Feature

Cricket’s Up to Bat in Seattle

Seattle’s next major sport has already arrived. Can its local ambassadors get a misunderstood game off the ground?

By Benjamin Cassidy Photography by Mike Kane July 26, 2022

The Seattle Thunderbolts and East Bay Blazers line up before the 2022 season opener at Klahanie Park.

Under the shade of a tent at Klahanie Park, a young man in a button-up, white chinos, and oxfords leans over his notes. He’s prepared as much as possible to announce the season-opening cricket match between the Seattle Thunderbolts and East Bay Blazers. But something’s missing from his pad. “The call is heads or tails, yeah?”

Handsomely dressed and confused about the currency of the coin toss, Suhaas Vedham has clearly just arrived in Seattle about five minutes ago. He’s visited a lot of countries lately, he explains. Oman. Kuwait. India. Calling cricket tournaments for legions of international fans. Now the commentator’s latest assignment has dropped him in the unlikely locale of Sammamish, before just a handful of families sitting in folding chairs at a community park deep in the suburbs of the Eastside. Between all the Teslas and cul-de-sacs and evergreens, 11 pink-clad men surround a 22-yard green cement strip. The “pitch” resembles a putting mat, unrolled in the middle of an oval expanse that encompasses two soccer fields. Dog-walkers and joggers could easily mistake the scene for a youth or adult league game. They’d never know a few of these cricketers have played at the highest levels of the sport.

There’s more they don’t see. The league reps furiously entering up-to-the-minute stats on phone apps. The 2,000-plus streams of Vedham’s call on YouTube. And the $1 billion behind finally making this centuries-old game a bona fide player in American sports.

But next year, Major League Cricket will launch a streamlined version of the intensely cerebral game in six markets across the U.S.: Dallas, DC, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and, yes, Seattle, where the sport’s growth has dovetailed with the rise of Microsoft and Amazon. IT jobs at the tech giants and their offshoots have helped attract more immigrants from India to King County than from nearly any other nation. These arrivals brought a deeply ingrained love for cricket, the most popular sport in a country of 1.4 billion people. By some measures, it’s the second-most popular in the world.

Jagroop Raina of the Seattle Thunderbolts stares at the cricket pitch before the season-opener against the East Bay Blazers at Klahanie Park.

Well before his 21st birthday, Jagroop Raina moved to Bellevue from Atlanta to advance his promising cricket career.

High-profile local investors—Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and S. “Soma” Somasegar, the managing director of Seattle’s Madrona Venture Group—expedited Seattle’s entry into the league before bigger markets. Their backing means a professional-level cricket facility could open in King County as soon as 2024, when the U.S. and West Indies host the T20 World Cup. Until the stadium’s finished, Major League Cricket cofounder Sameer Mehta says Seattle’s Major League squad will play all its matches on the road.

Last year organizers rolled out an extended prelude to Major League Cricket: Minor League Cricket, a summer tournament that debuted in more than two dozen cities across the country and kicked off its second campaign in June. A mix of pros and joes drum up interest in the sport during weekend matches and coach up the level of play from the grassroots during the week.

In Seattle, those dual responsibilities fall on the Thunderbolts and their beguiling mishmash of talent. A few professionals from top leagues around the world don the same pink-and-blue kits as an off-the-clock Microsoft engineer and a 19-year-old University of Washington student. Imagine a few Sounders suddenly joining Ballard FC.

The cricketers’ stakes in the game are as disparate as their backgrounds. For some, the league’s a chance to revive semi-pro careers abandoned abroad. For others, it’s a potential fast track to a bigger stage. For their captain, it’s an opportunity for redemption.

Harmeet Singh of the Seattle Thunderbolts stretches before the season-opener against the East Bay Blazers at Klahanie Park.

Harmeet Singh has leaned on patience to captain the Thunderbolts. Pros like him view cricket in the U.S. like a startup. "We all are invested in it."

