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Cricket Catches On (Again)

New Club Team is Beating the Big Boys — and Reviving the Sport on Campus

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The UMass Lowell club cricket team heads to the Northeast regional tournament Oct. 10-11 in Wrentham, looking to advance to next spring's national championship tourney in Florida.

By Ed Brennen

“We Americans never saw a game of cricket played, and knew nothing of it, until we formed a club and got some Englishmen to learn us.”

That’s how the secretary of Lowell’s very first cricket team described the sport’s British invasion — way back in 1857. 

Now, more than 150 years later, another cricket club is establishing itself in the Mill City, this one on the university’s “Wicked Blue” turf at Cushing Field Complex.

The UMass Lowell cricket club team is back in action after a seven-year hiatus, thanks largely to the efforts of club president and team captain Sahil Patel, a sophomore computer science major who grew up in Kenya playing “street cricket.” When Patel came to UMass Lowell last year through the Navitas program, he noted a large population of South Asian students on campus.

“I thought it would be a good idea to start up the club,” says Patel, who began organizing informal games last fall “just to get the interest going” and applied for club status with Campus Recreation

When the team held its first tryouts last spring, 53 would-be batters and bowlers showed up for a squad that could only carry about 15 players. The team played three organized games, going a perfect 3-0. 

This fall, the club took another giant step by joining American College Cricket (ACC), the sport’s governing association, and began playing official games. Despite being one of the newest (and youngest) teams in the country, the River Hawks won four of their first five games this season, beating the well-established likes of Harvard, Boston University and Northeastern.

The 4-1 River Hawks wrap up their fall season at the Northeast regional championship tournament Oct. 10-11 in Wrentham.

“It feels good to be playing on behalf of your school and not just for fun,” says Patel, whose team practices for three hours every Tuesday and Thursday night and plays two games every weekend — a rarity in the college ranks, where Patel says most teams play once a weekend.

“We are pushing the team to achieve great heights,” says Patel, who has been impressed with the players’ dedication and commitment.

A global game

Cricket trails only soccer in global popularity, with more than 2 billion fans across India, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, Asia and Australia. Cricket is also considered the first team sport in America, with its roots going back to the early 18th century, according to the “Encyclopedia of Ethnicity and Sports in the United States” (which chronicled the Lowell club secretary’s comment).

But following the Civil War, baseball surpassed cricket in popularity in the United States, and the sport continued to fade during the 20th century. It’s enjoyed a resurgence over the past decade on U.S. college campuses, however, fueled largely by the international student population. The ACC, which formed in 2009 with just four teams, now has more than 80 registered clubs.

The traditional form of the game is called “test cricket,” which can have matches that last as long as five days. Since that doesn’t exactly fit into a college student’s busy schedule, ACC teams play an abbreviated version of the game called “twenty20 cricket,” where each team bats for a single inning and matches usually last about three hours.

The game is played with a bat and ball on a large field, known as a ground, between two teams of 11 players each. A bowler, similar to a baseball pitcher, throws a hard, leather-bound ball to an opposing batsman, who tries to prevent the ball from hitting the wickets behind him while hitting it far enough to run to the other end of the 22-yard pitch in the middle of the field. Runs are scored when a batsman and his partner can safely cross to the other side of the pitch without the fielding team first hitting a wicket with the ball.

Patel realizes cricket’s rules, terminology and scoring system can be confusing to newbies, but he hopes the team’s success can generate some curiosity — and fans.

“When I first came here, I went to every UMass Lowell hockey game,” he says. “I never knew what was happening, but whenever the crowd cheered, I cheered. I started getting the rules slowly.”

National contenders

Patel is confident the River Hawks will fare well at the Northeast regional tournament and be one of 24 teams to earn a bid for the 2016 American College Cricket national championship tournament, which will be played March 16-20 in Lauderhill, Fla.

“We are playing real good. I’m sure we’ll book a spot in nationals,” says Patel, who can take heart in knowing that the defending national champs, University of Texas-Dallas, won the coveted Shiv Chanderpaul Trophy last spring despite being just a 3-month-old club.

Patel, whose team will train indoors over the winter, says the biggest challenge as a club sport is funding. Campus Recreation supplements 75 percent of its budget, but players must still pay dues of $150, which Patel says “can be tough.” To help bridge the gap, he and teammates raised $700 last year selling concessions at home hockey games, which they will do again this year. The money paid for team equipment this year, which isn’t cheap; a good cricket bat can go for more than $200, and teams must also have an assortment of helmets, pads and gloves.

During their season-opener at home against BU, the River Hawks fell behind early before rallying behind the batting of Yash Patel and Shivang Kapadia to upset the Terriers.

“I thought we’d lost the game. The whole sideline was quiet,” says Sahil Patel, who credits the dozen supporters in the stands for sparking his team’s comeback. “The guys were like, ‘All right, we’re getting recognition on campus, so let’s give it our all.' It was an amazing win.”

The River Hawks hope they can carry that feeling all the way to the national championship tournament this spring.

“When we go out and put on this jersey that says ‘UMass Lowell,’ it does give us a sense of pride,” Patel says. “You’re representing a campus of more than 17,000 students. And even though not everyone knows that we are here, one day at least, when we win regionals or nationals, hopefully, we will be lifting the cup on behalf of the whole campus.”