The game of cricket has taken hold in Texas’ largest city, as a culture of sports competition meets a growing South Asian population.
WHY WE’RE HERE
We’re exploring how America defines itself, one place at a time. A cricket complex outside Houston hosts youth and professional players alike, reflecting the sport’s growing popularity in a changing city.
J. David Goodman and Meridith Kohut watched cricket in Prairie View, Texas, and attended the first Major League Cricket draft in Houston.
Drive northwest out of Houston, and as cow pastures wrestle back the flat expanse from the city’s tentacled sprawl, there arise along the road, suddenly, improbably, many, many cricket fields.
Head south to find a small cricket stadium nestled in the suburbs, or west to find fields sprouting in county parks.
The game of cricket — a bat-ball-and-wicket contest of patience and athleticism that was born in Britain and is barely understood by most Americans — has surprisingly taken hold in the land of Friday night football. A surging population of South Asian immigrants around Houston and Dallas imported their favorite sport to their adopted home, where it has grown amid a Lone Star culture of competition in all things, especially sports.
Cricket’s swift rise in Houston has attracted international attention and helped make Texas the launching pad for the sport’s first American professional league, Major League Cricket, whose inaugural season began on Thursday outside Dallas.
“One of the unknown things about Houston is the diversity of the population from many cricket-playing countries,” said Tim Cork, a deputy consul general at the British consulate in Houston. “There are Indians, Pakistanis, there’s obviously a huge number of Brits here, Australian accents wherever you go.”
The number of people of Indian heritage in Texas has doubled over the last decade to a half a million, according to estimates from the Census Bureau’s annual survey, including 73,000 in Harris County, which includes Houston, and 64,000 in suburban Fort Bend County.
“When I came to this country, the only sport I knew was cricket,” said KP George, the county judge in Fort Bend, who immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1993. When he was elected in 2018, none of the county parks had a cricket field, he said. Now there are seven, and each is reserved for play months in advance.
“There’s a huge demand,” he said. “We’re working on a couple more fields.”
The pace of the sport’s development in Houston has surprised even those who have been working to make it happen.
Houston played host to a player draft for the new professional league in March at the Johnson Space Center, one of the biggest tourist sites in the city. In the fields to the northwest of Houston, the league’s newly minted teams came together this month for training camps.
“We always thought we would be building it slowly,” said Mangesh Chaudhari, 38, an owner of the Prairie View Cricket Complex who, starting in 2018, oversaw the task of flattening a swath of farmland about 50 miles northwest of the city into six oval cricket fields. “Suddenly, cricket picked up.”
The location, along a major highway in Prairie View, Texas, offered both the right kind of clay soil for the grass pitch where cricketers bowl and bat, and free advertising to passing cars on U.S. Route 290.
The project, conceived and funded by a Houston businessman, Tanweer Ahmed, was a Field-of-Dreams gamble that if they built it, people would come. It worked better and faster than they had anticipated, Mr. Chaudhari said, adding that the complex was still a work in progress. For example, there are still no lights or permanent restrooms.
One weekday in June, dozens of cars streamed into the cricket complex. Young players arrived from Atlanta and Dallas for a youth tournament, lugging large bags of bats and pads in the gathering heat.
“Good luck, boys! Good luck! Play hard!” Golam Nowsher, 61, yelled to his teenage players from the Houston area as they took the field.
Mr. Nowsher immigrated from Bangladesh, where he had been a star player, and has been coaching young cricketers around Houston. He watched as his team batted at the start of what would be a roughly five-hour match, bantering about cricket and careers with the players, who huddled on bleachers under a small square of shade.
“Who are the guys going to study A. I.?” he asked.
“I’m studying computer science,” one player said.
“I thought you were going to be a doctor?” Mr. Nowsher replied.
As the 17-year-old captain of the team, Arya Kannantha, waited for his turn to bat, he said he had been thinking about college, and also about trying to make a U.S. national team. Despite the growth of cricket around Houston, few of his classmates in suburban Katy — home to one of the largest and most expensive high school football stadiums in the country — were familiar with cricket.
“Not many people at my school play it,” Arya said. He added, laughing: “They just think it’s baseball, but weird.”
Far from a curiosity, cricket is a passion in Texas’s booming South Asian community and is poised to become a big business, drawing major local investors including Ross Perot Jr., the businessman and son of the former independent presidential candidate. Mr. Perot, along with his business partner, Anurag Jain, is an owner of the local major league team, the Texas Super Kings.
Mr. Perot said he recently discussed cricket with Gov. Greg Abbott during a visit by the former British prime minister, Boris Johnson. “I said, ‘Mr. Prime Minister, I want you to know, we’re bringing cricket to this state,’” Mr. Perot said. “He was shocked, and he loved it.”
Mr. Jain, who grew up playing cricket in Chennai, India, and now lives in Dallas, encouraged investment in the nascent U.S. professional league, citing the sport’s huge international following and the large fan base in Texas. “They will tell you food is a way to a man’s heart,” Mr. Jain said. “Cricket is the way to a South Asian’s heart. It’s more than a sport, it’s a way of life.”
The arrival of cricket has given hope to some leaders in Prairie View, home to the historically Black state university, Prairie View A&M, that the tournaments will become a revenue stream for the cash-strapped town, even though it has few cricket aficionados or South Asian residents.
“Our stance is to help them out, help them grow,” said Kendric Jones, a county commissioner and graduate of the university. “It’s a tourist attraction.”
On an evening in March, hundreds of people gathered at the Johnson Space Center for the player draft for Major League Cricket.
Inside, under suspended satellites and astronaut suits, cricket fans and investors in the league’s six inaugural teams — based in New York, Seattle, Washington, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Texas — mingled with the young prospective players.
Harmeet Singh, who grew up playing in Mumbai and was picked first overall in the draft, recently moved from Seattle to a large house in the Houston suburb of Katy.
“Weather-wise, I can play more here,” Mr. Singh, 30, said, standing with his wife and 2-year-old daughter. “It was an upgrade — we were in an apartment in Seattle for the same price.”
Standing at the back of the museum hall, by a large space capsule and a table of small hamburgers, were many of the people who helped develop the sport in Houston, including Yogesh Patel, 75, who began a cricket club after arriving in the city nearly five decades ago.
“It feels like what I dreamt in 1976 has come true,” he said, looking around. “Houston has become a capital of cricket in the U.S.A.”