It's March Madness for Cricket Fans, Too Cricket: Captain of India's Team Is One of World's Highest-Paid Athletes

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), March 15, 2015 | Go to article overview

It's March Madness for Cricket Fans, Too Cricket: Captain of India's Team Is One of World's Highest-Paid Athletes


For Shiraz Najam of Streamwood, March Madness began way back on Valentine's Day, when impressive bowlers propelled New Zealand to a commanding 98-run victory over Sri Lanka in the opening match of the 2015 Cricket World Cup.

College basketball might dominate today's sports news for millions of Americans, but more than 2 billion (yes, with a B) people worldwide are focused on the quadrennial international cricket tourney, which heats up Wednesday when the knockout phase begins and lasts until only the top two teams square off in Australia's Melbourne Cricket Ground on March 29, the sport's Super Sunday.

"It's bigger than soccer, American football, baseball, basketball," says Najam, 37, who plays cricket all summer and also serves as president of the Midwest Cricket Conference, which boasts 52 teams playing in 560 games during the 20-week season.

Often compared to baseball, cricket features a bowler who throws a ball about the size of a baseball toward a wicket, which is similar to vertical home plate. A batsman uses a cricket bat, which looks like a paddle, to hit the ball into play and score runs without the fielders recording an out. A ball hit over the boundary is worth six runs, and a player bats until he makes an out. Retired "God of

cricket" Sachin Tendulkar of India scored more than 30,000 runs and is the only player to record 100 centuries (scoring 100 runs or more in a single at-bat). In India, Michael Jordan is known as the Sachin Tendulkar of basketball.

The suburbs boast a cricket legend in Waseem Khan of Glendale Heights, who set a world record during an official match in Hanover Park by recording the fastest century, accumulating 100 runs in only 33 balls. A perennial Most Valuable Player in his league, the 43-year-old Khan was born in Pakistan, where he played on elite teams but just missed the cut for making Pakistan's national team.

"I used to go watch him play because he was famous in the community," says Najam, who, as did Khan, spent his childhood in Karachi, Pakistan.

Khan played on club teams in the United State. "I got paid. I got sponsors," says Khan, who says he made between $10,000 and $15,000 some summers. He was on the U.S. national cricket team for several years, including the team that qualified for the 2004 International Cricket Council Intercontinental Cup.

"We lost badly to Australia and North Zealand," remembers Khan, who says the U.S. team still depends on immigrant players and didn't make the cut for this year's World Cup.

Najam says local cricket advocates are hoping to change that, having established cricket club teams at Prospect, Palatine, Maine East, Rolling Meadows and Niles North high schools.

"We're seeing a bunch of American-born kids exploring the game. It's very promising," Najam says.

In addition to agreements with park districts such as the one in Hanover Park, where the Midwest Cricket Conference (midwestcricket.org) plays two six-hour games a day on summer weekends, the Naperville Park District started its own cricket league program in 2007.

"The initial year, we had five teams. Now, we've been as high as 13," says Gary Foiles, program manager for the Naperville Park District. "We added a second field, or pitch. On weekends, those pitches are pretty full."

Cricket now boasts twice as many teams as the traditional 16-inch softball league, Foiles says.

"I still don't really understand cricket, but I've come to appreciate it," he says.

"The conventional game, when it started, lasted five days and sometimes it ended in a draw," says Najam, whose league still keeps the traditional red-colored ball favored in that era. The one-day format for games in the World Cup is shortened to less than six hours for the suburban version, allowing the league to play two games in a day on one pitch. Other leagues play a version called 20/20 that takes less than four hours. …

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