Pitches of Dreams: A look at the cricket and Irish hurling communities of the Twin Cities

A cricket match being played in Boom Island Park in Minneapolis, Minnesota // Photo by Harrison Barden

A cricket match being played in Boom Island Park in Minneapolis, Minnesota // Photo by Harrison Barden

Tulsie Sookdeo was just a kid when he moved from Guyana to the Twin Cities in 1980. The ice and snow of his new home was the complete opposite of the tropical climate he’d left behind, but that didn’t mean a connection to his old home couldn’t be found.

Guyana is one of several cricket-crazed countries in the world and Sookdeo found its presence in Minnesota, too, watching his uncles play the game of their countrymen more than 3,000 miles away. There weren’t many teams in the area at the time; the Minnesota Cricket Association had only been established four years earlier, in 1976. Even so, the game had a large enough presence in the state to lay a foundation that can still be seen today. 

“There are people who tell me all the time now, ‘Oh, I saw these guys playing cricket at this one park,’” Sookdeo said. “I’ll have no idea what park they’re talking about, and these are guys who are just playing pickup games of cricket around the Twin Cities. There’s a big Asian and Caribbean population here and the game’s just taken off.”

Cricket is one of the most popular sports in the world and has built huge followings over the last few centuries in places like Australia, Bangladesh, England, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and the West Indies. The game shares some aesthetic similarities to baseball. There’s a pitcher, known as a bowler, who tries to get the better of his bat-wielding opponent, and the batter tries to hit the ball and score runs. 

A bowler delivers the ball to a batsman during a recent match in Minneapolis, Minnesota // Photo by Harrison Barden

A bowler delivers the ball to a batsman during a recent match in Minneapolis, Minnesota // Photo by Harrison Barden

It’s not quite as simple as all that, though. There are a limited number of balls that can be bowled in a given match, and each team must have at least five different cricketers serve as bowlers—no relying on one dominant player to toss a complete game. An array of fielders dot a circular pitch, which ranges in diameter from 450 to 500 feet, in various positions: gully, slips, point, cover, wicketkeeper, and mid wicket; the others defend the field. There is no foul territory. 

There are two different cricket tournaments played in Minnesota throughout the spring and summer: a 20-over and a 40-over. (One “over” consists of six bowls; matches are limited by the number of balls that are bowled.) It generally takes around three hours for a 20-over match and double the time for a 40-over. “If you’re going to go to a 40-over match, you better bring your lunch and some snacks,” Sookdeo says.

Sookdeo is a current cricketer for the local club Minnesota International Cavaliers, for whom he’s played for more than two decades. “By the time I started playing in 1993, there were probably about 11 or 12 teams,” he says. “We’ve grown now to having 26 teams.”

Family has always been a key element to the game. The sights and sounds of cricket matches at Bryn Mawr Meadows Park or Washburn Fair Oaks Park will almost always include whole families coming out to enjoy the atmosphere—young kids running around and playing their own games on the side, the rest of the family watching the matches over plates of lamprais, chicken tikka masala, curries, and all kinds of different cuisines from around the world.

A group of cricketers convene during a match // Photo by Harrison Barden

A group of cricketers convene during a match // Photo by Harrison Barden

“We introduce our cultures to each other,” Sookdeo says as he prepares to serve as umpire for one of the many youth matches taking place on a recent Saturday morning. “We have different people from different parts of the world: Sri Lanka, India, the West Indies. We have people bring food from their part of the world and share it with each other.”

The game continues to grow in Minnesota, even beyond its traditional format. There are local leagues for tape ball cricket, also known as “tennis ball cricket,” which is played with a softer ball in comparison to the harder, leather- and- cork-based ball used in traditional cricket. It’s not uncommon for pick-up games of both versions to break out at parks across the metropolitan area. 

