These American Gen Zers fell in love with the sport of their immigrant parents

Rebecca Tan

THE WASHINGTON POST – The 13-year-old pressed a napkin against the cavity where his baby tooth had been, keeping his eyes fixed on his teammates running drills.

“Thwack!” The sound of ball against bat vibrated through the warehouse turned training facility in suburban Virginia.

Ditching the bloodied paper, Shiv Nair ducked back into line.

Every Wednesday for three hours – three and a half, if they had their way – Shiv and his teammates come to practise cricket, the game their fathers grew up playing in the countries they left behind.

Initially, there were just five boys, ages six to nine. They got “absolutely destroyed” in matches against under-14 teams, losing by margins that still make them laugh.

FROM LEFT: Mihir Ganguli, 14; Shiv Nair, 13; and Govind Mohandas, 13, during a break at cricket practice. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
Shiv Nair reaches for the ball during cricket practice
Tanush Apte serves the ball to Shiv Nair during cricket practice

But for reasons even their coach cannot pin down, they kept playing. And year after year, others joined them. Their Virginia-based youth club, the Future Stars School of Cricket, now has more than 90 players, nearly all United States (US)-born children of parents from South Asia.

It is part of a broader growth of the game in the US that is boosting demand for public fields and could change the allocation of recreation dollars in years to come.

Demographic shifts are at the core of the explosion, but academics and cricket enthusiasts say there is something else going on, too: a change in the way first-generation Americans relate to their parents’ home countries.

Growing up in the most ethnically diverse – and technologically adept – generation in US history, these kids can access their cultural heritage in ways distinct from previous generations. They watch highlight reels of faraway matches on YouTube, and follow Indian or Pakistani players on Instagram as easily as their classmates track baseball stars such as Max Scherzer or Juan Soto.

“Things from their ancestral home don’t seem as far away as they once used to,” said Stella Rouse, an associate professor at the University of Maryland who studies the identity politics of millennials.

“There’s a more comfortable environment for younger folks now to express things that are different, things that are quote – unquote ‘other’. “

One October evening, Shiv’s team, the Lions, gathered at their training facility in Sterling, Virginia.

A group of fathers chatted in English and Tamil about their own sporting records and the glaring – “unacceptable, really” – shortage of outdoor cricket fields in the Washington suburbs.

At the far end of the warehouse, Shiv, the team captain, got ready to bat. His best friends were around him: Govind Mohandas, the 13-year-old who carpools with Shiv to away games, and Tanush Apte, 11, the “little pet of the group”, who pitches – or “bowls” – with the aggression of someone much older.

Tanush wiped saliva on the ball – a legal and common form of ball tampering – then stared down the length of the astroturf. Grinning, Shiv squared up.

“Thwack!”

In the past five years, the number of cricket teams and leagues in and around the nation’s capital has nearly doubled, coaches said, as immigrant adults and their US-born children clamour to play the game.

Sports “can provide something familiar to new migrants when perhaps, on a daily basis, they don’t feel as included in society as they would like,” said Thomas Fletcher, a researcher in northern England who has studied the relationship between South Asian communities and cricket.

“Particularly for immigrants of colour, it provides a place of safety where they are less likely to be racialised.” From 2010 to 2017, the South Asian population in the US grew from 3.5 million to 5.4 million, the non-profit SAALT reported.

In Fairfax County, Virginia, where Shiv lives, close to a third of the population is foreign-born.

In nearby Montgomery County, Maryland, a community of primarily South Asian men have spent years playing cricket on parking lots, abandoned tennis courts, and baseball fields, where they sometimes get booted out mid-game by a baseball team that has reserved the space.

They successfully campaigned for the region’s first purpose-built cricket field, which opened in Gaithersburg, Maryland, in September – and was fully booked weeks before.

“We’ve been waiting for this for so, so long,” said Anup Shah, owner of Germantown Kids Cricket Club.

“People don’t get it,” said Bijal Shah, co-founder of the Maryland Cricket Premier League.

