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Monday, October 2, 2023
Oct. 2, 2023

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Major League Cricket is coming to Seattle. Will it become the new soccer?


BELLEVUE — In the library of a waterfront Medina home, two miniature bats signed by sports legends lie on a shelf.

The names (Kapil Dev and Sachin Tendulkar) and indeed the bats (flat on one side) are unrecognizable to many Americans. But they represent a passion of homeowner Soma Somasegar’s youth, and a new multimillion-dollar U.S. sporting frontier — cricket.

Somasegar, a venture capitalist, is not alone among Washington residents enraptured by the sport. As people from his homeland of India and other cricket-playing countries have moved here, often to work in tech, they have brought their love for the game. Its popularity in the Seattle area has surged.

Somasegar and other powerful cricket boosters want more. “We really want everybody to know the game, to understand the game, to fall in love with the game,” he said.

They want, in essence, to make American cricket the new soccer.

This is not an idle fantasy for Somasegar, who with his wife, Akila Somasegar, partially owns the Seattle Sounders. He and several other members of the local tech elite, including Microsoft chairman and CEO Satya Nadella, are launching a Seattle team for Major League Cricket, which will have its first season in July.

The city’s newest professional sports team: the Seattle Orcas.

Mind you, the team is not on the scale of the Sounders, Seahawks, or any of Seattle’s other major league franchises. Not yet, anyway. The Orcas will play an initial season that lasts just over two weeks, competing with teams in a handful of cities: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, New York and Washington, D.C. More teams and a longer season are planned.

Also still to come: a Seattle-area stadium. The Orcas want to build one in King County’s Marymoor Park, pending negotiations with local officials. The 20-acre Redmond facility would hold 6,000 people.

“All of the details about who would build it and how much money would come from the private sector versus the public sector are yet to be worked out,” said Metropolitan King County Council Chair Claudia Balducci. “However, I will say that we are not talking about numbers anywhere near what you think of when you think of a stadium.”

Balducci said it’s expected to cost in the tens, not hundreds, of millions of dollars — featuring a grassy berm for seating and perhaps rolling bleachers.

Modest though the project may be, Balducci and other officials are bullish. A supportive County Council resolution notes that a cricket facility would further equity and social justice goals, serving South Asian immigrants who represent 15% of the county population, as well as 28% of residents in Bellevue and 43% in Microsoft’s home base, Redmond.

Such a stadium would also “generate significant local impact,” the resolution notes, by attracting international tourists and players, particularly if Redmond is chosen to host matches for the 2024 Cricket World Cup — the first to be held partially in the U.S.

“Putting cricket in the United States is a genius idea. It is a multimillion-dollar idea,” said Michael Naraine, an associate professor of sports management at Brock University in Ontario, Canada.

Broadcast revenue is key. The audience in the U.S. is likely to grow, especially because cricket will almost certainly be an Olympic sport in the near future, Naraine said. But the real market, he said, is South Asia.

Cricket was once the purview of the uppercrust English, exported to colonies around the world. But the 1983 Cricket World Cup, won by India, brought a seismic shift. As it was seen in South Asia, Naraine said, India “beat the rest of the world at the colonizers’ game.”

Now, he continued, Indians love the game so much that they will watch it on TV no matter where in the world it’s played. So a game in, say, Redmond, could attract 20 million Indian viewers, by Naraine’s calculus, bringing big-time advertising and corporate sponsorships.

Somasegar, who with Nadella contributed to a $120 million investment pool in Major League Cricket last year and is spending more on the Seattle team, demurred when asked about the profit potential. “I hope we don’t lose money,” he said.

This, he said, is about fulfilling a lifelong dream. Raising two daughters in the U.S., Somasegar, 56, watched them play soccer and became a fan, then a team owner. But cricket still called, louder than ever after the game was revolutionized a couple of decades ago.

That’s when a three-hour version of the game, traditionally played over five days, took off. The shorter version lent itself to mass entertainment, and professional teams cropped up around the world.

“Oh my God, this is amazing,” Somasegar thought. “I want to be part of it.”

He got the chance in 2019 when two Bay Area cricket broadcasters approached him and Nadella about helping start an American major league for the sport. “The first thing we said was, ‘Let’s spend the first two years putting up what I call building blocks,’ “ Somasegar recalled.

To nurture talent, they invested in youth cricket academies, including one in Bellevue. Then they kick-started a minor league. The Seattle Thunderbolts and 25 other teams lured professional players from abroad, as well as domestic amateurs.

Last year, in the league’s second season, the Thunderbolts won the championship. Supporters held a victory parade in Marymoor Park.

Finally, it was time for the crowning building block. Somasegar reached out to friends and potential investors about starting a major league team in Seattle. Sanjay Parthasarathy, another former Microsoft executive, most recently at the tax software firm Avalara, was a natural fit.

The now 57-year-old played cricket throughout his youth in India, earning glowing press coverage. “Unbeaten,” a 1979 Indian Express headline said of Parthasarathy after a game in which he had scored more than 100 runs — a “century” in cricket parlance.

Parthasarathy later played professionally while pursuing an engineering degree, and though he no longer gets out on the field, he remains such an avid fan that he has season tickets in England.

Dropping by Somasegar’s house to talk about their new venture, Parthasarathy said it was taking a lot to get the Orcas up and running, even though they are partnering with a co-owner of the Delhi Capitals, an established Indian cricket team.

“This is like building a startup in eight weeks. I mean, it’s just crazy.”

A couple of days later, the two friends flew to Houston for the inaugural Major League Cricket draft.

