Cricket growing in Carolina

The weeklong Americas Subregional World Cup Qualifier was in Morrisville, featuring players from four countries

U.S. bowler Muhammad Ali Khan throws the ball past Panama's Abdullah Bham for a wicket Thursday during a match at the International Cricket Council T-20 World Cup qualifier in Morrisville. (Brett Friedlander / North State Journal)

MORRISVILLE — Alvin Kallicharran had the look of a proud father last week as he sat shielded from the late summer sun under a tent watching a cricket match being played at Church Street Park.

In a way, that’s exactly what he was, even though none of the players on the pristine grass field were actually his children.

Cricket legend Alvin Kallicharran, who played on two World Cup champion teams for the West Indies and is founder of the Triangle Cricket League. (Brett Friedlander / North State Journal)

Kallicharran is an international cricket legend who played on two World Cup championship teams for the West Indies in the 1970s. These days, though, he’s better known to local enthusiasts of the sport as the father of the Triangle Cricket League.

It’s an organization that has grown over the past 10 years from a handful of teams to 120, with more than 2,000 active participants to go along with programs for both women and youngsters. The Raleigh area has become such a cricket hotbed that its international governing body decided to bring its Americas Subregional World Cup Qualifier to Morrisville.

The tournament, involving teams from the United States, Canada, Belize and Panama, was held over the past seven days at a newly constructed facility built specifically to attract such events.

“It is very special to see international cricket being played here in Carolina,” said Kallicharran, who moved to the Triangle after retiring as a player so his wife could live closer to her parents. “This is only a start. That’s always the hardest thing. Now that you’ve created the start, you have the impetus to go on and on and on.”

Scoreboard at the International Cricket Council T-20 World Cup qualifier in Morrisville. (Brett Friedlander / North State Journal)

Cricket is a sport popular in England and many of its former colonies including India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Australia. It is similar to baseball in some respects, such as the pitcher — known as a bowler — beginning play by throwing a ball that a batsman tries to hit. Unlike baseball, the bat is flat and the ball must bounce before it is hit. There is also is no foul territory. The entire field is in play.

And during the first six innings — called overs — only two fielders are allowed to position themselves outside a 30-yard inner circle, making it much easier to score.

Although “Test” matches traditionally take several days to play, the variation of cricket played in Morrisville this week and at the World Cup in Australia in December 2019 is limited to 20 overs. Instead of taking turns batting, one team stays up for the entire 20 overs, scoring as many runs as it can. The other team then comes up for its chance to beat that score.

A workman from the Morrisville Parks department prepares the pitch for a game at the International Cricket Council T-20 World Cup qualifier. (Brett Friedlander / North State Journal)

Each over consists of six pitches, with the batting team trying to score as many runs as possible during that time. Runs are scored by the batsmen running from one wicket to another, a distance of about 66 feet. Balls that are hit past the outer boundary of the playing area on the ground are worth four runs. Those that clear the rope on the fly, the equivalent of a home run in baseball, are worth six.

Canada beat the U.S. in dramatic style Saturday when Rizwan Cheema delivered just such a hit on the final pitch of regulation, then won in a tiebreaking “super over.”

An over can also end with an out, made one of 11 ways. The most frequent are when a defensive player catches a hit ball on the fly and when a bowler throws the ball past the batsman and strikes the wicket — the three sticks set up at the end of the pitch with two small balls set on top.

“It’s not that hard to hit and run,” said former Morrisville Mayor Mark Stohlman. “Fielding is a little bit of a challenge because you’re not wearing a glove. And bowling is a real special talent. I have real respect for them.”

U.S. batsman Jaskaran Malhotra prepares to hit during Thursday’s win against Panama at the International Cricket Council T-20 World Cup qualifier in Morrisville. (Brett Friedlander / North State Journal)

While Kallicharran was the one that got the cricket ball rolling in Morrisville, it was the efforts of Stohlman that helped send it speeding toward the wicket.

A CPA who has lived in North Carolina since 1995, Stohlman knew nothing about the sport when he stumbled across a match being played while out and about one afternoon. He stopped to watch and was intrigued.

Eventually, as Kallicharran described it, he caught “the disease of cricket” and he became a player himself.

“I really didn’t understand the rules, so they told me, ‘Why don’t you go out and play, that’s the best way to understand the game,’” Stohlman said. “That’s the absolute truth. You really need to play it to pick up all the nuances.

“It’s pretty complex, but once you play it, you get the hang of it. I played on a rec team, and I realized I wasn’t that bad.”

As much as Stohlman loved playing the game, he also became interested in helping it grow. That effort, continued by current Mayor T.J. Cawley, eventually produced the field upon which last week’s World Cup qualifier was held.

Officially, Church Street Park is a multipurpose facility with a large grassy area, a children’s playground and a field house. But make no mistake. As its address of 5817 Cricket Pitch Way and the effort that went into importing 2,400 50-pound bags of clay from Indiana to construct the bowling surface suggest, its primary function is as a cricket grounds.

And not just any cricket grounds.

According to those professionals using it this week, it’s as good as any they’ve ever seen.

“It’s beautiful,” said USA coach Pubudu Dassanayake after his team’s opening victory against Panama last Thursday. “When we came here a week ago, we were so impressed. The grounds, the wickets, the lights, the whole setup is beautiful. They did tremendous work to make this an international class setup. This is easily the best ground overall in the country.”

With plenty of room surrounding the existing park for possible expansion, plans are already in the works to make it even better.

“The potential for this ground is unlimited,” said Wade Edwards, project officer for Team USA and a representative of the International Cricket Council. “There’s enough space for sure. The plan, from what I hear, is to get some stadium seating around and be able to pop it up when we need to and maybe some training facilities off to the side.

“This facility and the sense of community here is a testament to all the hard work that’s gone on here with the Town of Morrisville and the Greater Cary area. It’s inspiring and great to see.”

That sense of community was on full display during the World Cup Qualifier, especially Saturday evening when a crowd of more than 2,000 jammed the grounds to watch the U.S. take on rival Canada in the featured match of the tournament.

Panama batsman Mahmud Bhana prepares to hit while U.S. wicket keeper Mohammed Khaleel awaits the pitch at the International Cricket Council T-20 World Cup qualifier in Morrisville. (Brett Friedlander / North State Journal)

While the atmosphere was festive with spectators on the sidelines banging on drums and Bollywood music blaring from the PA system between overs, the competition on the pitch was as serious as it gets.

In the end, both the U.S. and Canada advanced to the next round of World Cup qualifying. They will join Bermuda and the Cayman Islands in the American Final next March in hopes of making it into the tournament’s championship draw.

“We are positive and looking forward to the other games,” U.S. star Monank Patel said. “Our mission is to go to the World Cup in Australia, but right now our focus is on going step-by-step.”

Even if this team falls short of its goal, ICC representative Edwards is confident that the U.S. will soon become a player capable of doing more than just getting into the field against the world’s best teams, thanks to a new grassroots developmental program established by USA Cricket.

“The age group between 12-16 here in the U.S. is as good as any I’ve seen around the world,” Edwards said. “The difference here is when you compare the United States to a traditional cricket playing country is the infrastructure, the coaches, the network.

“Right now, the U.S. National Team is made up of a number of first-class cricketers from other countries, but we’ve established a developmental organization that engages young children to start playing the game and getting it to become more mainstream.”

As it is already doing in Morrisville.