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Passion for cricket unites new Western New Yorkers

It’s late Thursday inside a sports complex in Lancaster, where the soccer players have just left the field for the night.

Young men wielding flat wooden bats enter, arrange a set of three small posts and begin what will be the first of two spirited cricket matches.

“Ohhhhh!” the cricketers on the bench roar in unison.

They watch as the ball is lined into the field and dropped.

“Had he caught the ball,” cricketer Pankaj Tripathi explains to the neophyte watching from the bleachers, “the batsman would have been out.”

Normally, no one would know or care about this bat-and-ball sport in this little corner of the world, where football rules and hockey is king.

But as the number of people from cricket-crazed countries grows in the Buffalo area, so has the local interest.

Meet the Buffalo Bulldozers, the Niagara Warriors, the Idylwood Strikers and the University at Buffalo Cricket Club.

They are the four teams of an indoor recreational league that local cricketers recently formed to get in more practice during the long, cold winter.

The players come from countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Most are of Indian descent, a population estimated at more than 8,000 in the Buffalo Niagara region – nearly double what it was more than 10 years ago, census figures show.

Many are students and graduates of UB. But there are others – transplanted engineers, doctors and computer programmers whose passion for the sport they’ve played since childhood can’t be satisfied by American softball.

“You would be demonizing it by calling it a sport,” said Amol Salunkhe, 33, a UB alumnus who heads research and development at a local software company. “It’s a religion.”

They have been meeting inside the Epic Sports Center on Wehrle Drive at 10 p.m. Thursdays, when the artificial turf is available.

And like sports so often do with people, cricket has bonded them.

It’s brought them into each other’s homes for dinners and birthday parties. Their relationships have grown while reminiscing over classic World Cup matches or what might have been had they pursued cricket instead of their education. It’s provided a sense of home as they find their way in Buffalo.

“When I was new to Buffalo, it was very lonely,” said Bala Ramachandran, 30, who moved here three years ago for a job as a computer programmer.

“But looking back three years to where I am now, I have so many friends,” he said. “It’s the sport that actually started everything.”

In fact, Jagjeet Singh met his teammates as they played cricket outside the Idylwood Resort Apartments in Cheektowaga, where he lives.

“Can I join you people?” he asked them.

“Yes, you can join,” they told him.

Hence their team name – the Idylwood Strikers.

“I didn’t know anybody here,” said Singh, 29, who came to Buffalo in 2011 to work in the banking industry. “When I started playing cricket, I made a lot of friends.”

‘It’s a lot like baseball’

Cricket is played by two teams of 11 on a large grassy oval bigger than a football field. Inside the oval is a rectangle with three, small wooden posts – or wickets – at each end.

One team takes the field and has a player who “bowls” the hard, leather ball overhand and with a straight arm to attack the wicket at the other end.

The other team has a batsman at each wicket. The goal is to use the bat to defend the wicket, hit the ball and then run back and forth between the set of posts as many times as possible to score runs.

“The key thing for American people is it’s a lot like baseball,” said Patrick McDevitt, a UB history professor, “so if you understand one, you’ll understand the other.”

The team batting continues until 10 of its 11 batsmen are out. That can happen a number of ways, but commonly when the ball is hit and caught in the air by a fielder or when the batsman misses the ball and it strikes the wicket.

The teams switch sides. Play is measured in innings.

Got it?

The sport can be confusing, for sure, particularly if your only exposure to it is while flipping through the late-night cable channels.

But it’s wildly popular in countries colonized by the British Empire, explained McDevitt.

Recently, more than 60 students from the disputed territory of Kashmir were suspended by their Indian university over a televised cricket match.

The reason? They were cheering for the country’s archrival Pakistan.

The best players from around the world go to India to play in the Indian Premiere League, where they earn big money and rock-star status.

“As far as popularity,” McDevitt said, “it’s the NFL and NBA rolled into one.”

For years, informal matches and practices have been played outdoors on empty parking lots and deserted baseball diamonds around the area.

But recently, tournaments have been popping up around Buffalo, Rochester and Albany as the sport has come into its own in the states, thanks largely to the international presence on college campuses.

That includes UB.

Championship team

UB enrolled more than 5,800 international students during the 2012-13 academic year, ranking it No. 18 among universities with the largest enrollment of foreign students.

More than a quarter are from India.

With such a large pool of potential talent, the sport has emerged on campus, and in 2010, the UB Cricket Club was started.

The club now boasts more than 200 members and, not surprisingly, is pretty good.

It was one of 28 teams invited to the American College Cricket National Championship in Florida last year, where the club beat teams from Penn State, Texas A&M and Harvard before losing to the University of Texas at Arlington in the quarterfinals.

“We were lucky,” said UB captain Raman Rana. “We got really good players.”

On this particular Thursday night, the UB club is playing Salunkhe’s Bulldozers.

There’s a lot of chatter among the Bulldozers during the match, but with so many languages and dialects spoken in India, the teammates communicate in the language they all understand: English.

UB has just finished batting and the teams switch sides.

“What is the score?” Ramachandran is asked.

“They need 46 runs to win,” he said.

There are different formats of cricket, which can be played over hours or days. The teams in the indoor league use eight players and the matches are squeezed into 45 minutes so they can be out of the sports complex by midnight.

The match ends.

UB Cricket Club 45, Buffalo Bulldozers 42.

It’s nearly 11 p.m. by the time the second match gets underway. Ramachandran takes the field with his Warriors to play Singh’s Strikers.

“We’re doing very bad,” Ramachandran said of his team. “This is the first season we’re playing indoors, so many people work. We had to squeeze in substitutes.”

The indoor league ended for the season two Thursdays ago.

But the cricketers are eager to begin playing outdoors again as soon as the temperatures warm up and all the snow melts.