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The Game of Cricket Catches On in West Virginia - 2003-07-30

America's national past-time baseball is in full swing here in the United States and, as we hear from Giles Snyder in West Virginia, so is the national sports obsession of many other countries.

It's a scene repeated all over the country on warm summer evenings. Young men gravitating towards an outdoor basketball court, picking teams and pounding up and down the asphalt on fast breaks or stopping short for a jump shot, shouting encouragement to teammates or 'trash talking' their rivals.

The courts at South Charleston's Joplin Park are no different. They are alive with dribbling basketballs.

But on this evening, if you look beyond the courts, over toward the park's baseball field, you'll notice a different sort of ball game about to start. Chris Higgins is pounding a row of wickets into the ground, preparing for a game of cricket.

"The game started in England and it's all the countries that, you know kind of, England kind of stayed in. So you were lucky," Mr. Higgins said.

Mr. Higgins is the team captain for the Charleston International Cricket Club, which was established here in 1986. It's one of four organized teams in West Virginia.

Cricket is a popular sport in many former British colonies, but it never caught on in the United States. Most of the Charleston team members are immigrants from Pakistan and India. Many of them doctors and engineers who were attracted to the Kanawha Valley by the area's chemical and health care industries. Englishman Chris Higgins says the team has included players from other countries, and some local representation, as well.

"We've had Sri Lankans, Bangla Deshi's, West Indians and you know, few Kind of Americans thrown into the pool, you know," Mr. Higgins said.

The Charleston Club was one of the founding members of the Mid West Tournament, a league of 33 teams set up in 1997. There are similar leagues all around the country, bringing together several hundred clubs. The Charleston players often find themselves squaring off against much younger teams based at colleges and universities, where immigrant students from Asia, Europe and the Caribbean are integrating the sport with their studies.

Matches are usually played on Sunday afternoons. The sun is shining on this game day, a lucky break from this summer's unusually wet weather. Captain Higgins and his men are facing a team from the University of Cincinnati.

"We are the oldest team in the league," Mr. Higgins said. "We are playing against all these students who are like you know 22. Did you see them doing all their little yoga exercises, touching their toes on their nose. Our average age is probably… probably about 33."

The players range in age from their early 20s to their late 40s. But they share a love for a good cricket match that transcends age, occupation and national origin. In fact, they say it troubles them that two great nations in the cricketing world, India and Pakistan, don't play regular matches because of political tensions.

Nasim Sheikh, a South Charleston allergy and asthma specialist who has played cricket for the Charleston club for several years, said, "Since the relationship has been more like… constrained and that is the reason that games between the two countries have not been going that frequently as it should have been because of the fact that there is so much love for the game. But because of that political reason we don't see the number of games we should see between the two countries but, yes, in both countries there is craze for the game. It's more or less like religion."

But the political rivalry between Pakistan and India isn't noticed by the players on Joplin Park's makeshift cricket field.

Mr. Sheikh: "We have been playing together for several years and we play as a team."

Mr. Rakesh: "When you start playing it really doesn't matter. The fun thing is, strangly as it seems, there are a lot of people from Pakistan that I shared the language with more than some people from India."

Mr. Higgins: "Maybe I don't get it because I don't understand the language and what goes on, but it's not a big deal because the team is pretty mixed. We won't be able to play and travel away to games with just one, you know, an Indian or Pakistani team, It's got to stay mixed because there is not enough of each other to play competitively in this league."

The Charleston cricket players often joke among themselves about losing more of their matches than winning.

They said, "We're good losers!"

But they emerged victorious today over the younger team from Cincinnati, and left the field looking forward to their next match.