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‘It’s a passion:’ American Premier League trying to grow cricket culture in United States

LITTLE FALLS — Swara Jadhav was ready.

She carried her “best bat,” with her gloves wrapped around the handle. All the 9-year-old needed was an Indian team jersey.

When the American Premier League teams from India and Pakistan faced off Monday night, Jadhav was tempted to run out on the field at Yogi Berra Stadium. Of course, she’d be playing for India, just like her dad, Sudip Jadhav.

An all-arounder and left-arm off-spinner, Jadhav is the youngest player on New Jersey’s state cricket team, alongside women she calls “aunties” — some of whom are old enough to be her mother.

But even Jadhav was a bit taken aback when she learned her father’s team — Premium Indians — played at a stadium. He showed her a video of a diving catch he made while wicket keeping, and “I went crazy.” She insisted on attending the India-Pakistan match, even though she hadn’t finished her homework.

“Cricket’s not that popular (in the United States), but this is awesome,” said Jadhav, who lives in Hillsborough. “He’s playing an international in a stadium.”

India and Pakistan may meet again in the APL final on Thursday night. The top four teams will play a semifinal doubleheader Wednesday.

The rivalry between the neighboring nations dates back to the partition of British India into India and Pakistan in 1947.

The true Indian and Pakistani national teams were not on the field in Little Falls. Instead, it was a conglomeration of international players — some of whom were not raised in the countries on their jerseys — and local guys.

But the fans didn’t seem to mind. Attendance Monday night was estimated at 1,200, easily the largest of the round-robin portion of the tournament.

“You grow up in a culture. You don’t learn it. It comes to you,” said Haider Ali, a native of Lahore, Pakistan, who is playing for the APL’s Aussies.

“Wherever they’re playing against each other, there’s extra pressure. It’s more than a sport when they’re playing.”

Changing the culture

With more than a billion fans worldwide, cricket is the No. 2 spectator sport behind soccer. However, 90 percent are from the Indian subcontinent, according to a 2018 study by the International Cricket Council.

The United States is a relatively untapped market, according to APL Founder and CEO Jay Mir. By naming the teams after cricket-loving communities worldwide, Mir hoped to capitalize on expats who are part of local leagues.

There are approximately 300 million cricket players worldwide. Each APL team is a mix of international invitees and domestic players culled from a series of trials held around the United States this summer.

The APL is playing Twenty20 cricket, where each team plays 20 overs — or innings, made up of six pitches each. There are five batters per game, with each playing a maximum of four overs.
India has won six of the eight T20 internationals against Pakistan. However, Pakistan has an 86-70 advantage in the 199 full internationals, and has also won more Test matches.

Premium Indians was able to edge out Premium Paks by four wickets on Monday night.

“Pakistan and India, any time there’s a match, it’s always a big rivalry,” said Bilal Zukfiquar, a Pakistani emigre who lives in Parlin — but plays for the English APL team.

“It’s more about cricket becoming big. There are people who have a lot of money who are willing to invest in cricket here. Since it’s getting better, a lot of people are getting attracted to cricket.”

A crown atop his head in honor of Indian national team captain Virat “King” Kohli, Raj Sava stalked the stadium Monday night. He live-streamed parts of the match on his phone, cheering and moaning depending on the activity on the field.

The Indian fans crowded behind the first-base dugout, shouting for players wearing royal blue, trimmed with red and white. Pakistan’s green-clad crowd included a pair of drummers in traditional dress up the third-base line, and several waving green flags with the white crescent moon and star.

Fatima Niazi, a 10-year-old from Keyport, held up a poster reading “Pakistan Zindabad,” which loosely translates to “victory for Pakistan.” However, both her older brothers, Murad and Taimur Niazi, are playing for Premium English. Their father, Basitkan Niazi, is an APL assistant coach working with the Premium Paks.

The APL champion gets $75,000, and the tournament MVP receives a Corvette.

“There’s a lot of minor leagues going on, but nothing like this,” said Sava, an Edison resident who plays batsman and keeper for the New Jersey Blackcaps, which is owned by Indian APL team owner Sam Singh.

“It’s better than finals. We have big tournaments between India and Pakistan, always, and we always win. Like America is the superpower of everything, India is the superpower of cricket. It’s a passion.”

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