Thirteen-year-old Shiv Nair pressed a tissue against his gum where his baby tooth had been, keeping his eyes fixed on his teammates.
“Thwack!” The sound of ball against bat echoed around the warehouse where the team was practising. Ditching the bloodied napkin, Shiv ran back to the game.
Every Wednesday for three hours, Shiv and his teammates come to practise cricket, the game their fathers grew up playing in the countries they left behind. Initially, there were just five boys aged six to nine. They got “absolutely destroyed” in their first few matches, the memories of which still make them laugh.
But for reasons even their coach couldn’t work out, they kept playing. And year after year, others joined them.
Their club, the Future Stars School of Cricket in the US state of Virginia, now has more than 90 players, nearly all of them American-born children of South Asian parents.
Cricket is growing in popularity all over the US, and analysts believe it may be down to a change in the way children of immigrants relate to their parents’ home countries.
Growing up as part of an ethnically diverse and tech savvy generation means teens in the US today can connect with their cultural heritage in new ways.
They can watch faraway cricket matches on YouTube, and follow their favourite Indian or Pakistani players on Instagram, just as easily as their classmates might follow American baseball stars.
“Things from their ancestral home don’t seem as far away as they used to,” said Stella Rouse, a professor at the University of Maryland who studies identity politics. “There’s a more comfortable environment for young people to express things that are different.”
One October evening, Shiv’s team, the Lions, gathered at their training facility. A group of fathers chatted in English and Tamil about the shortage of outdoor cricket fields in the area.
At the far end of the warehouse, Shiv, the team captain, got ready to bat. His best friends, 13-year-old Govind Mohandas, and Tanush Apte, 11, were around him.
Tanush raised the ball. Grinning, Shiv squared up.
In the past five years, the number of cricket teams in the region around the US capital has nearly doubled, coaches say. The demand mostly comes from as immigrant adults and their US-born children.
Sports “can provide something familiar to new migrants when perhaps, on a daily basis, they don’t feel as included in society as they would like,” said Thomas Fletcher, a researcher from Britain who has studied the relationship between South Asian communities and cricket.
In the neighbouring state of Maryland, a community of primarily South Asian men have spent years playing cricket in carparks, abandoned tennis courts, and baseball fields, where they sometimes get booted out midgame by a baseball team.
They successfully campaigned for the region’s first purpose-built cricket field, which opened in September. “We’ve been waiting for this for so, so long,” said Anup Shah, who owns a cricket club in the area.
“People don’t get it,” said Bijal Shah, co-founder of the Maryland Cricket Premier League. “In India, cricket was part of our day-to-day. It’s DNA for us, it’s religion.”
Cricket fields are large – about the size of four little-league baseball fields – and can be expensive. The Maryland field cost US$7 million, said the park director Mike Riley. But as demand grows, Rilet predicts that such facilities will soon be commonplace.
“The number of foreign-born residents is growing – that’s a fact,” Riley said. “As needs evolve, and we have to step up and meet them.”
In 2017, frustrated by the shortage of fields, Shiv’s coach Milroy Don opened the indoor training facility in Sterling, Virginia, paying US$6,000 a month for the space and spending months fixing it up.
“I’ve seen it so many times,” he said. “Once [the kids] start cricket, they don’t want to do anything else.”
Shiv first saw the sport on television. His grandfather, visiting from Kerala, India, was watching the Indian Premier League, and the 6-year-old wanted to try. Using a fire hydrant as a makeshift wicket, Shiv took his first swing.
Rouse, the University of Maryland professor, said Gen Zers are far more likely than older generations to identify as citizens “of the world,” able to embrace traditions that are not American, in part because they are growing up online.
This is not to say that peer pressure to assimilate does not exist, she noted, but that younger Americans have more ways to resist it.
At Shiv’s school, some classmates tease him for playing “bot-bot baseball.”
“They think cricket copied baseball,” he said one evening after practise. “Even though cricket literally came before baseball.”
None of the schools that the boys attend offer cricket as an after-school sport. At his school, Shiv says, he knows only one other cricket player.
And yet, while all five teammates have dabbled in soccer, basketball or baseball, they say they have never been tempted to quit cricket or felt particularly self-conscious about playing the sport. As Shiv explained, the boys all have plenty of friends at school; they would just like these friends a little more if they knew how to talk about cricket.
“I don’t know,” the batsman said, shrugging. “Just because it’s not popular doesn’t mean it isn’t great.”
With one batting glove on and the other tucked under his arm, Shiv lined up four paper cups on the garage floor and set a bruised tennis ball on top of each one.
“Thwack!” A plastic chair fell on its side, hitting a wall decorated with dents and chipped paint. Two more balls flew toward a bicycle. The fourth took down a trash can.
The teenager smiled. “Thirty more minutes of this,” he said.
Already among the best youth cricket players in the Washington, D.C., region, Shiv now harbours a bigger goal: to play on India’s national team. Practising on his own, he thinks often of his cousins and their neighbours in Kerala, who play gully cricket every day after school for hours on end.
“Achan!” Shiv called for his father in Malayalam, a language native to Southwest India.
Prem Nair, 45, came through the garage. Born in Kerala, he came to northern Virginia 20 years ago, drawn to the region’s booming tech industry.
“I’d want him to play for the U.S., because this is the place that gave us opportunity, but if that’s his choice ...” Nair’s voice trailed off. “I never imagined this.”
As the sun set, father and son headed into their cul-de-sac of stately houses, manicured lawns and SUVs. This was a long way from Nair’s seaside hometown, Alappuzha, where kids played cricket on post-harvest paddy fields or unguarded construction sites, paved over to make way for railway tracks.
Shiv crouched to bowl tennis balls to his father, slowly correcting his form.
When a blond, bespectacled neighbour came running with a football, the teenager glanced over, then yelled, “Give me 20 minutes!”
He locked his eyes onto the tennis ball soaring toward him.
“I’ll come around later.”