Cricket, the second most popular sport in the world, trailing only soccer, is rising in popularity across Chicago and the United States, the world’s biggest sports market.
Much like the rise of pickleball in the Chicagoland area, cricket has never been so popular throughout Naperville and the surrounding suburbs.
“There’s a lot of curiosity around the sport; people are checking it out,” said Nadeem Zain, President of Chicago United, a leading cricket team based out of Naperville. “Back in the day when I came here about 27 years ago, people did not know what cricket was. Today, I don’t have to explain to them what it is. They know it’s not cricket as an insect; they know it’s a sport.”
Zain and his team at Chicago United recently wrapped up the 2023 season, where they appeared in five championships and won three titles. A handful of players spoke with NCTV17 about the sport and showed us an indoor practice at Not Out Ventures in Aurora.
A sport spread by immigration
Historically, cricket has been a sport spread by immigration and is mostly played in countries that were once British colonies. According to USA Cricket, the sport was introduced to North America as early as 1709.
Tim Lockley, an American history expert at Warwick University, says on the USA Cricket website that by 1860, it had become the most popular sport in the country. The Civil War era saw baseball become the dominant pastime thanks mostly to baseball games lasting hours versus cricket matches that could take days.
Just like how the sport was first introduced to the U.S., the recent revival stems from immigration. The cricket frenzy across Chicagoland took decades in the making, as it wasn’t until a wave of immigrants with a passion for the sport began to reside in Naperville and the surrounding areas.
“The immigrants, there was an influx,” said Zain. “More immigrants were coming in, specifically from South Asia. There was an IT and software engineering boom, so that’s when that batch of immigrants came in, and I’m one of them!”
Chicago United consists of players from every corner of the world, making it a very diverse team, which is true for many squads around the area.
“Back in India, you don’t get to play with too many internationals, but here you get the opportunity to play with a lot of internationals, so the quality is improving here as well,” said Roopan Kumar, an immigrant from India and a cricketer for Chicago United.
Factors that have limited cricket’s growth in Chicagoland
First-generation American-born kids also enjoy the sport. The USA qualified for the 2024 Under-19 Cricket World Cup for the second time in the global event’s history, as more and more kids have started to play.
But even with a surge of young cricketers, the entire country is still behind when it comes to teaching the sport at the grassroots level.
“Well, the difference is that back in Jamaica and the Caribbean as a whole, we start playing cricket in schools; we have a different academy for cricket,” said Donieke Perrin, an immigrant from Jamaica and cricketer for Chicago United. “One other thing too is the conditions climate-wise, especially in Chicago, where we have like three months of summer, so our season starts in a little colder conditions and finishes with a little cooler conditions.”
Cricket fields and facilities around the Chicago area
Despite these factors that have limited the growth, there seems to be a new era of cricket that’s here to stay.
Indoor facilities around Naperville have recently opened because of the demand for cricket practices during the colder months. Not Out Ventures and Play N Thrive Club are among the newer facilities.
Youth leagues and camps can be found throughout the suburbs, and there have even been discussions for the Illinois High School Association to make cricket a sanctioned high school sport.
On the other hand, outdoor cricket infrastructure in the U.S., specifically in Chicago, can be hard to find. Many Chicagoans are forced to drive out of the city to find a team and field. However, the suburbs have provided more opportunities for players to find the space needed to compete.
“When I moved to the United States, I tried to play close to my house, but there are no proper fields,” said Mohammed Samiuddin, an immigrant from India and cricketer for Chicago United. “So in Chicago, I don’t see any cricket fields, so maybe 30 miles away, I see Naperville and Hanover Park, which have good fields as compared to the city.”
In 2008, the Naperville Park District was the first in the entire country to offer a park district-sponsored cricket pitch at Commissioners Park. Since then, more fields have popped up around Chicagoland.
“As of today, we have approximately 26 to 27 cricket fields in the area,” said Zain. “Naperville has two of them, Bolingbrook has one, and I believe Oswego is going to be having one soon. So there’s quite a few around the area.”
Cricket’s brightest stars will soon shine in America
Former U-19 USA captain, and Waubonsie Valley High School Alum, Abhijit Joshi along with former USA Men’s captain, Ibrahim Khaleel come from Chicago United. Khaleel currently holds the world record for 14-wicket-keeping dismissals in a first-class match. As the sport continues to allure American-born youth, the Chicago area is expected to produce more such international cricket players.
The world’s top teams just finished competing at the 2023 ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup, held in India, as the host nation fell to Australia in the final on Sunday.
The game’s brightest stars are soon set to shine in America, as the 2024 ICC Men’s T-20 World Cup will have some games played in Florida, New York, and Texas, with the rest being played in the West Indies. Major League Cricket, the first-ever professional U.S. Twenty20 (T-20) cricket league also began play this year.
T-20, the newest and shortest form of cricket, will be played at the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, reintroducing cricket to the historic games for the first time since 1900. Both men’s and women’s teams will be fielded, with the United States automatically qualified as the host nation.
“We’ll be seeing teams like Australia, India, Pakistan, South Africa, England, Bangladesh,” said Zain. These are some of the top teams in the world that are going to be influencing our youth to play the sport.”
Oswego cricket stadium could hold up to 24,000 fans
On November 7th, the Oswego Village Board approved a special use permit for an outdoor cricket stadium, along with a restaurant and hotel. The stadium will be built in multiple phases and could eventually accommodate up to 24,000 fans with aspirations to host professional cricket matches. So the opportunity to see this global phenomenon could soon be available just a few miles down the road.
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