As the sun rose on the morning of May 24, so too did the hopes of the Atlanta Cricket Academy.
It was a day that coach Deepak Roy and all his players had been training for over the past year. The academy was hosting its second annual national tournament at the Atlanta Cricket Grounds in north Forsyth County, with 24 teams from 10 different states set to attend.
Last year’s event was cut short due to poor weather conditions, but early on, it was clear that wouldn’t be an issue again. As the players began filing in around 8 a.m., the heat was already beginning to ramp up, and they all began to slather on as much sunscreen as possible.
When play finally began an hour later, the heat was immense, but that wasn’t the focus of the Avatars, the Academy’s U15 team. Their first matchup of the three-day event was against Cricmax, a team from New Jersey that was seen as one of the top youth teams in the country. Roy, who moved to Atlanta from India around 10 years ago, stood just outside the boundary, coaching his players from afar and fulfilling what has become his calling.
“Initially, I thought there was only adult cricket (here),” Roy said. “But then when I noticed a few young kids who are very dedicated to the game, it was a very good feeling, actually. I had a cricket background and I really enjoyed seeing kids here practicing hard.”
For the last few years, Forsyth County, which has a growing South Asian population, has become a focal point of youth cricket in the Atlanta area. While cricket is a very popular sport in other areas of the world, it’s still finding its footing in the U.S., a fact that the academy is hoping to help change with time.
“We're blessed,” Roy said. “For the last two and a half years, we've had kind of a home (here).”
Cricket is a bat and ball game that in some ways draws similarities to baseball. Teams take turns batting, fielding and scoring runs, but in a different way. Instead of a dirt infield and bases, the game revolves around a strip of dirt called the pitch, which is surrounded by a large, circular grass field.
The batsman stands on one end of the pitch and faces the bowler, who runs up to the other end and throws the ball towards him. It’s the batsman’s goal to score runs by striking the ball and running to the other end of the pitch and back. Meanwhile, the bowler and the fielders around him try to dismiss the batsman, or get him out, in different ways. One way to do that is if the bowler strikes the wicket, a set of three stumps which is protected by the batsman.
After 10 outs, the sides switch. In a T20 format, a shorter form of the game that the academy plays, each team gets one innings each, and whoever scores the most runs in that span wins.
The academy started in 2017, when Roy and a few other like-minded people saw the potential for a program to teach the game to young people in the area. They started with just four players, but have since grown to 75 members from ages five to 18. The academy conducts all its training sessions in Forsyth County.
For tournaments, they’re grouped by age in a very similar manner to sports like baseball and soccer, with U11, U13 and U15 teams playing in their recent event. At the academy, they’re grouped into three batches based on skill level, which usually translates to age as well.
The cricket season lasts from March or April to October or November, with players busy traveling to tournaments around the country over that time. Some of the older players also participate in season play in the Atlanta Cricket League. Roy, who played cricket in India, doesn’t have much time to play anymore with all the travel involved, but that doesn’t bother him.
“I've seen them growing (since) they were nine or 10 years old,” he said. “I've seen them evolving, I've seen them getting selected for nationals. I'm kind of more inclined towards that now.”
Fifteen-year-old batsman Viraj Vaghela didn’t initially have much interest in cricket. He played soccer in his younger years, but after watching India win just its second Cricket World Cup in 2011, he was inspired. He ultimately followed in his father’s footsteps, opting to make cricket his sport of choice. He now serves as the captain of the U15 Avatars.
“I wouldn't say I'm an ambassador, but I do want to promote the game of cricket to kids that are growing up and who are not quite sure [about it,]” Vaghela said. “It’s not big in the U.S. but that's why guys like us are here in this academy and other academies that have joined us here. We really want to inspire young kids to take it up in the United States of America.”
Cricket may be a different, almost foreign sport to most people in the U.S., but it’s growing. Despite the differences in popularity when compared to more mainstream sports, the lessons in teamwork, perseverance and sportsmanship that cricket teaches in a youth setting are all the same, Vaghela said.
“In the end, I think that might play a major role in how we turn out to be as individuals when we grow up,” Vaghela said. “I personally and we at the academy feel like it's a great sport to take up, especially now that cricket is growing in the U.S. It's wonderful to be a part of the game.”