You’re never too old to take up a new sport.
Or at least, that was Dave Bannister’s mindset when he started playing cricket as a middle-aged Anglophile.
“Why not start a new sport when you’re 50?” the Robbinsdale resident said at an open cricket practice in Edina last month.
The Edina Parks and Recreation Department and the Eden Prairie-based Strykers Cricket Club teamed up at the Braemar sports complex May 18, introducing newcomers to what is commonly regarded as the second-most popular sport in the world. Now, a group of cricket players hope Edina can be a launching pad to boost the sport’s profile in the metro.
“People don’t know much about it,” Bannister observed, having spent the past year and a half trying to find friends and strangers to join him in his new obsession.
The predecessor to baseball, cricket is played by two 11-player teams on a giant oval field. Like baseball, at the core of the game is the matchup between the batsmen and the bowler – or, in baseball terms, the batter and the pitcher.
Unlike baseball, there are two batsmen on the field at a time, the field of play is 360 degrees, and the games can go on for days. For an innings – both the singular and plural usage for the term defining a period of play – to come to an end, 10 of a team’s 11 batsmen have to make an out, which is accomplished with mechanics similar to baseball, except that two players can dash between the wickets at a time.
Massaood Yunus, president of the Strykers Cricket Club, dreams of the day when the rules of cricket won’t have to be described in every general-interest American newspaper article covering the subject.
“We love the game,” he said, explaining his motivation to grow the sport in the metro area.
Yunus’ club partnered with the city of Edina this year in an attempt to get a beginners’ league together, but not enough interest materialized to make it viable.
“We’d been getting phone calls about facility rentals for cricket,” Edina Recreation Supervisor Tiffany Bushland said, “and I thought, ‘People are playing this sport. Let’s at least offer it to them.’”
While they weren’t able to assemble enough teams for a league, “there was some interest, so we wanted to offer them something.”
Originally scheduled to take place on Braemar Field, last month’s open practice was moved to Braemar Arena’s Backyard Rink, which was covered and dry. Having set up his own wickets before the official practice organizers had even arrived, Bannister found himself right at home in the make-shift setting. He and his group of cricket newcomers already play in an outdoor rink in Robbinsdale. It’s taken a concerted effort on his part to make those pick-up games happen.
“Imagine trying to recruit for a soccer game … and you can’t recruit anybody who’s played soccer or seen a soccer game,” he said, explaining Americans’ relatively low level of cricket awareness.
Nevertheless, Bannister’s been able to round up a handful of friends who get together for regular sessions. These casual matches are a far cry from many of the competitions organized by the Strykers Cricket Club, which consists of experienced players who mostly learned the sport in the parts of the world where it’s most popular, such as India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, England and Australia.
Bannister’s wife, Emily, who followed her husband into the sport, noted how difficult it would be for a cricket neophyte to try to join players who have spent their entire lives getting comfortable around a wicket.
“They’re so good, it’s like a beginner couldn’t possibly go out for that,” she said.
“We want to cater to people who are playing the game for the first time,” said Strykers member Haris Siddiqui, who leads the club’s outreach efforts in Edina.
In growing the sport, it helps that there are already plenty of people in America who grew up hitting a moving ball with a bat. “We’ve seen a good number of successes with players that have played any sport that requires hand-eye coordination,” Siddiqui said.
When the bowler throws the ball in cricket, it reaches the batsman on a bounce. One other crucial difference between cricket and softball or baseball, Siddiqui noted, is that cricket players don’t use gloves to catch the ball, which is similar in consistency to a baseball. However, for casual play, a tennis ball wrapped in electrical tape is commonly used.
Bannister played soccer before picking up cricket, but he started the other field sport at a relatively old age with that sport, too. He was 28 when England’s massively popular Champions League drew him in.
More than a decade later, Bannister’s infatuation with cricket began when he was at home taking care of newborn twins. He was flipping through the channels trying to find a soccer match to put on in the background when he happened upon the curious proceedings unfolding in the oval.
“I said, ‘What is this? I don’t know what this is,’” Bannister admitted. It turned out to be a match between Pakistan and Ireland.
Intrigued by what he saw on TV, the next step was to play the sport in real life. This is where he used his recruiting skills from his time as a fledgling soccer player.
Just like his current mission with cricket, Bannister began playing soccer by trying to find players who were also new to the game, since joining a pick-up game full of veterans seemed like a tall task.
“Even at friendly games, people can get kind of intimidated by the skill of the players,” he explained.
To increase the metro’s pool of cricket players, the Strykers are looking to the youth in addition to their adult-focused efforts. That has included cricket clinics that exposed the sport to more than 100 youngsters in Edina last summer.
In promoting their sport, cricket evangelists point to many of the same benefits that people generally attribute to athletics, such as how the sport teaches teamwork and leadership. But Siddiqui also highlights the benefits that come with cricket’s global status.
When traveling the world, its second-most popular sport “can be a great conversation starter,” he said.
And with the Stryker’s efforts in Edina, a start is what they have.
“The city has been a great partner with us,” Yunus said. … “They’re sharing our passion, let’s put it that way.”
– Follow Andrew Wig on Twitter @EdinaSunCurrent