ST. JOSEPH — Like many who played stick ball in the parking lot as a child, Sanjay Gaikwad played cricket on the pitch.
Gaikwad, a civil engineering manager at Whirlpool Corp., grew up playing his childhood game in India. Having moved to the United States to pursue a career in engineering, he soon met others in Southwest Michigan who enjoy the sport.
Along with 80 other players, Gaikwad participates in the St. Joseph Cricket League each summer. The league formed in 2012 and has been evolving ever since.
“Every Saturday I’m here,” Gaikwad said. “Coming from India, staying here and still playing cricket. It’s pure. It’s like having a piece of home.”
It began as a game with a dozen people who would hit the ball around when there was free time on weekends. Then in the summer of 2013, the original members formed a tournament in which teams from South Bend and Battle Creek traveled to and from Southwest Michigan.
But as the Indian population grew year by year, the league increased to more than 80 players by this summer, with the majority of the players here because of Whirlpool. More players allowed formation of the local league.
The Benton Harbor-based appliance maker got involved with the league through the Whirlpool Asian Community, an employee resource group with more than 300 members who endorse Asian culture throughout the company and the community. The group soon became a sponsor of the league, along with a few local businesses.
Rajaneesh Gullapalli, a friend of Gaikwad and fellow league member, said he has played cricket since the third grade. As a manager of information systems at Whirlpool, Gullapalli works at the global headquarters building – whereas Gaikwad is based out of the Benton Harbor Technology Center.
The two would rarely see one another, but now exchange pleasantries on a weekly basis through cricket. Gullapalli points to this league as the reason for meeting a lot of his friends.
“There’s no interaction between Sanjay and I at work,” Gullapalli said. “Our buildings are far apart. But with cricket, I can reach Sanjay.”
A changing of fields
Each team in the six-team league playes 15 games a year. With no dedicated place, the league holds games at Carronde Park, and occasionally practices at Riverview Park on the other side of the St. Joseph River.
Team names and players change from year to year, and players are chosen by captains.
The two teams that made it to the finals this year were the Starks and the Hawks. The Starks take their name from the well-intentioned family in HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”
This past Saturday, they played in the league finals at Carronde Park. It would be the last cricket match of the season. Each player wore a customized jersey with their name on the back. Families and friends packed the back bleachers for the park’s baseball field. Music played and two commentators called the match from a portable speaker and microphone.
The Hawks won by three wickets, as they were able to chase the target of 63 runs in 15 overs.
The baseball field the teams play on make it difficult to hold a regular match. A baseball field covers half the ground actually needed. The pitch, which is the line from where the bowler throws the ball toward the wicket, is normally located in the center of the playing field.
Because the batsman is at the center of the field and can hit the ball at any direction, doing so on a baseball field can prove problematic. In cricket, there are concrete as well as turf pitches, so switching to a baseball field isn’t the greatest option.
But these obstacles don’t keep them from playing.
To compensate, local players get creative with the rules. The teams use nine players at a time instead of 11, due to the field’s size. Each team has 16 players who rotate throughout the season to fill those nine slots.
They still follow international rules, with several modifications. When players find a way to exploit a modified rule, Gullapalli said a committee of players meet to gauge how it can be solved.
“We took inputs to see what was viable,” Gullapalli said. “It’s a little more customized for the area.”
Other than focusing on the rules, Gaikwad and Gullapalli hope to see the league expand more and find a dedicated ground.
Nitin Sawant filled in as one of the umpires for Saturday’s final match.
Sawant works in advanced engineering for Whirlpool’s refrigeration division. When he came to Southwest Michigan, Sawant said he was amazed there were others interested in cricket. There are leagues similar to the one in St. Joseph all over the country. Teams have also formed in South Bend, Elkhart, Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids.
“Being able to come here and continue to play is great,” Sawant said on Saturday. “My favorite part about this is coming here to have fun. We grew up playing cricket, but the whole idea (of this league) is to take all the pressure off and come here for a few hours.”