The Colts finished at the bottom of the division in 2012 and finished twelfth in their division in 2013. In 2014, as the boys started to show signs of adolescence, their game matured too. They climbed four rungs to eighth.
By Venu Palaparthi
I sported a big smile the whole entire week. The kind of smile I see on my boss’ face when his team wins a league game. For my boss - he owns a professional ice hockey franchise - he has many reasons to smile. In comparison, I manage a rickety cricket development program in New Jersey.
Still, my development team had achieved something remarkable. I simply had to set aside my ‘no self-congratulatory articles on this website’ principle. I absolutely had to write about this moment and the journey that brought us here.
To put it somewhat blandly, the Colts won their season-opener in the Cricket League of New Jersey (CLNJ) last week. They were playing the top-ranked team in their division. Harish Easwaraiah top scored with 32 and Akhil Ponnambalam (3 for 33), Richard Ramrattan (2 for 15) and Chirag Ballani (2 for 12) impressed with their bowling.
It was a proud moment for the team, for the parents, for our coach Earl Daley, for our manager Malika Frank and our many supporters. For me personally, and for the DreamCricket Academy which I co-founded with my partner Kranthi Bayya, and for CLNJ’s Youth Program, the victory marked an important milestone.
To be clear, this was not the first time the Colts have won in the senior league. Last Saturday’s win was their 11th in Division 3 of the CLNJ since they debuted in that league in 2012. Along the way, the boys won several age-group tournaments including the Gold at the Inaugural AAU Junior Olympics in 2013 (pictured somewhere below), when cricket was added to the games and at the inaugural National Youth Cricket League tournament in 2014 (pictured right).
Still, last Saturday’s game marked the coming of age for the Colts. They are not the underdogs anymore. You could see that in the confidence with which they approached the game. In their stride and demeanor, in the way they were pulling for each other, in the way they converted a dropped catch into a run-out without missing a beat. And best of all, the way in which they made some of those crucial match-changing decisions on the field away from the coach’s watchful eye.
I have known these boys from the time they were little – some as early as 6 and 7. Many of them arrived at DreamCricket for cricketing lessons back in 2008. And they stuck it out.
Back in 2008, there were no age-group teams in New Jersey. We hoped to somehow find enough cricket playing kids to make two teams - a very modest goal. For that, we needed to conduct camps because not a lot of kids were playing cricket in 2008.
Our first camp at the Far Hills Fairgrounds attracted just eight kids (some are pictured right). From that point, it became Kranthi’s single-minded mission to find the best coaches and mentors for DreamCricket Academy – Bharath Kumar, Ian Pont, Balvinder Singh Sandhu, Earl Daley, Ajit Tendulkar, Damion Morgan, Malika Frank, Linden Fraser - all have coached for us over the years. These camps and the one-off clinics and mentorship sessions conducted by VVS Laxman, Syed Kirmani, Stuart Macgill, Lance Gibbs and Sunil Gavaskar helped us recruit new players.
Of course, the academy made for poor economics and was a distraction from DreamCricket’s core business. The DreamCricket Academy is a loss leader, we told ourselves. We persevered in the hope that if enough kids started playing cricket, it would all be worthwhile in the long run. When we shut down our indoor nets last year, we stopped believing in the loss-leader theory. But we did not stop believing in our cricketing dream. Thankfully, many of the boys continued to believe in us. We are grateful for that.
We quickly realized that we couldn’t go from camp to camp, we needed a coach who monitored the boys' progress continually – someone who was effective and dedicated. At the start of 2009, we met an extraordinary individual. His name is Earl Daley. Coach Daley is known for his booming voice and for his remarkable ability to connect with kids. Today, he coaches not only at DreamCricket, but at several academies in the region. While we had found an answer to the coaching dilemma, we had no luck with getting a ground that year. And we remained indoors.
In 2010, the year we played our first games outdoors, we realized we had a lot of catching up to do, especially when compared to California, Chicago, Michigan and New York. That year, California Cricket Academy conducted its fifth invitational tournament. In New York, Public Schools Athletic League’s cricket tournament was in its third year.
Back in New Jersey, our junior cricket program had just begun playing outdoors. The boys were wilting under the sun. And who do we play with? We still hadn't answered that question. Most Saturdays, we were barely able to form two teams. And the boys ranged from 8 to 16. As a result, the two teams were far from balanced, with some boys playing with leather ball and some with a heavy tennis ball. Parents of the more advanced cricketers were not pleased – it was not the cricket they had imagined for their kids. Expectations got ahead of us, and some of the parents left. Retaining the boys became our biggest challenge.
Now, other sports have vibrant minor leagues where matches were played by teams of equal caliber. To start a full-fledged minor cricket league, we needed players and grounds. To get a ground, we needed to demonstrate we had enough players that lived in that county or in a given township. To recruit players, we needed grounds. And so it went. It was a classic Catch-22. On September 7, 2010, I wrote to the to the national board, “our academy's biggest need is a year-round ground for youth cricket - that can be used for junior cricket every weekend and possibly even weekdays.”
But when I look back, despite all of the challenges we faced, I believe 2010 was indeed a point of inflection. Thanks to CLNJ, Global Challengers and Edison Cricket Club, the boys were at least able to get a feel for what playing on a matting wicket and a grass outfield under open skies felt like. It was a giant leap. The boys made the best use of the limited practice. That year, they debuted in a national level U13 invitational tournament in California. Wonder of wonders, they finished second (pictured left). Six DreamCricket boys made it to the Atlantic Region and a Director’s XI teams that played in the national tournament.
