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Cricket on the South Quad
From Illinois to Pakistan, popular sport brings students, staff together through campus cricket club
Home is where the cricket pitch is – and this April, that’s the South Quad at the U. of I.
The Illini Cup – a springtime tournament hosted by the university’s Cricket Club of Illinois through April 27 – draws staff, faculty members, students, alumni and even a local team of Amdocs employees to play cricket in the shadow of the McFarland Memorial Bell Tower. (See the schedule of games for the last two weeks in April here.)
Since childhood, cricket club president and Ph.D. candidate Ahmed Sadeque has been addicted to cricket.
Before he understood the meaning of presents, Sadeque received his first cricket ball and bat. Every boy in Pakistan usually does, he said.
Holidays at his grandfather’s house in Pakistan meant playing 12 straight hours of cricket with his cousins.
After two years on the Illinois campus, Sadeque found a new family here – undergraduates, graduate students, professors and players from the community all devoted to playing and promoting cricket.
“(Cricket) involves your mind and body to be extremely at the top of the game,” Sadeque said. “It’s not just a game that you start hitting every ball off the ground. It involves technique. Once you start playing cricket and you understand the game, you just don’t want to stop playing it.”
It seems international students considering Illinois – and equally dedicated to the world’s second most popular sport behind soccer – can’t stop playing cricket, either. Sadeque said he’s received about 20 emails since December from prospective students in Australia, India and New Zealand thinking about Illinois and asking about how active the club is.
About 16 cricketers – clad in the standard white uniforms and using regulation equipment – practice twice a week during the summer in Urbana’s Lohmann Park, said club adviser and former captain Tanweer Alam.
Cricket relies on the cooperation of the weather, and many Illinois students look forward to early spring or early fall to whip out their cricket bats.
Teams participating in this month’s Illini Cup -- about 40 to 60 players total -- have been scrimmaging nearly every other day and playing weekend matches, Alam said. Players available during the summer participate in matches every Saturday as members of the club’s Midwest Cricket Conference team, he said.
Most of the current players of the Cricket Club of Illinois are from India, Pakistan and the United States, but the cricket club has a history of welcoming bowlers and batsmen from almost every cricket-playing nation, said Alam, a business intelligence analyst for the U. of I. Foundation.
One staff member from the university drives an hour from his home in Bloomington, Ill., to play in league matches, Alam said.
Alam, a self-described cricket “fanatic,” can relate.
When he was a high school student, Alam said he spent the morning of his SATs playing cricket, ran to the testing center to compete his exam, and then hurried back to finish his game.
Alam’s father sent him to the University of Oklahoma for undergraduate studies assured that there’d be no cricket to distract him.
Alam and others later lobbied to create a cricket club at Oklahoma and he was able to squeeze in one warm-up match before moving to Illinois, he said.
Learning about the cricket club in Champaign-Urbana is what got Alam excited to continue his graduate studies at the U. of I., he said. “That was a big pull for me.”
Modern Illinois cricketers can trace the beginnings of their beloved sport to 16th century England, where it spread to India, Australia, Pakistan and elsewhere in the British Empire. Cricket fathered baseball, which replaced its bowlers with pitchers, wickets with bases, and the rectangular clay “pitch” with a grassy infield.
Now coaching outreach programs at local elementary schools, the Cricket of Club of Illinois has its own successful history on campus, Alam said. At one time the university even had a designated cricket field where the Japan House is located today, he said.
Alam sometimes sees both male and female students playing pick-up games near Fourth and Green Streets or on other parts of campus, just like an impromptu game of baseball or football, he said.
Club treasurer Salman Khan, a sophomore human nutrition major, said the club takes pride in being one of the first to bring cricket overseas. Khan’s father, Illinois alumnus and veterinarian Safdar Khan, has been playing with the club almost since the organization formed in 1985.
Salman Khan’s brothers played cricket at Illinois, and Salman himself been playing with the club since elementary school. His younger brother, Nauman, a high school junior, is the club’s youngest member.
As an undergraduate student, playing cricket has brought Khan closer to his cultural roots, he said.
“It’s brought me a lot closer to my Pakistani heritage,” said Khan, who was born and raised in Urbana. “With cricket, it’s definitely facilitated that process.”
Players’ love for cricket matches their love for strategy, which is a crucial aspect of winning matches.
Alam compared the cricket field to the chessboard where every second and every pitch is calculated to exploit opponents’ weaknesses.
In cricket, players must be constantly thinking at all times, Sadeque said.
“I think all the mental strength that I have is due to cricket,” Khan added. “I think that’s something anybody can pick up with cricket.”
The cricket club is now a recognized student organization with a growing membership, but Sadeque and Khan hope for more. They’d like to see the U. of I. join other Big Ten schools such as Purdue and transform cricket from a student organization to a traveling, university-sanctioned sports team with a paid coaching staff.
But Khan says he’s thankful for the funding, equipment and support the university has provided to help cricket become a sport everyone – those familiar with the game and those new to cricket – can enjoy.
“Without (the university’s) efforts, I don’t think cricket would exist in Champaign-Urbana today,” Khan said.
All photos by Illinois News Bureau photographer L. Brian Stauffer
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