By Mark Emmons
Staff Writer, Bay Area News Group
SANTA CLARA -- The Fourth of July is the all-American holiday where revelers enjoy barbecues, parades, fireworks and, of course, the sport of ... cricket?
Well, not quite. But if Sunil Kumar has his way, Bay Area residents will take some time this week to sample the international game of cricket, which has similarities to baseball, right down to hitters (batsmen) trying to score runs off pitchers (bowlers).
The Northern California Cricket Association is hosting a four-day, national-level tournament starting Thursday in Santa Clara and San Jose that is expected to draw some of the best "cricketers" from around the country. Kumar is hoping it also will spark interest among sports-crazy Americans who might only think cricket refers to a noisy insect.
"Our goal is to take the sport to the larger audience," said Kumar, 47, who originally is from India and heads the Bay Area organization. "We just don't want a bunch of immigrants out here playing. That's a good start, for sure. But we'll see a real surge in the game when we capture the attention of the local community."
In the cultural melting pot that is Silicon Valley, there's a thriving, under-the-radar cricket community with more than 600 members -- making it one of the hotbeds for the sport in the U.S.
Teams come to Bay Area sites for weekly league play from as far away as Davis and Fresno.
The high-tech industry attracts the best and brightest from around the globe, and many of them bring a passion for the centuries-old bat-and-ball sport that is wildly popular in countries such as India, Pakistan, England and South Africa.
"At our games you'll find heads of marketing for technical companies," Kumar said. "We have people from Google, Yahoo, Cisco, YouTube, you name it."
But while the game has lots of action and speed, with thrown balls reaching 90 miles an hour, it's head-scratching rules, intricacies and methodical pace can leave Americans puzzled. There's a reason why the popular image of cricket is gentlemanly competitors attired in all-white uniforms playing a game that literally can go on for days.
While Kumar cops to the good sportsmanship aspects, he argues that the creation of a shorter format condenses contests to take about as long as a typical baseball game. He is confident the game would appeal to Bay Area residents weaned on the Giants and A's -- if they would give it a chance.
"It really suits the modern American audience," he said. "It's a high-energy, high-octane, quick game. The ball is flying and being hit all over the park."
Krishneal Goel is someone who caught the cricket bug. Although his parents are from India, the 19-year-old Goel was born and raised in the U.S., graduated from Capuchino High School in San Bruno and attends Cal State East Bay in Hayward.
He grew up a die-hard basketball fan and didn't pick up a cricket bat until age 13 after watching one of his father's matches. Today, Goel has become so adept at the game that instead of playing in this week's tourney, he will be the vice captain of the U.S. under-19 national team that's in Canada trying to qualify for next year's World Cup competition.
"I'm as American as you can get, and I just didn't have any interest in the game," said Goel, wearing a Los Angeles Lakers cap. "But when I saw kids my age playing, I decided to try. Now I hear a lot from my friends, 'You play cricket? That must me hard.' But really, it's a pretty easy game to learn because it's basically like baseball."
Uptick in interest
In fact, cricket was played in the U.S. long before baseball evolved into America's national pastime.
Without delving too deeply into the rules: Teams of 11 players play on a large, oval-shaped field with no foul territory, taking turns fielding and batting. Fielders don't wear gloves and batsmen try to hit the baseball-size ball after it bounces off the ground with a flat-sided, 2.8-pound bat.
"I'm definitely sensing some increased interest from Americans," said Shiva Vashishat, 23, of San Jose, who originally is from India but has played on a U.S. national team. "So it's definitely growing. It's going to be a slow process, but gradually more people are finding out that this is a great game. Tournaments like this help build interest."
Twelve teams, including ones from North Carolina and Arizona, are playing at two sites in Santa Clara and San Jose. Kumar is throwing out the welcome mat for spectators -- attendance is free -- with the idea that sports-minded men, women and kids might get curious enough to sample the game themselves. The goal, beyond expanding the sport's toehold in the U.S., is social integration.
"If you look out at a cricket match, it's a great example of unity and diversity," Kumar said. "For me, it's not just sport. It's a way for people to meet and learn about one another. This can be just another form of glue for binding the various cultures together."