Despite rising tensions in the subcontinent, cricket brings Indians and Pakistanis together in the United States.
CHICAGO: During the past three weeks, the world has seen India and Pakistan getting embroiled in tit-for-tat air strikes across their border. As the two countries went down the path of war, in the United States, the unfolding escalatory developments were followed nervously by both Indian Americans and Pakistani Americans.
However, amidst rising tensions and political rhetoric, in this city, players of the Chicago United, a professional cricket club, met as usual this past weekend to start their crucial practice sessions for the upcoming summer season. What makes matters both ironic, as well as encouraging, is the fact that the United has players both from India and Pakistan playing together with one goal – to win matches for the team.
Nadeem Zain, an Indian American, who started the United 12 years ago to promote cricket in America, says he is extremely proud that today his club is one of the most diverse teams in the United States. “We have players who are Indians, Pakistanis and even some who are well, hybrid, that is have an Indian or Pakistani parent each, and all of them continue to root for each other,” he says. “The club also has players of other nationalities such as Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis, Jamaicans, South Africans and many more. But yes, the players are together as a team and things such as nationality, religion, caste or culture take a backseat on the field.”
Even though India and Pakistan have shared an uneasy relationship for years, things were not this bad since the early 1970’s – when the two countries fought a deadly war over Bangladesh – not withstanding an armed conflict in 1999.
So how difficult it was for players to not let the tension back home affect the chemistry of their team?
“To some extent, one could say that there may have been a conscious effort on all the players part to not discuss politics,” says Pakistani American Umair Ghani, who plays for the team. “We realize that all of us are individuals and have our loyalties and differences of opinions can occur. So, we do not want to open a can of worms.”
Ghani adds that it was heartening to see that, despite the tensions in South Asia, the team met and played as cordially and as professionally as possible. “And this may be because we all are friends first and respect each other,” he says. “We are mature, enough to know that there is no need to bring politics in the field.”
Asked whether he had any problem keeping the team together Zain says preparation has helped the team to stick together during times like this. “We have had players who have come from a very hard core or a religious mindset too,” he says. “We have an orientation before we start where we encourage everyone to let go of boundaries and yet respect differences. And this has gone down beautifully, so it is not uncommon for us to sit and talk about Indian and Pakistani food, culture and entertainment and have some of the players offering namaz while others may be practicing meditation or yoga.”
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Zain says even the “food spreads are diverse and respectful of each-others’ faiths” and team offers “everything from all vegetarian to an all-halal menu.”
The Chicago United is not the only club in the United States where Indians and Pakistanis play together as a team. Across the country, the game — undoubtedly the preferred pastime of South Asians — has plays a big role in bringing Indian American and Pakistani Americans together.
In Maryland, the Infinite Eagles, a team sponsored by Infinite Computer Solutions, founded by Indian American entrepreneur and tech leader Sanjay Govil, has a number of prominent Pakistani American cricketers playing for it in the Maryland Cricket Premier League. They include US national team player Adil Bhatti and promising all-rounder Usman Shahid. The team is captained by Indian American Prabhu Hosamane.
Even on the US national team — even though, the United States cricket team is currently unranked in Test Cricket and One Day Internationals — there are a number of Indian and Pakistani Americans. Its captain Saurabh Netravalkar is a former India Under-19 and Mumbai Ranji player. Fast bowler Ali Khan was born in Pakistan.
Cricket in the United States is being sustained by South Asian Americans. The game has become more popular in this country since the late 20th century because of the growing migration of people from cricket playing nations. Various cricket clubs and teams across the United States have a predominant interspersion of Indians and Pakistanis in the team.
“It is unfortunate that sports should be a reflection of politics and that is why we have always maintained the diverse nature of Chicago United,” Zain told the American Bazaar. “I have often encouraged other teams or clubs where we have seen mostly Patels or mostly Pakistanis forming teams to include more diversity. In fact, we emphasize not just on cultural but also gender diversity. A few years ago, we had an Indian woman and a Pakistani woman player in the team too who played a few matches with us.”
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Most players say that, in the United States, multiculturalism becomes their second nature. “Living in America, you are any way exposed to a multi-cultural atmosphere,” says Niraj Patel, a promising United all-rounder. “Even when we work in an office, there may be people from various nationalities but together we are working towards a common goal and at that moment, ideologies or preferences do not come in between.”
Patel is no stranger to playing in a diverse team. He played for the Rajasthan Royals, an Indian Premier League team back in 2008, before moving to the US. “At the end of the day all of us are humans first and then divided into country of origins or castes,” he says. “And when we play we keep this bond of humanity over all else.”
Abhijit Joshi, a batting all-rounder who came to this country from India in the early 1990’s, says, “The topic of who’s from which country arises as a celebration of our diversity as a club. In Chicago United, you’ll see people from different countries, races, religions, and walks of life. We are all passionate about the game and we take out time every weekend to play and bond together as a team. What matters is that we are here to play together towards the common goal of enjoyment and healthy competition.”
Ironically, when Indian and Pakistani Americans find a common ground in cricket, India and Pakistan have no cricketing relation. In fact, the BCCI, the organization that oversees cricket in India, is trying to ban Pakistan from playing the upcoming World Club, which will be held in England later this summer, citing Islamabad’s terrorism ties.