Harmeet Singh bounces up and down, a gleaming cup in his hands; his country’s colors dance on his shoulders. The cricket prodigy draped India’s flag over him and flung his arms around teammates before the trophy presentation for the 2012 Under-19 World Cup in northeastern Australia. The next generation of a country’s most celebrated sport had just triumphed for only the third time ever in the global competition. Though it was just a youth tournament, players should “be prepared for these pictures to go all around the world,” a commentator says, his voice crescendoing.

But neither Singh nor any of the other teens cloaked in the delirium of victory that August day at Tony Ireland Stadium were quite prepared for what awaited them back in Mumbai. The airport was mobbed; TV cameras tracked their moves for days. Passersby requested photos. Everyone wanted a piece of them. Which is why Singh didn’t think anything of meeting with the friend of a fellow player less than a year later.

By then Singh had signed with the Rajasthan Royals of the Indian Premier League, the NFL of cricket. It was a dizzying rise for a kid from Mumbai who grew up using a wooden laundry paddle as a cricket bat. His left arm would land him a proper kit and free coaching; the bowler’s spinning deliveries baffled batsmen the way major-league curveballs did in the States. Cricket cognoscenti compared him to legend Bishan Bedi. Nike sent him apparel. Sachin Tendulkar, the “God of Cricket” with 35 million Instagram followers and counting today, essentially anointed him when he requested Singh as his bowler during practice.

Then, fellow Royals player Ajit Chandila introduced him to a guy after cricket one day. The man showered Singh with praise for his performance on the national stage and, in a weird, roundabout way, asked for an autograph.

Turned out that man was a bookie. Later, he’d claim he approached Singh about spot-fixing—illegally altering plays bet on during matches—but decided the bowler was too young to proceed.

The Delhi Police arrested Chandila and two other Royals; the Board of Control for Cricket in India investigated Singh. The scandal rocked the sport’s top league. At 20 years old, Singh could hardly leave his car without being hounded by Indian media. “Why are you practicing?” they’d ask after the bowler pulled up to train at the team’s facility.

The press was less interested when the inquiry cleared Singh of any wrongdoing. He couldn’t have known about the bookie or the involvement of his teammates, officials determined. But his earnest face remained in pictures next to Chandila and others who received a lifetime ban from the sport. The stigma stayed. The Indian Premier League wouldn’t touch him. A headline would later label him “collateral.”

For years Singh bounced around lesser clubs as his limelight faded. “I lost a lot of people,” he says. On occasion, he’d travel to one-off tournaments in the U.S., where there was a new movement to elevate a sport that baseball had long ago relegated to an afterthought.

Seattle Thunderbolts spinner Harmeet Singh poses after the team's season-opener at Klahanie Park.

A decade after a spot-fixing controversy upended his life in India, Harmeet Singh hopes Major League Cricket in the U.S. can get his career back on track.

Major League Cricket sought international pros to help lead its new venture. Organizers offered Singh a three-year contract to bowl and coach in Atlanta. At the time, a dark cloud still followed him in his home country. The U.S. was the largest sports market in the world. And unlike soccer, cricket had few venerable leagues across the globe; its popularity had spread primarily at the national team level. An American league could quickly climb the ranks.

Singh decided to gamble, leaving behind his family, new wife, and a lifetime of cricket in Mumbai: “Everything that I couldn’t achieve back home, here’s a chance to prove myself—that I was good enough to play in any league in the world.”

He lived in Georgia for all of five months. Then Major League Cricket bowled him a spinner. They needed him in Seattle.

 

“What do you bet this is a six?”

Kids giggle as they wait to bat indoors on a damp school night in late April. It’s after 9pm, but local youth players are still receiving instruction at the Major League Cricket Academy in Bellevue. A couple of them wonder if the next batted drive will be a six, cricket’s version of a home run, if they were playing outside.

In the soggy Puget Sound region, cricket’s long-term hopes run through an indoor tangle of offices and batting nets tucked back from a suburban thoroughfare. Opened in 2020, the academy is one of 10 across the country aiming to train a generation of elite players right here in the U.S. It’s also where, on nights like this, current and aspiring Thunderbolts train.

