The city of Louisville received worldwide attention among aficionados of cricket last October with the inauguration of a new playing facility at Hays Kennedy Park named for Sunil M. Gavaskar, a legend in the sport who is known as “the Muhammad Ali” of the sport.
The facility was built in conjunction with Louisville Metro Parks and Recreation with the long-term goal of the city becoming a destination for national, and even international cricket competitions.
“I may need to come out of retirement so I can play there,” said Naveed Zaman, professor of mathematics, dean of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at West Virginia State University, and an early founder of the Louisville-based, Kentucky Cricket Club (KCC).
When Zaman arrived in Lexington from his native country of Pakistan in the fall of 1993 to begin his studies at the University of Kentucky, he didn’t know anyone from home or who spoke his native language. “I was really in a foreign land,” he recalls.
In 1995, Zaman joined some of his UK colleagues to form a cricket club at the university. The following year UK competed in the inaugural Midwest Cricket Tournament (MCT) that included other clubs such as from Ohio State, Cleveland, Columbus, the University of Cincinnati, and a Cincinnati club team.
The university initially provided a field to the club that they used for about three years. However, a major problem with the field was that they were not allowed to pour concrete under the pitch, which is the central strip of the field between the wickets that measures 22 yards long and 10 feet wide.
The surface is flat and normally covered with extremely short grass that wears out during long play. A concrete foundation underneath the grass assures a level playing surface. “We tried to keep it as level as we could then we bought a jute mat,” said Zaman. “Many cricket people use this.”
In 1999, the city of Lexington granted the club a terrain for a dedicated field next to the Avon Golf Course between Lexington and Winchester.
The city also purchased the concrete for the pitch. During that same period, the club changed its name temporarily to the Lexington Cricket Club because many of the members were no longer students by then. That only lasted for about a year or so before adopting its current moniker — the Kentucky Cricket Club.
The club remained there until 2002 when the club moved to Louisville and began playing at Cox Park. Many of the members had moved to the Louisville area over time including the club leader, Hammad Bokhari, who began his work in a Louisville area hospital emergency room after his residency in Lexington. Bokhari currently works as a family medicine doctor in Jeffersonville, Ind.
In 2014, the KCC moved from Cox Park to its current location at Bokhari’s house in Goshen, Ky.
“I was retiring from cricket,” Bokhari confided during a break at a recent tournament match held at his house on a cool, yet sunny Saturday afternoon.
He and his wife both enjoyed country living and their five children needed a lot of room to play. So when the couple made their decision to purchase a large estate in the expansive horse country of Oldham County, his wife wondered if they would be able to put some of the land to use by building a field along the road in front of the house.
Bokhari replied, “Heck, we can put two fields there — we’re buying it, honey.” With that decision, Bokhari’s intent to retire from the sport was set aside for the time being.
A short history of cricket
Nobody knows the exact origins of cricket in the United States. But according to multiple sources, the first public report of a cricket match in North America was in 1751, when the New York Gazette and the Weekly Post Boy carried an account of a match between a London team and one from New York City. The match was held on the site of what is today the Fulton Fish Market in Manhattan.
The sport grew in this country until the turn of the 20th century, when it entered a long period of dormancy.
This was attributed in part to the rise in baseball’s popularity, but more importantly, to the exclusion of the United States by the International Cricket Council (ICC), originally organized as the Imperial Cricket Conference in 1909, from participating in the sport at the highest level since it was only open to Commonwealth nations at the time.
This changed in 1965 when the United States was admitted to the renamed ICC as an associate member.
The sport has enjoyed increasing popularity ever since.
Cricket in Louisville and beyond
The Midwest Cricket Tournament is the pre-eminent cricket competition in the Midwest region, which includes Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio).
It is comprised of three tournaments over the course of the cricket season. During the spring, teams compete for the Titan Cup. During the spring-fall, teams compete in the MCT-35, and during the fall, there is the MCT T-20. Each tournament has playoffs and championships.
Some of the clubs have more than one team, including the Columbus Indiana Cricket Club (CICC) that had traveled to Goshen to play against the Kentucky Cricket Club and the Louisville Cricket Club.
According to Ram Velamakanni, a CICC member since 2012, his club has two teams — the Spartans and the Titans. “We are all part of one family,” said Velamakanni who plays for the Spartans.
The Kentucky Cricket Club is joined by four other clubs in Kentucky as members of the MCT — the Louisville Cricket Club (LCC), the Frankfort Cricket Club (FCC), the University of Kentucky Cricket Club (UKCC, and the Kentucky United Cricket Club (KUCC).
The Louisville Cricket Club normally plays at the newly inaugurated Sunil M. Gavaskar Field at Hays Kennedy Park but played their recent tournament game against the Columbus Indiana CC Spartans at the KCC field at Bokhari’s house.
This was practical because Columbus had finished an earlier game against KCC and wouldn’t have to travel further into town to play against LCC. It also worked out well because the LCC home field was still recovering from heavy rains it endured earlier in the spring.
The KCC and the LCC are fortunate to share the coaching services of the retired professional cricketer Asif Faridi. Faridi’s professional career spanned a period of 19 years playing for his native Pakistan national team and alternating parts of each season between Pakistan and England.
Faridi moved from New York City to Louisville about a year ago to enjoy quality time with his son and his family. He enjoys spending time with the younger players and mentoring them in the game of cricket, and in life in general.
A Love for the Game
Zaman was hired at West Virginia State University in 2000 and continued to commute between Charleston and Lexington, and then later to Louisville, 12-15 times per year from 2002-2015.
The commutes wore on him over the years, but when asked if he would still play if he had the chance, his response was an emphatic — “Absolutely, in a heartbeat!”
Zaman says he loves the game, the camaraderie, and the exercise he rarely gets these days compared to when he was an active cricket player.
Cricket helped Zaman settle into a life other than academics during his early days at U.K. The sport also enabled him to forge strong bonds with players from his native Pakistan, as well as from India and other parts of the world.
“I still have friends — we play golf every year.” His three other golfing buddies are from India, including Bokhari.
Players travel frequently and far during the cricket season. They are mainly professionals in their field of work, and many have families.
The Columbus CC Spartans traveled 85 miles each way to play two back-to-back games against KCC in the morning, and then LCC later that afternoon. But it was a day filled with the thrill of competition, the satisfaction of accomplishment, and the joy of being with friends and playing a sport that inspires passion among its devotees.