Why this matters
In communities like Nashville, largely driven by South Asian immigrants, cricket is growing across the United States -- with investment and professionalization are following.
Every spring in Lewisburg, Tenn., boys play a game passed down from their fathers on their very own Field of Dreams.
Lewisburg is a town of 12,000 people that sits halfway between Nashville, Tenn., and Huntsville, Ala., a tableau of asphalt, cotton candy clouds, and rolling hills that wouldn’t be out of place in Ireland. The town’s population is poor and mostly White, and its average household income hovers below $40,000. A Friday night here could be a country song – a high school football game, a Sonic slush, an open field, the buzz of cicadas, foamy beers poured from a keg perched on the bed of a pickup truck.
Out here, along two-lane back roads lined with grazing horses and chicken wire fences, you’ll find it. Past a gate off Rock Crusher Road, there’s a field that people built with their own hands. Each weekend, fathers and sons drive an hour down Interstate 65 from the city.
But they don’t make the drive for baseball. They’re here for cricket.
It’s Sunday morning, and the Tennessee Cricket Academy is warming up in batting cages built out of wood poles and mesh netting. Elementary and middle schoolers in blue polos and Adidas sweats take turns pitching, or “bowling.” The bowler skips, windmills his arms, and hops the ball into the batsman, who tries to make contact. Several coaches circulate and encourage their players.
“Good bowling. Good bowling.”
“Come on. Let’s go, boys!”
“Less talking. Let’s go.”
“What a ball! Good shot, boy!”
The repeated plunk of willow wood on leather fills the morning. A few older siblings watch their brothers train. These older boys are the academy’s official team. They’re dressed in white uniforms, and in a couple hours, they’ll face off against one of the nearly 20 local adult squads. As the younger kids continue to bowl, the rest of the team trickles in, and the older boys start to watch and heckle.
“Bruh,” one of them says to his younger brother. “Why are you getting bullied by 6-year-olds?”
“Get him on the team!” one older kid yells in appreciation while watching a young bowler. He turns to one of his friends. “He’s stealing your job, bruh.”
His friend nods. “Low-key, I should be dropped for him.”
The morning passes slow and easy. It’s Sunday in the South, and multiple generations of families are present. This feels like church. Parents sit on benches and chat in English, Hindi, and Bengali. Their English is slightly accented with traces of other nations. Their children’s English is not.
Cricket is a burgeoning sport in major hubs like Dallas, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., and even here in the heart of the hokey, country-song South. Thanks to a cohort of immigrants and a new major league, cricket hopes to be even bigger across the nation. In the meantime, it remains niche, a pastime that can feel achingly personal to those who play.
Somehow, cricket has begun to weave itself into the fabric of a nation that is already dense with fervent sports cultures. So how did this game – which, if you didn’t dig any deeper, might seem un-American — take root here?
If you need to brush up on the basics of cricket, here are the essentials:
- There’s a central dirt patch where the bowler-batsman interaction and baserunning happens. There are two horizontal lines at the edges of this patch that essentially serve as bases, and the area beyond these lines is a safe zone. There are two wickets on either side that provide a sort of strike zone (or a base, depending on the situation).
- When the bowler “pitches,” the batsman tries to make contact. When he puts the ball in play, he and a partner batsman stationed at the opposite wicket must run back and forth between the lines as many times as they can. Each time they reach the other line, it’s a run.
- The fielding team must try and retrieve the ball and throw it to the wicket before the runners cross the lines. An out is also known as “taking a wicket,” or just a “wicket.” The most common ways to dismiss a batsman are to bowl him – hit and put down the wicket behind him when bowling – or to catch a ball put in play before it hits the ground. In many formats, the fielding team needs to dismiss 10 batsmen.
- Once you are dismissed, you can no longer bat again. But if you’re good, you can keep batting for a long time.
Cricket is a vestige of colonialism. Although cricket is, by the numbers, the second-most popular sport in the world behind soccer, the game is mostly concentrated in former territories of the British Empire – India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand, and now the United States.
“Cricket does have history here (in the U.S.),” Tom Dunmore, vice president of marketing for Major League Cricket, a new professional league, points out. “More than 95 percent of countries in the world.”
Cricket barely missed out on being America's pastime. In the early to mid-19th century, less than 100 years after the American Revolution, a dedicated population of Americans played the sport. There were numerous cricket clubs leading up to the Civil War, and cricket enjoyed popularity across social classes.
But during the war, baseball eclipsed cricket as the bat-and-ball sport of the masses. Baseball was more straightforward to pick up and play, and the ball didn’t bounce as much, meaning that the game required less space.
In postbellum America, cricket transformed into an upper-crust game, played in gentlemen’s and anglophile clubs along the Eastern Seaboard. The typical “gentleman cricketer” was independently wealthy and set for life – a man who filled his leisure time with an elite game played among elite friends.
