Pro cricket gains foothold in North Carolina

The Morrisville Cardinals are in first place in Minor League Cricket’s Atlantic Conference

Morrisville Cardinals captain Jaskaran Malhotra hits a six, cricket's version of a home run in baseball, during his team's victory Sunday against the Florida Beamers. (Brett Friedlander / North State Journal)

MORRISVILLE — The town of Morrisville, with its population of just under 30,000, might seem out of place in a professional sports league with franchises in major markets such as New York, Los Angeles, Houston and Atlanta.

But that only makes the challenge of competing with those larger cities more appealing to the owners of the Morrisville Cardinals, North Carolina’s entry in a new national cricket league.

Armed with a world-class venue, a history of local interest and the inspiration of another successful small town, the Cardinals are off to a fast start in their inaugural season of Minor League Cricket.

“Cricket is such a big part of the community and the culture here,” said Ram Kuntamukkala, a member of the ownership group headed by RTP businessman Praveen Chakraraj. “What I’m looking for is for this town to become like the Green Bay Packers. People only know where Green Bay is because of their Packers. They may not know where Morrisville is now, but cricket will put it on the international map.”

The Wake County suburb is already well on its way to becoming a major player in a sport most often associated with England and many of its former colonies — including India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and South Africa.

RTP businessman Praveen Chakraraj, shown here with his daughter Anshu, is the majority owner of the Morrisville Cardinals (Brett Friedlander/North State Journal)

Its Triangle Cricket Association is a well-organized group that sponsors leagues for both men and women, along with a youth program that draws participants from throughout the state. That participation, fueled by a tight-knit South Asian community, led to the construction of a state-of-the-art pitch at Church Street Park.

The facility has already played host to a World Cup Americas Qualifier in 2019 and several one-day international matches. It’s such a desirable place to play that other teams in Minor League Cricket’s Southern Division — which also includes the Atlanta Fire and Atlanta Param Veers, the Florida Beamers, Fort Lauderdale Lions and Orlando Galaxy — would rather travel there than host matches at their home venues.

As a result, the Cardinals are scheduled to play all but four of their 14 regular season matches at home this season.

The league’s championship game will also be played at Church Street Park.

“This is an incredible facility,” said assistant coach Robert Caine. “It’s quite the home-field advantage.”

It’s not the only advantage the Cardinals have over their rivals.

They’re also blessed with the knowledge and leadership of head coach Alvin Kallicharran, an international cricket legend who captained the West Indies to a pair of World Cup championships in the 1970s.

“He’s got a lot of wisdom behind him,” said Caine, who has co-authored a book with Kallicharran. “When he says something, you better listen.”

Not only does Kallicharran command the respect of the Cardinals’ veteran players, including captain and U.S. national team member Jaskaran Malhotra, the man known as “the Father of the Triangle Cricket League” is also responsible for helping to develop a deep pool of local talent.

Morrisville Cardinals bowler Karthikeya Jagadish delivers a pitch to a Florida Beamers batsman during Sunday’s cricket match at Church Street Park (Brett Friedlander/North State Journal)

Other than two “marquee” draft picks — Malhotra and Barbados native Ryan Wiggins — and three “priority” selections — Karthikeya Jagadish, Sanjay Stanley and Siva Kumar Duvvarapu —the other 10 players on the roster for last weekend’s two wins against Florida are all local products.

That includes 17-year-olds Rohan Phadke and Abhiram Bolisetty, both students at Cary’s Green Hope High School.

“There’s a great sense of pride being able to play locally, representing our home team,” said Phadke, who earlier this summer was selected to attend the USA Cricket Under 19 national team training camp in California. “I remember walking on for the first game and it felt really good to have your home fans cheering you on and supporting us. It was a sense of pride and honor.”

Cricket is similar to baseball in many 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 no foul territory — the entire field is in play.

During the first six innings, known as overs, only two fielders are allowed to position themselves outside a 30-yard inner circle, making it much easier to score. In the variation of the game used by Minor League Cricket, games consist of 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.

Morrisville Cardinals batsman Ryan Wiggins accounted for 30 runs in Sunday’s win against the Florida Beamers (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.

Like many of the Cardinals’ players, Bolisetty is of Indian descent. It’s that heritage that helped pique his interest in cricket.

“The 2011 World Cup was televised, and I watched it with my parents and family. That’s how I got into it,” Bolisetty said. “When India won that World Cup, I decided I wanted to play, and I’ve been doing it for the last 10 years.”

Through the first three weeks of the season, Bolisetty, Phadke and the Cardinals have been playing well. With a 4-2 record after their two convincing wins against the Beamers last weekend, they’re in first place in the Southern Division of Minor League Cricket’s Atlantic Conference.

It’s a promising start. But as team co-owner Kuntamukkala is quick to point out, it’s just a start.

“We are still in the infant stage and we’re not even walking. These are baby steps right now,” he said. “We expect this to be a really big deal moving forward as we get more sponsors, revenues and spectators. We have a major league with big players investing in some of those teams, so this is just a steppingstone to something great.”