“In India, cricket was part of our day-to-day. It’s DNA for us.”

Cricket fields are large – about the size of four little-league baseball fields – and can be expensive. Montgomery paid USD7 million for the Gaithersburg field over 11 years, said Montgomery Parks Director Mike Riley.

Fairfax and Prince George’s counties and the District of Columbia have multiuse fields that accommodate the sport but no purpose-built facilities. Riley hopes to win approval for a second cricket field in Montgomery next year.

Within two decades, he predicts, such facilities will be commonplace. “The number of foreign-born residents is growing – that’s a fact,”

Riley said. “As needs evolve, we have to be nimble, and we have to step up and meet them.”

In 2017, frustrated by the shortage of fields, Shiv’s coach Milroy Don opened the indoor training facility in Sterling, Virginia, paying USD6,000 a month for the space and spending months fixing it up.

“I’ve seen it so many times,” he said. “Once (the kids) start cricket, they don’t want to do anything else.” Shiv first saw the sport on television. His grandfather, visiting from Kerala, India, was watching the Indian Premier League, and the six-year-old wanted to try. Using a fire hydrant as a makeshift wicket, Shiv took his first swing. Govind and Tanush both have versions of this same story.

For Siddarth Vasireddy, another teammate, one game left a particular impact: the 2011 Cricket World Cup final, when India beat Sri Lanka.

It was the first time India won the championship on home soil, and the first time two Asian teams appeared together in the final.

Siddarth, 16, said he cannot remember whether he watched the match live – he was eight at the time – but, like many of his peers, he has played and replayed the highlight reel on YouTube. “I got this feeling when I saw it, like ‘I’d like to be that guy’,” he said. “It was this indescribable feeling.” Rouse, the University of Maryland professor, said millennials – and Gen Zers to an even greater extent – are far more likely than older generations to identify as citizens “of the world”, able to embrace traditions that are not American, in part because they are growing up online. This is not to say that peer pressure to assimilate does not exist, she noted, but that younger Americans have more ways to resist it.

At Rachel Carson Middle School, where Shiv is an eighth-grader, some classmates tease him for playing “bot-bot baseball”.

“They think cricket copied baseball,” he said one evening after practice. “Even though cricket literally came before baseball.”

“Or sometimes, people say you don’t really need to do anything physical, which is just, like, totally wrong,” Govind added.

None of the schools that the boys attend offer cricket as an after-school sport.

At Rachel Carson, Shiv said, he knows only one other cricket player. And yet, while all five teammates have dabbled in soccer, basketball or baseball, they said they have never been tempted to quit cricket or felt particularly self-conscious about playing the sport.

As Shiv explained, the boys all have plenty of friends at school; they would just like these friends a little more if they knew how to talk about cricket. “I don’t know,” the batsman said, shrugging. “Just because it’s not popular doesn’t mean it isn’t great.” With one batting glove on and the other tucked under his arm, Shiv lined up four paper cups on the garage floor and set a bruised tennis ball on top of each one.

“Thwack!” A plastic chair fell on its side, hitting a wall decorated with dents and chipped paint. Two more balls flew toward a bicycle. The fourth took down a trash can.

The teenager smiled. “Thirty more minutes of this,” he said.

Already among the best youth cricket players in the Washington, DC, region, Shiv now harbours a bigger goal: to play on India’s national team. Practising on his own, he thinks often of his cousins and their neighbours in Kerala, who play gully cricket every day after school for hours on end.

“Achan!” Shiv called for his father in Malayalam, a language native to Southwest India.

Prem Nair, 45, came through the garage. Born in Kerala, he came to northern Virginia 20 years ago, drawn to the region’s booming tech industry. During the week, he runs an IT services company. But on weekends, he is driver and trainer to his American son, whose cricket dreams leave him feeling ambivalent.

“I’d want him to play for the US, because this is the place that gave us opportunity, but if that’s his choice …” Nair’s voice trailed off. “I never imagined this.”