After World War I, the sport faded from the public’s consciousness. Cricket remained on life support thanks to the hard work of small groups of people, particularly 20th century Caribbean immigrants. In the past few decades, American cricket has roared back to life amid a cascade of South Asian immigrants who have created leagues and pitches among their communities.
“I think there’s still an intuitive sort of base for cricket to get root here that doesn’t exist in some other countries,” Dunmore says. “Because, you know, you can pick up the fundamentals of cricket. It catches you more quickly if you know baseball rather than if you grew up in, I don’t know, Argentina and you’ve never seen a bat and ball game.”
In Texas, Major League Cricket spent $20 million to modify Grand Prairie Stadium, a former baseball and soccer park outside of Dallas, to suit cricket’s needs. The league will begin play in Grand Prairie in July using the T20 format, which limits games to a maximum 20 overs, or approximately three hours. There are currently six franchises in MLC, which has recruited big-name international players and coaches. The league is banking on the fact that cricket, which just missed out on being America’s pastime, remains in the blood and lineage of generations of Americans, both old and new.
Cricket matches can last for hours, and in some formats, even five days. Maintaining concentration and an even keel are crucial to playing the game. It’s not a pastime for those seeking a dopamine fix, like we think of Gen Zers. The attributes required to succeed at cricket – patience, strategy, concentration, planning, attention to detail – aren’t always American strong suits. In the field, teams must be cohesive and well-positioned. Explosive athleticism and natural talent help, but the best batsmen aren’t necessarily trying to mash the ball. Control and placement are just as valuable as raw power.
Cricket isn’t what we think Gen Z wants. So why are 60-plus kids gathering in Lewisburg and dedicating precious weekends to mastering this sport?
The simple answer is passion, transferred from one generation to the next.
MLC’s stakeholders are optimistic the new league will succeed because cricket fills a very specific niche in the States. It’s a father-and-son game, a taste-of-home game, a pastime that lives in the space between a generation and their children. It’s a game of skill and patience, mostly passed down from parents who grew up in the developing world to children who’ve never known a world without smartphones.
During the pandemic, Nashville’s cricketers wanted to build a more legitimate space to accommodate their growing community. They bought land in Lewisburg and spent two years building eight additional grounds. The pitch on Rock Crusher Road, known as the Cedar Farms Cricket Ground, used to be entirely trees. The players wanted the ground to be flat, but most of the land consisted of rock. It was uneven, strewn with different patches of rock, little yellow flowers sprouting up from the cracks.
Grassroots efforts and elbow grease made the difference. With access to 10 pitches, the local cricket community now has the capacity to play multiple matches every Saturday and Sunday. It’s not just the academy kids who make the drive from Nashville to Lewisburg. There are entire leagues of adult teams who travel out here, with scheduled matches, standings, and statistics. This level of organization was impossible when the community had only two pitches to share. In 2019, Nashville had eight or nine cricket teams. According to Rajesh Koneti and Sunit Guldas, two of the Tennessee Cricket Academy’s coaches, around 20 teams now play in leagues in Lewisburg.
The passion and desire for cricket has always been here, thanks to the fact that India provides the second-most immigrants to the Nashville metropolitan area, behind only Mexico. There is no particular reason a steady trickle of South Asian immigrants began flowing into the American South, but they’ve taken root. The India Association of Nashville was formed in 1962 and now serves over 10,000 members.
In India, a divided country where social caste is baked into identity, cricket is a rare unifier. It transcends social class. People grow up playing in the streets, sharing a bat with friends or playing with sticks. There’s a shared history and language around cricket among the Indian diaspora. In the 2011 World Cup finals, playing at home in Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, the legendary batsman MS Dhoni hit the equivalent of a walk-off home run to seal India’s first World Cup championship in 28 years. The entire country streamed into the streets, tears on their faces, ready to celebrate until sunup.
That passion didn’t leave those who left India over the course of the 20th century. Those lingering feelings are what built the Tennessee Cricket Academy.
During the summer of 2022, Rajesh Koneti, Sunit Guldas, and their friends started to hear from parents about the need for an academy to help their children develop cricket skills. “Because these parents grew up in India, they are very passionate about cricket,” Koneti says. “But, unfortunately, not all parents can coach their kids. They don’t have the resources. We have the resources. We have four or five coaches here.”
“These parents are as passionate about cricket as us,” Guldas adds. “They want their kids to learn the game.”
Koneti, Guldas, and friends spent almost every weekend in 2022 out here, rolling the academy pitch, watering it, tending to it. They’ve built a clay turf pitch with a top layer of Bermuda grass, one of the few pitches of its kind in the U.S. Their academy is a labor of love. Its coaches are accountants and programmers, systems engineers and musicians. None of them draw a paycheck from coaching. Koneti is in his early 40s and works as a solutions architect for Optum. Guldas is in his early 30s, works as application security engineer for Twitch, and lives in downtown Nashville.