Just beyond the kids calling their cricket shots, prospective Minor League cricketers in track shoes and gym shorts line up behind a batting lane. Dads poke their head around the corner to watch those still vying for roster spots on the Thunderbolts at this juncture in spring. One by one, the bowlers take turns bounding on the green turf and unloading a hard leather-and-cork ball somewhere between 80 and 100 miles per hour.

As prospects aim at a wicket, a 29-year-old wearing a blue Major League Cricket Academy jumpsuit and an Adidas beanie strolls around the perimeter of the batting area. The beard cropped close to his jawline is a bit fuller than it was a decade earlier, but Harmeet Singh, the lithe spinner once an arm’s-length from the greatest of cricket heights in India, needs no introduction to anyone in the building.

The academy practically became Singh’s second home after he moved into an Airbnb, then a Bellevue apartment, in 2021. Like tennis or golf instructors, imported Major League Cricket pros supplement their modest salaries by coaching local youth. On Thunderbolts practice nights, they hardly leave the facility.

Singh and the squad’s two other marquee players, South Africans Andries Gous and Shadley van Schalkwyk, look beat when they plop down in an office next to where local upstarts and nine-to-fivers still bowl and bat. Paddle-esque cricket bats line the wall. A Chipotle bag sits abandoned on the counter. “We went from being fully professional, just like the NFL guys in the U.S., just one focus,” Gous says, “to almost being half-cricketer, half-coach.”

Like Singh, Gous carries the mental burden of abandoning a higher level of cricket in his prime to help another country’s players raise theirs. “The thing that’s so difficult,” he continues, “is to try and lift the whole team’s standard, but to keep your standard as high as you can.”

It’s exhausting. Often, it means traveling to elite tournaments in other parts of the country on winter and spring weekends before returning to coach youth players the rest of the time. Their participation in Thunderbolts practices involves a touch of tutelage, too; group sessions are more about bringing the others along than honing their own games.

But Gous sees potential in all the Eastside kids coming through the facility. And, perhaps just as importantly, the money pouring in to ensure the league’s success.

In 2019, a group of investors committed $1 billion to developing a professional cricket league in the States. Backers from The Times of India and cricket broadcaster Willow TV felt the U.S. was ready to embrace a “T20” format of the sport that takes roughly the same time as a Mariners game, a much easier ask than the five-day test matches or all-day internationals of yore.

Still, obstacles remain. Quaint as playing at a community park in the burbs may be, Klahanie Park is “not a very good facility,” according to Major League Cricket cofounder Sameer Mehta. And Tollgate Farm Park in North Bend, which unveiled natural turf wickets for the second Thunderbolts’ homestand this year, is a temporary fix.

In February, King County Council passed a motion of support to build a professional stadium on 20 acres in Redmond’s sprawling Marymoor Park. A raised lawn fit for 4,000 to 6,000 spectators, expandable to more than twice that, would ring an oval field with a pavilion and light towers. But bureaucratic red tape still looms.

For Singh, the man with a “believe” tattoo on the inner part of his left wrist, the potential payoff justifies the patience. He repeats the mantra he’s uttered since arriving: “It’s like you’re investors in a startup company.” That analogy resonates with his new hometown’s tech workers, including his squad’s industrious general manager.

Seattle Thunderbolts general manager Vijay Beniwal smiles.

Microsoft manager and Thunderbolts GM Vijay Beniwal has watched cricket grow alongside local tech headcounts.

Something that probably doesn’t happen in the Indian Premier League: The scorekeeper’s phone getting locked. But that’s the crisis of the moment on a Sunday in early May at Klahanie Park, where the Thunderbolts are hosting a tournament to inform their selections in the upcoming Minor League Cricket draft.

Eventually, someone shouts the code, and a man in weekend sideline wear—athleisure, Brooks, shades propped on salt-and-pepper hair—all but facepalms. “Everyone knows the password now!”

Vijay Beniwal’s used to the hiccups that come with a bootstrapped venture. The affable 45-year-old’s a Microsoft manager by day, but on nights and weekends he tends to the small businesses he’s helped finance: Inchin’s Bamboo Garden in Bothell, Dairy Queens in Kent and Sammamish, a local Indian grocery chain called Apna Bazar, and the Seattle Thunderbolts.