We now had enough boys playing advanced cricket. In search of a permanent solution to the vexing ground issue, I reached out to the Amwell Valley Cricket Club, a club that through incredible passion had converted a meadow at the edge of a golf course into a cricketing paradise – theirs is the only natural turf wicket in the region even today.
In 2011, the AVCC graciously agreed to share their ground with us. All the parents were on board. But in the event, the decision proved to be a double-edged one. At the time, the boys came from New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Delaware. The ground was in the picturesque Amwell valley, some distance away from the highway. Some of the older boys gravitated towards other senior teams closer to their homes. Our strength reduced to 21 boys. Not quite enough to form two teams. We were back to square one. But we roughed it out.
By 2012, more boys were considering leaving. A meeting was convened and after considerable debate, we thought up a solution. We would register a team comprising the remaining boys in the senior league – this team, the CLNJ Colts, would play in the lowest division of CLNJ. As the average age of the boys was only 13 at the time, the decision to thrust them into a senior league was not an easy one. For safety reasons, we agreed that we would field at least three adult players in each game. These senior players would mentor the boys on the field in how to deal with real-match situations.
CLNJ not only provide a home ground for the Colts, they also allow us to conduct programs for the 9-13 year olds under the CLNJ umbrella. After encountering some early turbulence, we were able to form an U13 team last year. This team, christened DreamCricket Warriors took part in a local tournament put together by the enterprising Nagesh Mukkamalla and his NATA organization. The Warriors now serves as a feeder outfit for the Colts.
Significantly, CLNJ made several accommodations that are generally not available to other teams in the senior league. The boys and their parents are spared the burden of weekly umpiring assignments and putting down matting. We have the use of two astro-turf facilities thanks to Pragnesh Patel of CLNJ and Raj Jasani of Freedom CC.
The Colts’ relationship with CLNJ has been very harmonious, one that we are looking to replicate with other leagues. GSCL and MCL have been extremely supportive as well.
Corporate sponsorships can be hard to come by for what is essentially a niche amateur sport. CLNJ’s 501c7 non-profit status has helped our cause greatly and we now have an impressive and growing list of donors and sponsors including Deloitte Consulting, Access Healthcare, MetLife, Ceera Investments, Radiant Info, Collabera, Ampericon Energy Solutions, Cogent IBS, Indecomm Global, Docmation and Paradise Biryani Pointe. A lot of my personal as well as cricketing friends from Viho CC, Global CC and Incredibles CC contributed as well. These are the beginnings of a healthy eco-system.
The success of a development program is ultimately measured by the results. As I mentioned early on in this piece, the Colts have typically excelled in their age-group, but age-group tournaments are few and far between in this country.
The Colts’ weekly games in CLNJ are played against teams whose players are twice their age. If I said it was a rough start for the Colts in 2012 - that would be an understatement. The boys were far too young and they struggled to post big scores initially. In the US, the only way to get the scoreboard ticking is for the batsmen to hit the ball big and in the air. As Joseph O’Neill wrote in his award-winning novel Netherland about his cricket ground in New York, “The outfield is uneven and always overgrown, even when cut (once chasing a ball, I nearly tripped over a hidden and, to cricketers, ominous duck).”
The shots that bring runs on American grounds are the ones that are often fatal for a cricketer. Coach Daley wouldn’t have that. He emphasizes patience, timing and technique. “If you play proper cricket and last the full forty overs, and you go after the loose balls,” Coach Daley can be heard booming, “the runs, they will come Ah-Toh-Mat-E-Cally,” with the Daley-an emphasis on the last word.
The Colts finished at the bottom of the division in 2012 and ended twelfth in their division in 2013. In 2014, as the boys started to show signs of adolescence, their game matured too. They were getting stronger physically and emotionally. They climbed four rungs to 8th place but the closeness of some of those losses was painful. Who said growing up was painless?
There was a silver lining. At the end of the season last year, they surprised everyone by reaching the Division 2 final of GSCL T20. They got a taste of what was possible.
This year, as they emerged from six months of indoor practice last week, they were determined to win their first game in CLNJ. They batted 39.5 overs, not quite the full forty that the coach ordered, but they accumulated 155 runs on an overgrown and damp outfield. When they bowled out their opponents for 112 in 32.4 overs, celebrations broke out. The victory was a sweet one. For them, for DreamCricket Academy, for the CLNJ youth program and for everyone that believed in our vision.
For me, it gave me a reason to smile. A smile that has lasted an entire week.
Our next game is against the New Jersey City Cricket Club and it will be played at the Lincoln Park in Jersey City. Please stop by if you can on Sunday.
If you would like to contribute to our program, or find out more about junior cricket in New Jersey, you can reach me via venu at dreamcricket dot com.
The Colts for 2015 are Advait Manur, Rohan Aravindh, Raymond Ramrattan, Richard Ramrattan, Harish Easwaraiah, Akhil Ponnambalam, Humzah Khan, Chirag Ballani, Anuttam Perumal, Varun Venkateshan and Amit Patel. The team also features several chaperone players.
The Scorecard for their season-opener can be found here - https://www.dreamcricket.com/clnj/scorecarddisplay.aspx?gameid=9301