The trickle-down effect

The day they left, Aravindan Mahendiran stood on Bellevue’s Robinswood Cricket Field, momentarily on the sidelines as he played a preseason match among recreational teams.

“This is an amazing time to be involved in cricket in Seattle,” Mahendiran said. The 34-year-old Amazon software engineer co-founded the Twelves Cricket Club, named semi-jokingly because a team puts 11 players on the field, usually its best. An added bonus is the connection to Seattle because Seahawks fans call themselves the 12s.

Like other local cricket fans, Mahendiran revels in the Orcas’ launch and the Thunderbolts’ victory. He’s especially enthused about the possibility that the major league team will have a trickle-down effect, encouraging more people to play the game and more resources to be put into cricket fields.

Requiring more than just grass, cricket fields center on a hard pitch that allows the ball to bounce before it gets to the batter. On the Robinswood pitch, concretelike material lies beneath artificial turf.

It was a perfect day for seeing cricket in action — a sunny March Saturday, not too hot. The Twelves vied against the Sammamish Cricket Club for more than five hours, with both sets of players dressed in classic cricket whites. The rock-hard ball was red.

Baseball offers cricket’s closest sporting analogy, but the two games are significantly different. Batters score, in part, by running between two sets of polelike wickets at either end of the pitch, earning a run for each time they land safely at the other end. They can score up to six runs, though, if they hit a ball past an outer boundary on the field.

In a good game, the runs rapidly accumulate, and this was a good game. The Twelves, batting for the entire first half, as teams do, racked up 227 runs — applause and shouts of “what a player” erupting for each six-run score.

“It’s going to be challenging to catch up,” said Sammamish player Dhiraj Sharma. But his team came close, scoring 224 runs in the second half.

Meanwhile, Seattle Cricket Club players showed up, hoping to use the field. Finding it occupied, they headed over to an unused spot by a wall to practice. One of the club’s members, Mohammad Bhatti, a 52-year-old restaurant owner, recalled arriving to the area from Pakistan in 1991 and finding only a dozen or two people to play with.

In time, more cricketers arrived not only from South Asia but also Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific Islands, replenishing the ranks of English expats who once kept the game alive in the Northwest. Now, the Puget Sound region boasts hundreds of cricket teams.

Many parents teach their kids the sport, though the children’s peers don’t always relate.

“A lot of baseball kids make fun of it,” said Hamza Shahab, 14, practicing one evening at the Major League Cricket Academy, an indoor facility tucked into a Bellevue office park. While the teen got into cricket because of his parents, he’s come to enjoy the game and tells the baseball clique his sport is better.

Manu Hariganesh, 13, said many of his Redmond school friends play cricket, but his gym teacher is unfamiliar with the sport. So his dad, who converted the family garage into a practice space for Hariganesh and his 9-year-old sister, is coming to school to go over the fundamentals.

Jivana Aras, 19, also learned cricket from her dad. The COVID-19 pandemic had just begun, and her regular activities, like soccer and karate, shut down. “You need something to do to stay active,” said her father, Yatin Aras, a technology consultant and onetime college cricket captain.

Dad and daughter started going to the park to play, and Aras quickly picked up the game. When her father heard that USA Cricket, the sport’s domestic governing body, was holding talent-scouting camps, he encouraged her to attend. She was picked to be part of an under-19 training group and then an under-19 national women’s team.

Aras has since played in South Africa, Trinidad and the United Arab Emirates. With a dad from India and a mom from Korea, she said cricket is a way to explore one side of her heritage.

“I want to become a professional,” Aras said. “I want to grow the game.”

With cricket dominated by boys and men, she said she also wants to inspire more young girls to play.

A rising star

By luck of the draw, the Orcas got the first draft pick. In the Houston Space Center, team owners and talent scouts conferred over banquet tables. Filmed by cameras for a livestream and Indian TV broadcast, Major League Cricket Commissioner Justin Geale announced: “The Seattle Orcas select Harmeet Singh.”

“Expected,” opined one of two livestream commentators. Singh had served as captain of the Thunderbolts — bowling (the equivalent of pitching) with a left-arm spin, someone “who’s just dominated the entirety of minor league cricket,” the commentator noted.

Singh, 30, had been a rising star in Indian cricket before he got caught up — and ultimately cleared — in an illegal betting investigation, according to the Indian press. His career faltered, and he finally decamped in 2021 for a new start in the U.S.

Hearing his name now, Singh, in a bright pink suit, smiled broadly as he strode to the podium to shake the commissioner’s hand.

By the end of the evening, the six teams had collectively picked 54 players, all of them currently living in the U.S. Each team will also choose nine to 10 more international players. Salaries range widely, from $10,000 to $175,000, according to Somasegar.

Some players will continue to supplement their income by coaching. And so Shadley van Schalkwyk, drafted by the Los Angeles Knight Riders, could be found a couple of days later at the major league academy in Bellevue.

Also pulled from the Thunderbolts, van Schalkwyk has coached there since leaving a professional South African team a few years ago to join the burgeoning Seattle-area cricket scene. He plans to stay, since the major league’s two-week season doesn’t require a move.

Clipboard in hand, van Schalkwyk has an easy rapport with the kids as he leads them through batting and bowling in netted-off lanes. “How’s school?” he asks one after another. “How’s life?”

Coming here with a “South African arrogance,” he said, he’s been impressed by the kids’ talent, and that of local cricketers overall. “People probably underestimate what sort of cricket is being played in the USA.”

With Hariganesh at bat, van Schalkwyk said he wants to take a turn bowling so he can tout the occasion when the 13-year-old becomes famous. Moments later, a crack of Hariganesh’s bat sends the ball sailing.