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Richmond Times Dispatch (Virginia)


When Ganesh Krishnasamy was weighing a move from Iowa to the Richmond area, his research didn't start with housing prices or crime rates.

"The first thing I Googled is whether or not there is cricket," Krishnasamy said. "I would have changed my mind if the cricket wasn't here."

His passion for the sport — a game the uninitiated see as an odd cousin of baseball — led him to Henrico County, and competitive play at an elementary school pitch that is now closing after 25 years of use.

That's big news for a growing community of foreign-born people in the region from cricket-playing countries and regions; a population that nearly doubled — to 20,818 — between 2006 and 2016, according to estimates from the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia.

Henrico officials have committed to replacing the facilities at Holladay Elementary School — claimed by a school replacement intended to address overcrowding — with a superior pitch at Deep Run Park, paid for with part of $4 million in bonds voters approved in 2016.

That move would affect one of three soccer fields at the park and provide a new permanent home for Central Virginia Cricket Association matches, in an embrace of the diversity that has increasingly defined what was once a mostly white, rural county.

Zulfi Khan, president of the Mid-Atlantic Cricket Conference and chairman of the Central Virginia Cricket Association, wants to continue developing the local league, which has expanded from three teams to 10 since its inception

"Cricket is a game that brings people together," Khan said. "In Virginia, people play for the love of cricket."

Henrico officials are on board and have renovated county parks to include space for the game, which bears resemblance to baseball but is a vastly different sport played in a large oval-shaped field with a rectangular pitch in the center.

The Richmond Strikers also recently launched a new cricket camp at Capital Park so children can be introduced to the game.

Jay Howell, executive director of the Strikers, said several adult cricket players approached him recently about starting a youth league. The campers played on a new concrete cricket pitch the county built this year at the park next to Wilder Middle School.

"It became clear there was no opportunity at the youth level in an organized way," Howell said. "It fit in well with the model of our programming. We wanted to create an opportunity to expose children to the game and learn from good coaches."

Even when there were fewer cricket players in Richmond 25 years ago, Khan said, local politicians and officials like former Henrico Manager Virgil Hazelett were instrumental in bringing cricket "to the next level" locally.

Cricket is popular across many countries and regions from which Henrico residents have immigrated, including the United Kingdom, Ireland, India, South Central Asia, Australia, New Zealand and the Caribbean.

Henrico Manager John Vithoulkas said the ongoing development of cricket is a reflection of that diversity.

"When your schools get to where 84 languages are spoken, we're going to see sports and activities we haven't seen before," Vithoulkas said. "We have an opportunity to accommodate that, and I think that's incredibly exciting."

The Central Virginia Cricket Association has organized competitive play at Holladay Elementary since 1994, turning an open space near the school into a relatively large cricket field with a real clay pitch.

Over time, association organizers worked with county officials to improve the grounds and make it more than a makeshift playing field.

The replacement for that pitch will meet International Cricket Council standards, but the changes to the space will not prevent soccer and other field sports from being played in the natural turf outfield surrounding the clay pitch, officials said.

Although a new concrete cricket pitch at Capital Park could house some of the Central Virginia Cricket Association's teams displaced by Holladay's replacement, adult players say the clay pitch is preferred for traditional cricket played with a hard leather ball.

Three Chopt District Supervisor Thomas M. Branin has advocated for the creation of a new cricket field in his district, where approximately 10,000 people from Asian cricket-playing countries live, for the past six years. He promised constituents he would see the project through after he was elected to the board in 2015.

When voters approved the 2016 bond referendum, he said, the International Cricket Council called him to request that the new field meet their standards. Because that required an area roughly the size of three football fields, Deep Run Park was a perfect location, Branin said.

"The three fields in the far back weren't really being utilized to their full potential and they weren't in the best of shape," he said.

County officials saw the potential, said Neil Luther, director of the county's Recreation and Parks department.

"[Those fields] tend to wear out and are susceptible to damage from getting saturated and not drained properly," Luther said. "This is an opportunity to rework that whole field area and open it to multiple uses."

Khan said the new cricket field at Deep Run could be a boon for a county looking to increase its foothold in the sports tourism market.

Cricket leagues and clubs in big metropolitan areas with a large population from cricket-playing countries, such as Washington, D.C., and New York City, are able to hold exhibition games and events that can bring lots of spectators, Khan said.

"Because we're getting an international standard cricket ground, we'll have an opportunity to attract well-known players and teams to come and play," he said.

"This will probably be a start for cricket's participation in local sports tourism revenue. There's an economic input in there."

Branin said the site will include amphitheater-style seating and could host other sports competitions, concerts and events.

"I thought it was a pretty cool idea to put together a multiuse design and find a way to utilize it for something that western Henrico doesn't have," he said. "I think it'll be a great asset to Henrico and its many communities."

The Central Virginia Cricket Association's 10 teams make up more than half of the teams in the Mid-Atlantic Cricket Conference.

The local Richmond teams are about evenly divided to home fields with clay pitches at Henrico's Holladay Elementary and Beulah Elementary School in Chesterfield County.

The regional conference used to include teams from North Carolina and South Carolina, but they split from the organization about a decade ago due to disagreements over travel and scheduling.

With fewer teams in the conference, Zulfi and other league organizers sought to expand the game in Richmond and elsewhere in Virginia to boost participation.

A new team has been formed in the Richmond about every other year since then, and the statewide conference now boasts 17 teams.

Harris Khan (no relation to Zulfi Khan), of the Virginia Tech Cricket Club, said job opportunities in Virginia made moving here a compelling option for skilled workers, which has contributed to the growth of the Virginia cricket scene in the last decade.

"Virginia has a good health care and banking system and new tech companies as well," he said. "There's a mix of people you get from other countries, particularly a lot of white-collar people who immigrate here."

Krishnasamy, who plays with the Greater Richmond Cricket Club, said he feels fortunate to have found a community that has supported cricket.

"Having a field as good as this has been a boon for us. Not many leagues have facilities like these," he said.

Krishnasamy said he will miss playing at Holladay Elementary but is excited by the prospect of playing at a new field that meets international cricket standards within the next two years.

"I'm eager to see how that's going to turn out," he said.

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September 17, 2018


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