T20 World Cup brings cricket ‘home’ for New York’s South Asian community

A group of semi-professional players have kept cricket alive in New York, but now they hope the World Cup will inspire the next generation.

cricket in new york immigrants
Sami Khan, who plays in New York's Commonwealth Cricket League, rests while waiting for his turn to bat during a match [Sadef Ali Kully/Al Jazeera]

Long Island, New York —  On a cool Sunday afternoon in May, Anjum Sabar – captain of PakAmerica Cricket Club – watched on as his team batted against Hawks Cricket Club on a grassy field at Eisenhower Park in Long Island, New York.

The match – part of New York’s Commonwealth Cricket League (CCL) – was being played a stone’s throw away from what is now the Nassau County International Cricket Stadium, one of the venues for the in-progress ICC Men’s T20 World Cup.

As workers applied finishing touches to the purpose-built modular stadium – set to host cricket’s South Asian powerhouses India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh – two teams comprising semi-professional cricketers of South Asian heritage played the game nearby.

Sabar, a 43-year-old businessman, migrated to the United States from Pakistan in 1998 and began playing cricket with PakAmerica a year later. Sadaf Sabar, his wife of 14 years, knows better than to ask him for a helping hand on weekends because every Sunday, Sabar heads out to different parks in New York to play the game he grew up with in Pakistan.

“Back home” cricket matches were always watched on the television at his family home in Sialkot, a northeastern Pakistani city that is renowned as the country’s leading sports equipment manufacturing hub.

“I have never been to the stadium to watch a match,” Sabar tells Al Jazeera while watching his PakAmerica teammates.

“We watched the game on TV and played it in the streets – like all Pakistani kids do.”

cricket in new york immigrants
PakAmerica Cricket Club’s captain Anjum Sabar, left, watches the players on the field as Sarmad Khan, right,  holds up his bat towards the end of a match in New York [Sadef Ali Kully/ Al Jazeera]

Cricket fans – old and new

It is a similar story for many South Asian cricketers who now call New York home and play the game to stay connected to their roots.

For Sabar and his friends, cricket back home meant collecting money to buy tennis balls for their tape-ball games on the streets; running back and forth in chappals (slippers) as friends yelled “aik aur, aik aur” (one more run) from the sidelines and rushing back home before the evening maghrib prayer.

Now, those neighbourhood cricket matches come alive when the South Asian diaspora gathers in New York’s parks after a week of life’s rat race.

Back at Eisenhower Park, the PakAmerica vs Hawks CC game had an unexpected spectator.

Mike Niewender, a bemused 56-year-old from the affluent New Hyde Park village in Long Island, watched on from the car park.

“I don’t understand the game,” Niewender told Al Jazeera as he smoked a cigar leaning up against his heavy bike.

“I am trying to figure it out on my own before I see something on social media or read about it,” he said looking out towards the pitch.

“I drive out here every Sunday and watch the game. I came across the game last summer and now, I come here every weekend to relax on my Sunday.”

INTERACTIVE - Men's T20 World Cup-stadiums-venues-map-2023 copy 2-1716469524
[Al Jazeera]

Keeping cricket alive in New York

Cricket has been around in New York for 44 years. The CCL came together in New York in 1979 and comprises more than 120 clubs, according to Long Island community leader Imran Pasha, who grew up playing cricket in Hyderabad, India.

He claims that “every type of cricket match” is played in New York. “From hard-ball to soft-ball to tape-ball to hard-tennis – everything.”

Now, New York is playing host to much higher-profile and higher-stakes matches.

Last year, the US bagged hosting rights for 16 of the 53 T20 World Cup 2024 matches, including, arguably the biggest one barring the final: India vs Pakistan.

Long Island’s modular stadium, which came together piece by piece over the past few months, can hold approximately 40,000 spectators. It is expected to fill up to capacity come June 9.

In 2023, the ICC had chosen a location in the Bronx to set up the stadium, but community members and local leaders raised environmental concerns and demanded a public review of an environmental study before the approval of the stadium. The approval would have had to go through a public review process which could have taken up to six months, prompting the ICC to move to Long Island, according to Pasha.

“Long Island has the space and the environment to host something as large and spectacular as the World Cup,” he tells Al Jazeera.

The 45-year-old plays for the Long Island Cricket Club in the local league. He has been working with Nassau County’s local subcommittee that liaises with the ICC on matters related to hosting the eight New York-based matches.

A software engineer by profession, Pasha is excited about the opportunities that the World Cup matches could bring for the local cricket community, as well as businesses across Nassau County.

“We work hard to keep the clubs as professional as possible through local sponsorships, trained umpires, kits, equipment, park permits,” he said.

“[These things] take time and money, but we come together and try our best.”

Pasha is banking on the World Cup to “change the dynamics of how cricket is received in New York”.

“The stadium alone has brought much-needed attention to the local clubs – attention they have been waiting and hoping to gain for some time.”

nassau county
The Nassau County International Cricket Stadium was constructed for the ICC T20 World Cup in Long Island, New York [Seth Wenig/AP]

Inspiring the next generation

Pasha, who is known in the local community for his honesty and hard work, hopes the tournament will have a domino effect on the local cricket scene.

“It could lead to [proper] scouting opportunities for team USA and organising inter-state matches – similar to how cricket is played in other countries,” he explained.

Others, like Neville Kunjravia, see the World Cup as a networking opportunity. The 34-year-old has been mastering the role of a cricket umpire for years and hopes that the ICC will take note. His dream is to umpire coveted matches, such as the World Cup.

He umpired the PakAmerica-Hawks CC match sporting a navy blue floppy hat – similar to the one used in cricket umpiring.

For Ali Zar, who owns the only known cricket equipment shop – Zar Sports – in Long Island, it is a feeling of pride and excitement that cricket is finally coming “home” for him and other South Asian diaspora like him.

“The World Cup was always held somewhere else and I never had a chance to go watch a game or be part of the excitement,” he said.

The 38-year-old was not able to buy tickets for the games in New York, but he hopes the presence of the world’s biggest cricket players will “attract the younger generation to the game”.

“We all bring our kids to our [local] games, but that’s different from them wanting to join as players.”

Sabar, the PakAmerica captain, has high hopes pinned on the tournament, too.

“I really want to see younger folk have the same passion for the game as us,” he said.

“I hope they keep the stadium here for the local teams, so that younger generations get to enjoy cricket the way we do.”

Source: Al Jazeera