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Tampa Cricket: A League of Its Own, Economic Asset

The Tampa Cricket League wrapped up its spring season Saturday, May 10, 2014, with a tournament at Evans Park in Seffner. The 2014 Champion is the team Best 11 which defeated the Indo Kings 140 to 119 runs.

That’s right. Tampa has a cricket league. It started in 2007 with just four teams, but founder Nitheesh Shetty said the league has grown over the last seven years with 20 teams participating this season.

“Last time we had 22 and next season we’re going to get 4 more teams so 24,” Shetty said. “We are improving and raising the number of players. It’s good. We’re getting more grounds thanks to the county.”

He said cricket is like a religion in India, his country of origin, and he’s watching as its popularity in Tampa grows in proportion to the community’s diversity. Most of the Tampa players have grown up with the sport in British Commonwealth countries from the Caribbean to Southeast Asia.

It wasn’t a love of cricket but a general interest in Indian culture that brought Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham to a local India Festival several years ago.

“That led to an introduction to some cricket players,” Higginbotham said.

He helped the cricket league gain access to use of county parks which led to a cricket field being on an unused baseball field at Evans Park.

Cricket doesn’t require much – just a flat field with a perfectly level “pitch,” a strip of grass or artificial turf, measuring 22 yards long and 10 feet wide, where the wickets are set up.

Higginbotham said the local development of cricket is an economic asset that makes the bay area more globally competitive.

“When businesses are looking to move to this area or expand, they want to know what’s available. And one of the missing links, as I learned as I got involved in cricket advocacy, was businesses who hired people from Asia and India wanted to know about cricket. And we’re answering that call,” Higginbotham said.

And there’s growing participation among young adults. King High School fielded a club team.

King High seinor, Anurag Baddam is graduating but said several of the younger players plan to continue next season and there’s hope more Hillsborough high schools will start cricket club teams.

“It’s not just inverted baseball,” Baddam said. “It’s something unique and if people get involved in the movement, it’s definitely something they’ll be interested in.”

And it may surprise many, but Tampa’s University of South Florida won the 2014 American College Cricket championship beating out 24 other teams this March in Washington DC.

“I’ve met doctors and lawyers and IT, students, people who own businesses who are out here because of that common bond,” Higginbotham said. “Cricket being the second largest sport in the world, is unknown to Americans. It’s got a great, great following and we need to promote it.”

There is some question on how that #2 ranking is measured.

Yet the awareness of cricket is certainly on the rise with the release of the Disney film “Million Dollar Arm,” a real story about cricket players from India being brought to US for a major league pitching tryout.

The irony is that, according to Shetty, it’s the cricket batters who get all the respect and the “bowler,” the cricket pitcher, is rarely a star. That’s definitely different than in Major League Baseball.

Other examples, cricket has two batters instead of one, yet there are not four bases only two wickets, the equivalent bases. And a team earns 6 runs for a home run – when the batter hits the ball beyond the boundary without it being caught by a fielder.

The rules may seem confusing at first, but Shetty said the sport is easier to understand by watching a few games. And he invited spectators to come out to the Tampa Cricket League when it starts its second season in July. He said some of their fans will gladly explain the game as you watch.

Bobbie O’Brien has been a Reporter/Producer at WUSF since 1991. She reports on general news topics in Florida and the Tampa Bay region.
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