niraj Shah and Amir Nanji, former professionals in India, have also played with HICC. Both Shah and Nanji have represented Team USA internationally. Kumar played for HICC in 2016, and the club hopes to have the 26-year-old back on its top team this year if his pro commitments in India allow him to do so.
"I'm pretty sure [Kumar] enjoyed our activities after the games and enjoyed being in another country," said Monik Patel, 36, an Ahmedabad native who plays for HICC's second team and serves as club treasurer. "During the games, he brings a lot of experience for our team-mates. Obviously, he puts up some numbers so it benefits our team and it benefits him."
Varun Singh, 32, a Mumbai native who plays for HICC's top team and serves as club secretary, said his team-mates greatly enjoy competing alongside someone as skilled and insightful as Kumar.
"Although he is younger, our players learn from him -- the way he thinks about the game and the way he thinks about certain situations," Singh said.
A highlight of the schedule for the Houston cricket community is the annual Independence Cup exhibition match held each summer, pitting expats from India against counterparts from Pakistan. The competition commemorates the dates when those countries mark their independence from the British Empire in 1947 - Pakistan on August 14 and India on August 15 - and Singh has played in the annual event six times.
"When I wear the blue [India uniform], in front of 300 or 400 people, I feel like I'm on the national team," Singh said.
This is all pretty heady stuff for a club existing in the large shadow of American football in the Lone Star State. To realize how much HICC has grown over the years, consider its humble beginnings when it was founded as Jolly Cricket Club nearly 40 years ago. There were very few Indian families and no dedicated cricket venues in the region at that time.
"There was only a few grounds available at that point in time," said Singh. "There used to be only three teams. There were not a lot of people who were playing cricket back then. It was a bunch of guys who were either working in one of the oil and gas companies."
Today, metropolitan Houston has approximately 130,000 residents of Indian descent, and there are 13 cricket organisations in the region. HICC, with approximately 60 full-time members and another 40 or so who play occasionally, occupies its own playing ground in suburban Richmond. Most area clubs field multiple squads, accounting for close to 30 teams that compete in the HCL. There are three divisions that utilise a system of promotion and relegation and play 40-overs and 20-overs formats. Players from Australia, England, Pakistan, South Africa and the Caribbean also have competed in the HCL.
In addition to the top-flight HCL, there are a number of "taped ball" recreational leagues held on Saturdays that allow players to compete in less strenuous setting that doesn't require all the equipment necessary to play traditional cricket with a hard ball. Competitors range in age from about 20 to 50-plus.
Amrish Ghodasara, 38, is an Ahmedabad native who plays for HICC's second team and helps organise the Saturday leagues as club vice president. Because many more players participate on Saturdays than Sundays, he said that organisers jokingly refer to the Saturday leagues as "Bollywood" in a nod to the much larger quantity of movies produced in India compared to the United States. The Sunday league is "Hollywood" because of the higher skill level.
"They want to come play the T20 format in an organised [setting]," Ghodasara said of the Saturday players. "They want to be part of an amateur league. They want a field that's dedicated to cricket. They want a schedule. They want the playoffs, the quarterfinals, the finals and the cups. The competition is there. The intensity is there."
Combining both formats, approximately 1000 cricket players participate on a typical weekend throughout the Houston area, including women and children. But this isn't meant to imply that Texas cricketers reject American sporting culture.
Singh, Ghodasara and Patel, for example, follow pro football. Singh is a fan of the New England Patriots, while Ghodasara and Patel support the local Houston Texans. But while the NFL helps connect Indian transplants to new friends here in the States, cricket forms an integral part of a cultural thread back to their homeland. To wit, most of the HICC membership travelled together to watch India play against the West Indies in a T20 match last year in Lauderhill, Florida.
That said, the HICC is more than a sports group. Members and their families socialise far beyond the playing ground. They hold frequent extracurricular events, culminating with a large annual banquet.
"Everyone knows each other," Singh said. "The families hang out. We have the same circle of friends. That's how we have been able to successfully promote this culture into our club. It was passed onto us by the founders of the club, and we have been able to maintain that over the years."
Thomas Neumann is an international writer at espn.com