Ask many people in Plano about a sports religion and they know exactly what you are talking about, as high school football has made our area known on a national, even international arena for decades.
But there is another sports religion brewing in Plano with a half dozen teams and hundreds of players—the sport of cricket. Cricket has its local headquarters at Russell Creek Park and draws a dedicated and growing following, with the season lasting from March until October.
“Cricket is a religion in India and all over South Asia,” said Plano’s Asif Mujtaba who moved to Plano in 2007 after playing 24 years professionally, including 11 on the Pakistan National Team, the “Dallas Cowboys” of the Cricket World.
“We have a lot of comraderie and a lot of fun. We have people coming from all over to play,” Mujtaba said.
Nafis Pathen moved to Plano and founded the first Plano Cricket Club in 2003, which now falls under the umbrella of the Plano International Cricket Club and has spawned seven local teams all playing out of Russell Creek as their home pitch, or field.
They compete in the larger Dallas Cricket League, which now has more than 100 teams in North Texas where thousands of players, many donning the traditional all-white uniforms, participate in the multiple-hour, sometimes even multi-day games.
“Those who have played cricket enjoy it, and those who are new to the sport are always welcome. We need to grow the sport here, and we need new people and the people moving to the area to do it,” Pathen added. “We are starting to embrace cricket with our kids, and my ultimate goal is to get it in the (Plano) schools.”
While the game, which has some similarities to baseball with its catching and throwing, pitching and hitting, may be quite a ways from being part of the school sports lineup, Pathen was responsible for interacting with Plano city government to get the sport a fixed headquarters location.
Former mayor Pat Evans was running for election in 2002 when Pathen approached her at a campaign event. He told her about the new sport to Plano and asked about a chance to have a central headquarters for local cricket.
“Our families come out to see us play, and that makes us a family sport which is what Plano wants,” Plano Cricket vice-captain Imran Skeikh said.
Evans remembered the discussion after she was elected and helped establish Russell Creek Park with now seven fields, or pitches, where games are held regularly from March to November.
Skeikh, a native of India where he played cricket as a kid, moved to Plano to work as a telecom engineer and joined the club three years ago. He said the local teams have a wide variety of members from as young as 19 to as old as 50, but they are always looking for more players. “We have beginners. We have people of all different skill levels, those who come to practice and those who learn and watch. We all are together for exercise and fun,” Skeikh said.
The cricket team has 10 players on each side with players substituted throughout the game. The similarities with baseball come because the sport has a batter and a pitcher, or bowler, with outfielders to catch the balls.
Skeikh said people who stop by the park and see the practice are also intrigued by the game and the fact that Plano has such a strong support system for the sport.
“It’s a partnership team game and we need everybody to be successful,” he added. “We need more people to help us do well.”
Last year, the Plano ICC team advanced to the North Texas quarterfinals, winning four of five league games and a single playoff game before losing to a squad from Irving. “We have good players who play good,” Skeikh said, “but we also need team bonding and good fun,” he added. Plans for the future include a female team, along with more youth squads so kids can play the game their parents grew up loving and playing. One measure of the local growth of the squad is the amount of cricket gear which can be purchased locally, especially at the unique cricket shop operated by Mujtaba in the garage of his east Plano home. While unknown to most people outside of the cricket community, Mujtaba was one of the leading players on one of the world’s leading teams in his 11-year stint with the Pakistan national team from 1986-1997. He was like an international Tony Romo or Michael Young.
He sells traditional cricket gear from helmets to leg guards, gloves, all-white uniforms, along with colored jerseys. Making these products available to players, plus his coaching of local youth teams, is his way of giving back to the sport that has been so good to him and played such a factor in his life.
“I’m very glad to give back to my sport. We have a lot of people moving to Plano from the South Asia area and they want to be involved.
“The youth coaching with Dallas Cricket is very important to kids who want to be involved, and that is very important to grow what we have.” Skeikh said growing the sport with cricket-familiar families who are moving to the area is fine, but he is also looking to grow the sport with those in Plano who know little to nothing about cricket, but are curious about the international sports religion.
“I learned about cricket by sitting with my father and watching the world cup on TV at age 14. But people here can come to practice at Russell Creek and just learn how to bowl (throw) and learn how to catch. We want new people, because we want to grow the leagues.” Pathan said the simplest way for people locally to get involved is to e-mail the Plano club at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to the website www.ntcricket.com. The Plano cricket club also has a Facebook page: facebook.com/pages/Plano-International-Cricket-Club-PICC-Knights/
“You need to be physically fit, but most of us just do it for recreation,” Pathan said. “But who knows? If you’re good enough you could play on the U.S. National team! That would be good indeed.”
Another sport religion is sprouting in Plano and carrying across the North Texas area.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Mike Newman