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Religion and Culture: Cricket brings diverse ethnic and faith groups together in LA

At Woodley Park in Van Nuys, Calif., spring training is in full swing for Southern California’s cricket players. Makeshift batting cages are up and wickets are scattered in the grass. Amidst the thump of balls falling all around, an accented voice rings out: “Mind your head, love.”

The warning comes from the Corinthian Cricket Club, whose players are trading off bowling and batting in a warm-up drill. These men grew up playing cricket in places such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the West Indies, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and England, before they immigrated to the United States.

Now they play for one of Southern California’s oldest cricket clubs, as well as its most ethnically diverse.

RELATED: Religion, politics and culture: Stories from USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

“It’s a beautiful thing,” says Anil Tulpule, a member of the Los Angeles-based club. “It really unites everybody. We speak the same language. We worship the same god – cricket.”

These are telling words, especially considering that in India, Tulpule’s home country, cricket has often played a more divisive role.

Historically, India’s most important domestic cricket tournament, the Bombay Quadrangular, pitted a European team against three separate Indian teams: one made up of Parsis, one of Hindus, and one of Muslims. For a few years, the tournament also included a team called “All the Rest,” which allowed Indian Christians, Buddhists and Jews to participate.

Though these games were halted in 1945, it did not take long for a new rivalry to emerge between India and Pakistan. And as a matter of national identity, this matchup has often emphasized the enduring tensions between Hindus and Muslims in India.

Today, questions of religious identity are more pressing than ever, as Indians seem poised to elect Narendra Modi their next prime minister. Modi has been accused of condoning violence against Muslims in the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which an estimated 2,000 Indian Muslims were killed. And many fear his possible election signals a new era of Hindu nationalism.

“Cricket offers fertile terrain for the articulation of Hindu chauvinism and communalist ideologies,” writes Emily Crick in an article for the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.

She describes how Bal Thackeray, founder of Shiv Sena, a Hindu nationalistic political organization, once argued that Indian Muslims should cheer for the Indian national cricket team to prove they were not Pakistani sympathizers.

But in recent World Cups, support for India has been almost “universal” from “all communities” in the country, according to Crick.

It's an open question whether this is due to the unifying capabilities of the sport, to the increased number of Muslim players on the national cricket team, or to Indian Muslims’ desire to downplay religious differences in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots, which killed an estimated 2,000 Muslims.

"Cricket will always overcome."

For many South Asian members of the Corinthian Cricket Club, the answer is clear: “Cricket will always overcome the tension between Hindus and Muslims,” says Faran Taher, a practicing Muslim who was born in Bangladesh and lived in Iraq, Nigeria, and Australia before landing in the US.

“When I played in Australia, it was a very racist atmosphere. But after my second or third cricket practice, the players saw what I brought to the game, and I actually became vice captain of the team.”

Taher thinks the same meritocracy applies to cricket on the subcontinent. “You forget about where people come from when you play. In the heat of battle, you band together and join hands.”

Gopinath Warrier, who left India to study engineering at UCLA, takes a slightly more cynical view: “Cricket is big bucks, so of course they don’t care what religion you are. They want to win.”

But Randeep Singh, a devout Sikh, is not so sure. He played competitively for the under-19 team in Delhi but failed to make it to the professional level. “It’s a tough question to be honest. If I had been playing in Punjab, which is a Sikh state, I think things would have been different.”

Playing with the Corinthians is different, Singh says. “They don’t care whether I’m Sikh orMuslim. Cricket is over everything. It’s a religion in itself.”

This is a common refrain among the teammates at Woodley Park, and English coach Richard Blackledge says it best: “Cricket is our religion and the pitch is our temple. When you step on the field, you’re not Christian, or Muslim, or Hindu; you’re a cricketer.”

Whether the sentiment is shared by coaches and players in India is the question. 

This story is one in an occasional series of reports by students taking part in a class of the USC Annenberg Knight Program on Media and Religion, headed by Diane Winston. Thanks to a grant from the Luce Foundation, Annenberg students have covered global religion, culture and politics for the past four years. This spring, students will report and write on Southern California's Indian community and travel to Pune and Mumbai in March, where they will cover religion, economics and politics.