Adarsh Bhushan, one of the parents watching the younger kids bowl in Lewisburg, moved to Nashville from Jaipur, choosing Music City over Austin, Texas, and Los Angeles because he wanted to start a band. He fronts Strange Curry, an Indian fusion group that often plays shows in and around Nolensville Pike, the city’s immigrant hub. He views passing along the game to new generations as his duty.
Right now, Bhushan’s 7-year-old son, Adi, is visiting family in India. While he’s there, he’ll catch a live India Premier League match. Founded in 2008, the IPL took off thanks to the T20 format, which appealed to fans across generations. The IPL’s newly formed academies have also made cricket a more realistic career path for kids of all backgrounds.
“I would think it’s completely our responsibility as parents to give them as much as we can,” Bhushan says. “Watching IPL is easy. But I would love my child to see live matches, even if it’s just once a week. That is an entirely different experience that will make the child more apt to (play). Eventually, that is what needs to happen.”
Like Bhushan and most of the academy's parents, Koneti and Guldas live lives steeped in cricket. They can’t recall their lives before the game, and they each remember specific highlights from their careers, when they scored 50 or 100 runs or took wickets. They can recall exactly where they were when Dhoni hit the shot to win India the World Cup in 2011. At the first academy practice, they arrived at the fields unsure if any kids would show up. But show up they did, first in a trickle, then a flood, 25 in all.
As they learned the game, the kids played almost exclusively against adults. This past March, to reward the academy’s grassroots efforts, USA Cricket finally gave them an age-appropriate game at Cedar Farms against a youth team from Atlanta. The Atlanta team chose to bat first. The academy team, Guldas recalls, was nervous. On the first ball of the game, the opening bowler went through his usual progression – skip, windmill, bowl. The ball bounced once and soared over the batsman’s head. Guldas and Koneti looked at each other. What did we just do?
After a tough start, the kids settled down. Earlier this year, they almost beat the best adult team in the local league. But no matter the results, their coaches aren’t focused on wins and losses.
“We define success differently,” Guldas says. “On a (typical) Sunday, you see 20, 25 kids here. This is what we call success. Because we have done this day in, day out, all our childhood, you know, in our teenage years, and we saw there was a need when we spoke to multiple parents.”
In the next couple months, the academy hopes to start a girls team. Plans are to expand from 60 kids to 100 kids to create after-school programs and high school teams that reach beyond the South Asian diaspora.
“I’m very proud (of) the growth,” Koneti says. “But we need to do a lot more.”
On Rock Crusher Road, the opposing team of adults rolls in slowly and sets up under a shady tent. Today’s game will include a maximum of 40 overs, so it should last well into the evening.
The adults bat first, and the opening batsman is the best in the league. The kids know this, as do Guldas and Koneti and the parents watching. For all intents and purposes, this batsman is the Aaron Judge of Middle Tennessee cricket. Facing him is Dinesh Vijayakumar, a high schooler, one of the best bowlers in the academy. On the first pitch, Dinesh goes through his motion – a skip, a windmill, an overhead toss toward the wicket. The batsman makes contact, doesn’t get all of it, and doesn’t send it where he wants, and the shot floats out into the afternoon in a gentle parabola, not threatening the boundary. A boy named Ridham Ohri runs it down and secures it before it hits the ground.
On the very first ball, the kids dismissed the best batsman in the league. He’s done for the rest of the game. The boys scream and mob Ohri, briefly forgetting the 40 overs left to play. Right now, 40 overs don’t matter. Their younger brothers yell from the sidelines. Parents watch and smile. Koneti and Guldas, still working with the younger group, grin and shake their heads.
It’s a moment, one that dissolves soon after it arrives. The adults start to assert themselves, scoring multiple sixes, repeatedly hitting shots that dribble past the boundary. But a moment nonetheless.
So often when we talk about sports, we talk about tribes, how a game and its associated customs can provide a sense of belonging to a group. Most of these kids live on the outskirts of the city, attending schools with names like Ravenwood, Mount Juliet, and Nolensville. The space between them and their parents, between first and second generations – their accents, their mannerisms, the gulf that separates the schoolyards and alleys of Mumbai and Jaipur from the manicured lawns of suburban Nashville – feels a little smaller, thanks to this shared ritual. That’s what cricket provides in Middle Tennessee – a piece of what used to be, a reminder of the places where most of these parents grew up, far away from the American South. It’s sport as oral tradition.
It’s straight-up Americana, this country seen in the best possible light.
For these kids, cricket is novel and pure, joyful and raw. They play because they like it. The game will continue until sundown, when they’ll drive home to Nashville and resume their regularly scheduled lives. In their rear windshields, the Field of Dreams will recede into the countryside, then rise again the next weekend.