Coder by day, cricket bowler by night

Greater Seattle's Indian population has grown to more than 60,000. India claims 22 national languages, but cricket is spoken by all.
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Arul Sekar, a batsman for the Microsoft Spartans

Greater Seattle's Indian population has grown to more than 60,000. India claims 22 national languages, but cricket is spoken by all.

The Northwest Cricket League holds its finals this weekend at Marymoor Park in Redmond. Don’t look for the matches to be broadcast or even reported anywhere in the media. Cricket remains a game largely played in the old British Commonwealth. In India, however, cricket is the sole sports mania. Professional cricketers there are treated like gods.

According to one estimate, roughly 70 percent of the Northwest League’s nearly 400 players are of Indian descent, with 30 percent Pakistani and a few South Africans and Australians mixed in here and there.

The tech-rich Seattle area is still learning about its Indian neighbors whose programming and engineering skills have helped to fuel the region’s growth and influence.

According to one report, the Indian population in Bellevue is up 1,000 percent since 2000. Bellevue and Seattle are competing for an Indian consulate, a sign of the enormous trade growth between India and the U.S.

Debadutta Dash, co-chair of a Washington State-India trade council, cites U.S. Census data showing that more than 60,000 Indians now live in the Greater Seattle area. Nearly 12 percent of Redmond is Indian, and Indians are now the third largest Asian group in our region, right after transplants from the Phillipines and China.

They say that to truly understand Indian people, you must understand cricket, the national past-time. I certainly found that to be true last year when I visited India. One Sunday morning a test match between India and Australia played on national television in the hotel restaurant. I became entranced and kept it on in my room. During excursions throughout the day, the match continued on radios in tuk tuk taxis, and in parks where boys played cricket in open spaces everywhere. It was easy to strike up a conversation by simply asking the score or how many points the hero Sachin Tendulkar had racked up.

How ironic that Indians came to places like Microsoft, Amazon and Google to speed up computing and the Internet, yet brought with them a game that is played out over the course of a day, or even several days.

Recognizing the growth of cricket in its parks, New York City last week opened 10 new cricket fields with diplomats and other influentials in attendance.

Such fanfare would be welcome, if surprising, news to cricket-playing professionals here in King County. Local cricket organizers told me that parks are not "cricket-friendly," and it's an uphill battle to find anyone who cares. Imagine if Seattle golfers could only play in the rough.

I attended a match this past Sunday, an overcast but warm Mother’s Day. Tucked away in Shoreline near a Mars Hill church on one side and an Islamic center on the other, the Rainier Rocks (clad in yellow and blue warm-ups) played the Microsoft Spartans (blue and red). The cricket field is a soccer-sized oval. In the center is the “pitch,” an artificial-turfed strip where bowlers strenuously toss a ball at the waiting batsman.

After sitting alone awhile to re-familiarize myself with the game, I settled in next to Sekar Sonachalam whose son, Arul, was playing for the Microsoft team. Although a few players work at Microsoft there is no team requirement that you work there, and the company provides no resources. It is called Microsoft because a few programmers founded the team. Both father and son are engineers. Arul is a contract worker for Microsoft’s Surface tablet, and Sekar worked on the iPod.

Vishwa Gaddamanugu, who coaches the Microsoft club, came over to meet Sekar and assure him that his son is doing very well. Arul moved to this country as a high school student. He grew up in India playing cricket but moved to Europe to study engineering as an undergraduate and graduate student. He is just returning to cricket now.

“I try to teach the game, to mentor and help everyone meet some good friends,” Vishwa says. “What we find is that cricket has to take a backseat while pursuing professional degrees.”

Young Indians in their mid-20s like Arul are eager to return to the game of their childhood once their careers are securely underway. The Northwest Cricket League is made up of three divisions: A (premier), B and C. There are eight teams in both the A and B divisions, and six in the C division. Each roster has 15-18 players. (Another 1,100 players participate in the popular tennis ball cricket league.)

Proper cricket is played on a standard-sized field over the course of a day or even several days. The Northwest League's T-20 matches are played on fields of varying sizes over roughly three hours. Each team bats for about 90 minutes, with a 15-minute break in between. Later this summer a new tournament series will expand the playing time, raising the number of "overs" a bowler can throw from 20 to 40. Confused? See "Cricket for Dummies" in the adjacent Fact Box.

Vishwa has coached several players from the region onto the U.S. Cricket national team.

Relaxed while they sit waiting their turn to bat, the Spartans talk excitedly in English and occasionally in Hindi. The Hindi increases when the team captain realizes the opponents are playing with 10 rather than the required 11 players. The match stops as the rule book is accessed on a smart phone and arguments are delivered at mid-field.

The umpire is Shantanu, a young program manager for Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform. In this league a player from another team is paid to serve as umpire. Shantanu is an opening (or lead-off) batter for the Redmond Blazes. He’s lived here for two years and prefers playing matches to hearing urgently presented rulebook challenges.

The Spartans put up 130 runs on Sunday but lost to the Rocks, who managed 132. The Spartans had earned 245 runs in a match earlier in the day at a Tukwila field. The close score certainly explains the pleas umpire Shantanu heard.

Habib M. Habib, born in Tanzania but of Indian descent, has seen many years of cricket in the Northwest. It's gotten more competitive, as I witnessed on Sunday. Habib retired six years ago as chairman of the Seattle Cricket Club. He says the children of Indian immigrants, those born here in the US, are not likely to take up the sport, choosing soccer, baseball or basketball instead. But the sport will continue to grow here along with immigration, Habib said.

Ask the cricketers why they keep cricket alive in this country and you get responses as diverse as the community itself.

Habib says, "It is a choice between golf and cricket. We play cricket."

Vipul Shah laughs. "We are just plain stupid," he says, describing the lengths to which they go to assemble a team, not to mention long drives to matches and all the shivering in cold Northwest rain.

A teammate offers a different response: It's in the blood," he says, "love of the game."

Vishwa agrees with both viewpoints: "I love this game. I was raised playing this game. It teaches you life and how to deal with tough situations." And, he adds, "It also sucks you in for hours and hours so that you get physical exercise, unlike playing a video game. I never liked video games."


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About the Authors & Contributors

Greg Shaw

Greg Shaw

Greg Shaw is a senior director in Microsoft’s strategy group.