Evidence of cricket’s rising popularity can be found in the new facilities and youth development programs that have been implemented around the state in the past few years. In July, Minnesota’s first cricket-only facility, Tatiana Fields, opened in Belle Plaine. In tandem with the fields came Tatiana Cricket Academy, which offers intensive 14-week programs to anyone ages six to 20, complete with free gear to use, all with a goal of preserving and growing the next generation of Minnesota cricketers.

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Across the city, on a similar-sized pitch filled with athletes wielding similar-sized bats, the crack of solid wood striking a ball echoes above the din of “the fastest game on grass.” This is Irish hurling, and, like cricket, it’s a sport deeply rooted in tradition with origins dating back thousands of years, and it’s quickly carving out a niche in Minnesota.

The player in green is using his hurley (stick) to try and hit the sliotar (ball) down the pitch // Photo by Ryan Siverson

The player in green is using his hurley (stick) to try and hit the sliotar (ball) down the pitch // Photo by Ryan Siverson

The Twin Cities Robert Emmets Hurling Club (TCRE) is a relatively recent addition to the state’s sports landscape. According to their website, the group was formed in 2004 by “a few lunatics on a postage stamp of a pitch on Harriet Island.” But in the years since, the club—like the sport—has seen encouraging growth.

“In the last 10 or 15 years, hurling has grown rapidly in the U.S., and we are part of that trend,” says Chad Nelson, the board chair of TCRE. “At matches in town, you will find a handful of people with Irish accents, but a considerably larger group of Americans who have come to love the sport.”

The club’s numbers have been built mostly through word of mouth and the recruiting of friends with a variety of sports backgrounds. They also demonstrate the sport on a miniature pitch at the Irish Fair of Minnesota, complete with a batting cage so newcomers can take their first hacks with a hurley. 

In hurling, players use their hurley to hit a small ball called a sliotar between the opponent’s goalposts. Hitting the sliotar over the crossbar earns a single point. Hitting it under the crossbar into a net guarded by a goalkeeper is three points. The sliotar can be caught by hand and carried for a maximum of four steps, struck in the air, or struck on the ground with the hurley. A player who wants to carry the ball for more than four steps has to bounce or balance the sliotar on the end of the stick; the ball can only be handled twice while in a player’s possession.

The player in red is running with the sloitar after flicking it off the ground with their hurley // Photo by Ryan Siverson

The player in red is running with the sloitar after flicking it off the ground with their hurley // Photo by Ryan Siverson

TCRE is the only hurling club in the Metro area and has approximately 80 members. They run summer and fall leagues and divide club members into different teams each year, ensuring players get to know each other both as teammates and opponents over time. A similar structure is used by other hurling clubs across the Midwest. According to the United States Gaelic Athletic Association, the nation’s governing body of hurling, camogie (women’s hurling, for which the rules are slightly different), and Gaelic football, there are currently more than 130 adult and youth hurling clubs throughout the U.S.

Earl Netwal, the communications chair of TCRE, estimates the city league here has five times as many players as when he started in 2008, and says the biggest growth has been in the number of women wanting to play. 

Like cricket, the local hurling community also has family at its core—the club has been the genesis of a few marriages, and couples with older children are now bringing them onto the pitch. “It’s helped transform our once rough-and-tumble gang of hurlers into something of a larger community. This larger community has helped expand our club outside of just Irish and Irish Americans to more people of any background and skill set,” Netwal says. “This welcoming nature has really made the club like the stereotypical cliché of a big family.”

The teams shaking hands after the match // Photo by Ryan Siverson

The teams shaking hands after the match // Photo by Ryan Siverson

And just as every family has its quirks, so, too, does the hurling family—namely, competing against each other in local matches that ultimately culminate in the hotly contested city league championship. Immediately after the winning team is crowned, both winners and losers must shake off their emotions to get ready to compete together as a team at nationals.

“Our city league championship matches are competitive, but when the game is over everyone is friends again,” Nelson said. “There may be a little taunting over post-game beers, but the person receiving it likely earned it from earlier in the year.” 

A true family, this is indeed.

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