Hrishikesh Bhalwankar will never forget his first cricket match in Maharashtra, India when a ball hit his face, smashing his glasses.
It was an experience that shook him to his core, he says now. The 16-year-old Bhalwankar wasn't sure if he'd pick up a bat again.
But as it is for most Indian sports fans, cricket is part of Bhalwankar's DNA.
Decades later and thousands of miles away from his home state in India, Bhalwankar is now batsman and team captain for the Beaverton Cricket Badshahs.
And at 43, Bhalwankar says he doesn't plan on putting down his bat any time soon.
"If you have a body, you are an athlete," he said.
The Badshahs were first established in 2009 by Pacific Northwest native Justin Lacche. His interest in cricket started at an early age, while growing up among neighbors from South Asian countries whose parents were brought in during the big tech boom.
"And so it was common to have a street cricket game," Lacche said. "Seattle actually was a hub for sports like this, just because of the nature of high-tech growing in the Pacific Northwest."
When Lacche started working at Nike, he launched a cricket team for Beaverton with friends and colleagues, around the same time USA Cricket, the little-known national cricket team and development organization, was looking for sustained clubs and teams around the country.
"Because in Oregon, it's very friendly to organize as an LLC or a company, we could get insured, and, lo and behold, we were able to connect with West Coast team to the national team, to reboot as a touring team and be able to build something sustained over the next 12 to 13 years," Lacche said.
The name "Badshahs" comes from the Arabic word for kings. Lacche says founding members wanted the name to represent the team's international background. They also liked the way Badshahs sounded with Beaverton.
The co-ed team welcomes all ages, Lacche said, which is an aspect about the game that attracted Lacche to the sport in the first place.
"I'm a 47-year-old player. I intend to talk about cricket as a 57-year-old player," Lacche said. "My role will be diminished, naturally, because of the competitive level, but it is a sport where you can still play if you stay in shape and take it seriously. There is no need to think about retirement."
The Badshahs were getting ready for what Lacche believes was going to be their best season ever when the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down.
"With so much uncertainty and no vaccine yet, Lacche wondered if the Badshahs would ever play cricket again.
But Lacche wouldn't let himself fall into despair. He took it upon himself to keep his team members engaged.
"We still tried to do some sort of practice, anything neurologically, to keep people sane," he said. "There are still all the drills and mechanisms and hand-eye coordination that would seem awkward in your garage, but my sales pitch to the team was, 'You know, we still train at our same level, we just can't see each other.'"
While a virtual practice may at first sound like a difficult thing to pull off, particularly with a team sport like cricket, Lacche says that cricket is really a cerebral sport, like chess.
"Neurologically, it's always about building different reaction times to do scenarios, because the sport happens very fast," Lacche said.
He said he used cameras to track how players follow the ball, taught different grips over videoconference calls, and led exercises remotely, among other efforts to keep cricketers focused and learning.
Despite pandemic restrictions, Bhalwankar said he found forming a team surprisingly less stressful than past years. Because everyone was meeting in smaller groups, Bhalwankar already knew a lot of the team members and how they play the game.
"This particular year, I think 20 members caught my eye," Bhalwankar said. "We all know each other, which helps me actually enjoy the game a little bit more, compared to being in a stressful situation all the time."
Keeping the game alive
With growing uncertainty around the delta variant, both Bhalwankar and Lacche say it is imperative to keep cricket alive and not wait for things to return to normal.
"I think everyone is waiting for closure, and this one's not going to be closure," Lacche said. "We may only have one or two matches over the next two years. I don't know when that day will be. But our job as athletes and coaches and team members is not to look for an excuse to not be ready, because the other team is going to be ready."
Beyond keeping the game of cricket alive, Bhakwankar said any team sport or extracurricular activity helps personal growth.
"Like how do you deal with the team setup, not just in the game, but in the office, because you have a team in the office," he said, giving an example. "And how you deal with those people? How do you build those relations?"
But what's most important to Bhalwankar is how cricket, for him, serves as a refuge from the day-to-day stresses of everyday life.
"When you meet for that activity as a group, you hardly ever talk about work," he said.
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