Last year, Beniwal’s lifetime obsession became a legit business proposition when he invested in the squad, along with Phani Chitneni, a senior client partner at UST Global, and Salman Taj, an executive at Ericsson. He shares general manager duties with Chitneni, who founded the Redmond Cricket Conference and helped get women’s and youth leagues off the ground in King County.

On this Sunday, Beniwal and Chitneni eye some of the cricketers who’ll comprise the backbone of the roster: Rishi Bhardwaj and Jagroop Raina, who both moved to Bellevue from Atlanta and often hang with Harmeet Singh; Aaditya Chauhan, who makes a seven-hour round-trip trek from Portland for practices; and Rahul Singh, a software engineer at Microsoft who, for the past decade, has starred in the Northwest Cricket League.

Both Beniwal and Rahul Singh have played for their company’s teams in the NWCL. The Microsoft Cricket Club formed in 1994 to serve the rising number of cricket enthusiasts on the Redmond campus and build on local grassroots efforts. The software giant and its India-born CEO Satya Nadella remain obsessed with the sport; an ongoing campus expansion includes the construction of a proper recreational cricket field.

Beniwal joined Microsoft in 2001. Growing up in North India, he always had a big, military-provided house—his dad was in the army—which also meant he always had a massive lawn to play cricket. But he ultimately focused on engineering instead of the sport he adored, graduating from the National Institute of Technology Karnataka.

The stocky all-rounder (an adept batsman and bowler) started getting serious about cricket again after arriving in the U.S. He realized even an engineer could hack it at the highest levels of the sport in the States, captaining a Pacific Northwest team and traveling up and down the coast for matches. His regional leadership earned him a gig as a U.S. national team player selector. Beniwal calls it his “hall of fame” moment.

Still, the Redmond resident knows he’s not a pro or a proper coach. “Cricket is my hobby.” When he watches Andries Gous drill sixes or Singh bowl spinners, he reacts more like a fanboy than a contemporary.

But it’s the homegrown kids, not the imported stars, Beniwal’s really focused on, anyway. If cricket has a shot here, he says, it’ll need to grow from our backyard.

A Thunderbolt holds a bat.

In ample protective gear, batsmen look like a cross between baseball batters and hockey goalies.

Near the western edge of Marymoor Park, a little boy sits on the front steps of his family’s house and waits. Anand Kancherla will be home from Microsoft’s campus soon, and after he drops his stuff upstairs, father and son will begin again. One hour, under the cover of a three-car garage in Redmond, a tennis ball bowled from one generation to the next. Day after day. Year after year.

Like Vijay Beniwal, Anand Kancherla didn’t approach the highest levels of the sport in India. His cricket career ended in high school. But all those happy hours foregone for garage bowling sessions during his boy’s elementary and middle school years may well mean that Sahil Kancherla, now 19, will reach the Major League in his own home country.

This spring, the Seattle Thunderbolts used a youth roster spot on the younger Kancherla. Technically the University of Washington student’s an all-rounder—a bowler and a batsman. But on a Friday night in mid-June, inside the Major League Cricket Academy he focuses on his strength: delivering the ball “off-spin,” the opposite direction of Harmeet Singh.

Until he was about 12, Sahil says, his exposure to cricket didn’t span much beyond the family’s property. There just weren’t many opportunities for youth to play in the Puget Sound area back then. He debuted in the tennis ball league matches (cricket balls are even heavier and harder than baseballs) before traveling to California for contests with legit leather balls. Later he competed against adults in the Northwest Cricket League.

There’s been pressure along the way, beyond a desire to impress his dad; cricket demands a staggering amount of calculation. Where to bowl, whether to block. But the graduate of Tesla STEM High School, one of the top-ranked schools in the country, says lightening up helped his play take off. “The more I enjoy the game,” he realized, “the better I’ll do.”

Adam Crosthwaite subscribes to that approach. A few weeks before the season opener, the 37-year-old joined the Thunderbolts as a “wild card” selection. The longtime player in Australia, perhaps the world’s top country for cricket, not only added a powerful bat to the lineup but also a de facto coach, shifting some of the leadership burden away from the other pros.

