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Enthusiasts on a mission to turn Fargo into cricket capital of North Dakota

Ehsaan Meharbi makes contact during a cricket match at the Osgood Kindergarten Center in Fargo, N.D., on Wednesday, August 6, 2014. The city's Park District is building its first cricket pitch at Riverwood Park to the tune of $6,000. Nick Wagner / The Forum2 / 2

While growing up in India’s Delhi province, so many people watched the games there was never room to sit down, he said. When he moved to Fargo, he knew he had to keep playing.

Kumar and other enthusiasts of cricket, which is similar to baseball and popular in England and many former British colonies, are on a mission to turn Fargo into the cricket capital of North Dakota – if it doesn’t already hold that title.

“We started with six people; now we have 80,” said Murali Vegi, a civil engineer and Fargo Cricket Club member with Kumar.

The Fargo Park District has recognized the growing popularity of the sport and is building what will be the city’s first cricket pitch.

A rectangle of concrete 10 feet wide by 66 feet long has been laid in the middle of an open field at Riverwood Park at 5100 16th Street N. The concrete will be covered in AstroTurf to form the pitch – the even, relatively hard surface where much of the action in cricket takes place – and should be ready by 2015.

When cricket isn’t being played, the field can still be used for soccer and other sports, Director of Parks David Leker said.

“Why not try to get something for the cricket players?” Leker said. The concrete cost roughly $6,000 and the AstroTurf was recycled from another park facility.

Fargo Cricket Club members were practicing on Wednesday, as they do every week, in the field behind the Osgood Kindergarten Center at 5550 44th Ave. S. in Fargo. The players were using the concrete basketball court as the pitch.

It was Kumar’s turn to bat. Sanket Vasa, a Mumbai, India, native who moved to Fargo 3½ years ago, was the bowler. Bowlers are like pitchers in baseball, except they take a running start and generally release the ball so it bounces once before reaching the batsman.

The batsman can smack the ball anywhere in a 360-degree radius, trying to avoid outfielders. If he connects, he can score a point for every time he runs back and forth between two bases.

Two eleven-member teams take turns either bowling and fielding or batting.

Once Vasa flung the ball, Kumar swung with his flat bat and tipped it into the catcher’s gloves for an easy out. In cricket, it’s one out and you’re done for the rest of the game.

At a shaded seating area behind the action, someone was busy keeping track of the game’s statistics on an iPad in a shaded seating area behind the action, while someone else updated an old-fashioned scoreboard.

The game ends after a set number of overs – a succession of six bowls – or when all but one member of a team are out. The team with the most runs wins.

“Cricket is one of the reasons they want to stay here in Fargo,” Vegi said of the many immigrants who play the game that their home countries are fanatical about.

The diverse club has members from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and the U.S., all linked by their love of the sport.

Ryan LeDage scored a few runs during Wednesday’s practice, smashing the ball high into the air for gloveless outfielders to chase.

“Baseball is always my first love,” said LeDage, an Illinois native who lives in Moorhead. While there are some similarities between the two sports, LeDage said pitching feels completely different and fielding takes more skill.

“It’s a good group of guys,” said LeDage, whose friend Sohan Das introduced him to cricket. “They’ve been very welcoming.”

Das, who was sitting next to LeDage on the bench, smiled. LeDage has only attended the laidback Wednesday practices, not the weekend matches. “It gets very competitive over the weekend,” Das said.

The club sometimes plays against the roughly 40-member North Dakota State University cricket team led by Srikanth Kaliki, a graduate student in computer science.

The NDSU team practices each weekend at Dacotah Field in the summer and at the Sports Bubble in the winter, where the Cricket Club also plays when it’s too cold.

Kaliki said the NDSU team will enjoy playing on the Riverwood Park cricket pitch when it’s completed.

The team used to practice on a cricket pitch at Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Moorhead, Kaliki said. When it was taken out three years ago, Fargo-Moorhead was left with no genuine pitches.

“With the proper pitch, we get to practice with a real cricket ball,” Kaliki said.

The NDSU team and the Fargo Cricket Club are forced to play with a tennis ball covered in electrical tape instead of with a traditional leather cricket ball that would break if bounced on concrete.

And with children having fun in the playground just behind where the Cricket Club practiced Wednesday, a wayward 85 mph cricket ball would be too dangerous.

Samit Patel, the Cricket Club’s president, said the group has been winning titles in regional competitions, even against younger teams. This year, it won tournaments in Omaha, Neb., and Mankato, Minn.

“We feel proud that we still stand a chance among those youngsters out there,” Patel said.

After lobbying Moorhead, West Fargo and Fargo, Patel convinced Fargo to devote the time and money for a cricket pitch. While he’s happy with the new pitch, he sees areas for improvement, such as restrooms, a storage area, water fountains and flood lights.

Those facilities are especially needed for the lengthy game of cricket, which can last from 5 hours to an entire day, he said. Some matches can last five days.

That doesn’t stop Patel from envisioning a Fargo replete with cricket opportunities. He’d like to see the sport introduced as an option in schools and bring tournaments here.

“We want to put Fargo on a map for cricket,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Adrian Glass-Moore at (701) 241-5599

Adrian Glass-Moore

Readers are encouraged to reach Adrian Glass-Moore at (701) 241-5599 or with comments, criticisms and tips. He joined The Forum as its night reporter in 2014.