Karla and Celia López del Río
The cracking sound of cricket bats is echoing amid the gently rolling hills and plains of Iowa.
With leagues springing up like soybeans, cricket is drawing players and fans in the Heartland, spurred by demographic change and a growing economy. Cricket’s growth in the Heartland reflects immigrants transplanting to American soil a homeland sports tradition – and enriching the culture we share.
Abdul Haddi, president of the Iowa Premier League (IPL) in West Des Moines, has experienced firsthand how the boom of cricket leagues mirrors the changing cultural landscape in Iowa. Haddi was born in Florida after his parents emigrated from Hyderabad, India, in the 1990s. Around 14 years ago, Haddi arrived in Iowa with his family. He found one Indian grocery store and one Indian restaurant in Des Moines. This has changed: With the recent influx of immigrants to the area, several new Indian grocery stores and restaurants have popped up to meet the demand of the new and diverse communities settling there.[i]
Around 2015, Haddi and his friends launched a cricket league with 180 players. “We saw people would go into tennis courts and open baseball fields and start playing cricket,” he said. “Through that, we developed contacts. ‘Oh, okay, he’s playing over there, and he’s playing over there.’ And we realized there is a potential to tap into.” Fast forward four years, the league had grown to 460 players for the 2019 season before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted its schedule.
Cricket leagues in the Heartland may be new for most Americans, but the sport, originating in England in the late 18th Century, has a long history in the United States but never took off. By 2012, it was estimated there were 200,000 weekend cricketers and 15 million cricket fans in America. But now, the sport is gaining popularity in the American Heartland due to an influx of immigrants from the West Indies and the Indian sub-continent between the 1970s and the 1990s. Immigrants from South Asia were drawn to the region’s low population density, low cost of living, affordable housing, and the flourishing job market. Des Moines, for example, is a hub for insurance companies, with a burgeoning tech industry paced by companies like Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook. Des Moines has seen its Asian population, including people from India, almost double since 2010, recent census figures show.
The cricket league has become an avenue for new arrivals to make friends. Where political and cultural tensions may have surfaced during a match in their respective homelands, immigrants find camaraderie in the blending of the different cultures within their teams.
“I think we are seeing large differences from how people are back home to how people are interacting here,” Haddi said. “Kind of like, let those things stay there. We do not need to bring those over here… It is basically like a melting pot. So, nobody really cares if you’re an Indian or Pakistani here. Everybody’s together pretty much.”
Like ethnic grocery stores, cricket leagues have brought a touch of a homeland tradition for first-generation immigrants arriving in the Heartland. Through British colonization of countries like India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, cricket amassed a devoted, astronomical following. An estimated one billion people watched the India versus Pakistan World Cup final in 2015. The NFL would envy a number like that when its 2015 Super Bowl reached 114.4 million people.
Local governments and companies have begun showing support for the sport by accommodating the cricket communities with fields in recreation projects. The town of Johnston, near Des Moines, recently announced plans for a recreation project with the possibility of outdoor space for a cricket field built and owned by the city, which is home to Iowa Public Television. Some 40 miles southwest of Des Moines, the city of Pella and Pella Corporation partnered in building a sports park with a multipurpose green space for cricket use.
As it spreads across the Heartland, cricket has begun to bridge people across language and cultural barriers. The wicket has the potential to become another sign of American inclusiveness while giving fans another sport to obsess and argue about over a round of beers. And instead of a basket of wings, an order of samosas.
[i] Virtual Interview: Abdul Haddi, president of the Iowa Premier League (IPL) in West Des Moines, via Zoom, January 6, 2021