On this Friday night, with the first match approaching, he checks the temperature of his teammates. Things are visibly lighter. Andries Gous, leaning against a blue wall pad, challenges anyone in the room to risk life and limb in front of the batting area. Harmeet Singh drifts out to snag a couple cases of Michelob Ultras for older players after the session.

The presence of the pros has generated “so much interest” in the sport locally, says Rahul Singh, the Microsoft engineer by day. “Three years back, there were not a lot of kids who were playing cricket in this area.” Since the arrival of Singh and company, youth enrollment at the Academy has risen from 50 to about 300 in less than two years.

Crosthwaite says the facility’s as busy as any Australian indoor center he’s seen. Vijay Beniwal’s old pal—they played together in a tournament back in 2014—“jumped early” to the States. But with the league and the World Cup imminent, Crosthwaite says other players from home want to come over now. “It’s probably the last frontier of world cricket.”

Fans watch the Seattle Thunderbolts' season-opener versus the East Bay Blazers at Klahanie Park.

Youth cricketers cheer on their coaches throughout the afternoon, while some young baseball players linger to observe a sport often compared to their own.

About halfway through the Thunderbolts’ season opener, Bollywood beats start to pulse from the edge of Klahanie Park.

A small group has wheeled an Ion speaker right up to the boundary of the massive cricket field. When the visiting East Bay Blazers bat, the home team’s fans crank up the volume. “We’re using the Seahawks’ strategy,” one guy says, pulling a Modelo from his cooler.

The afternoon didn’t start so festively. Technical difficulties hindered the broadcast on this hot Saturday in June. Vijay Beniwal hustled across the field: “I heard the scoring’s not working.”

The Thunderbolts seemed loose, at least. They kicked a soccer ball around with Adam Crosthwaite after running through some drills. Without a locker room, some players changed into their uniforms under an open-air white tent.

Kids in pink youth cricket jerseys flipped numbers on the manual scoreboard and chased down balls. (Beniwal hopped over cones and into the woods to help with one search.) Others weighed whether they could snag the samosas left for staff and players.

The Thunderbolts batsmen got off to a slow start. After Harmeet Singh had his wicket taken, he hung his head as he walked back to the dugout. “Fuck!” the stoic captain barked. Adults nearby grimaced, glancing at the kids. Singh swiftly realized his company. “Sorry, guys.”

His own child was well out of earshot. From a stroller across the field, Heer Singh watched with her mother, Viola. She’d turn one two days later. When the former cricket wunderkind moved to the States, he left behind a family in India who never stopped supporting him during the spot-fixing fiasco and a woman he’d just married. Viola would eventually join him in the Pacific Northwest. They wanted their daughter to be born here, for her future to be here.

Singh isn’t sure where, long-term, his own future will be. But he hopes Major League Cricket can offer vindication. “I think God has given me a chance where I can attain whatever I wanted back home over here and live sort of a new life,” he says the night before the game, as he steers his Mercedes SUV toward Fred Meyer to pick up Heer’s birthday cake.

During the opener, the Thunderbolts don’t bring him in for his specialty right away. Singh aligns fielders, a pseudo coach on the pitch, before beginning his rehearsed bowling motion: a stutter-step, hop, kick, and windmill of his left arm. Men at Klahanie fawn over Singh’s cerebral approach. Kids stop scaling a rock to watch “Coach Harmeet.” After he induces one Blazer to pop a ball into a fielder’s arms, the sideline erupts, and the speaker blasts with another Bollywood banger.

It’s not enough to win on this day—the Thunderbolts lose by four wickets—but the timing of Singh’s appearance isn’t to blame. Teams usually save their spinners for later, after the ball has acquired a natural roughness during play. Success in cricket, the thinking goes, requires an understanding that a spinner’s ball moves best, not at its shiniest, but after it’s endured a little scuff.

 

Correction: Harmeet Singh was not, as an earlier version of this article stated, suspended by the Board of Control for Cricket in India.

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