The largest and most active cricket area in Missouri and the Midwest is Dardenne Prairie.
Surprised? Cricket enthusiast Ajay Jhamb is not. He’s known the area’s potential for years. An émigré from India 19 years ago, Jhamb now is a U.S. citizen and Dardenne Prairie resident.
In 2015, he worked with local parents to form the American Cricket Academy and Club of St. Louis with the goal of instructing children in the sport. The original group was for boys and girls ages 8 to 14. By 2016, it had grown from 15 children to 150, largely through word of mouth. At the same time, Jhamb began seeking space on which to build a cricket field in St. Charles County.
Unknown to many Americans, cricket is played worldwide in at least 104 countries, and may be second in popularity only to soccer [or football as it is known outside the U.S.]. As people from those countries have emigrated to the U.S., their love of cricket has come with them and they have a desire for their children to participate in the sport as well.
Cricket is a ball and bat sport, where a batter hits a ball and scores runs, and there are innings. It was played in the American colonies long before Abner Doubleday invented baseball. In fact, it dates back to the mid-1500s and was spread around the world by the old British Empire. In it, two teams of 11 players each compete to score the most runs.
The field is grass, with a flat rectangular strip in the middle, called the pitch, roughly 10 feet wide and 60 feet long. The bowler [pitcher] throws the ball to the striker or batsman [batter] down the pitch, which also is referred to as a wicket. During the course of a cricket match, the wicket’s shorter grass sometimes gets worn down or muddy, making it challenging for the bowler to pitch and bounce the ball accurately and for the striker to hit it. From that comes the term “sticky wicket,” or difficult situation.
In 2015 and 2016, Jhamb found himself in a bit of a sticky wicket as he sought a home playing field for his growing American Cricket Academy and Club of St. Louis. He said in those years, he “called on the mayor of every city in St. Charles County,” seeking help to set up a cricket pitch in order for the academy and club to accomplish its goals.
“No one listened or cared,” Jhamb said. “Nobody believed in us, until I spoke to my own mayor in Dardenne Prairie. Mayor [David] Zucker listened, understood and he believed. Without his help, we would be nowhere.”
In 2016, guided by Zucker, the city’s Board of Aldermen provided $26,887.35 to construct a cricket pitch in Barathaven Park. During the next year, all of that funding was paid back to the city via donations from parents whose children are members of the cricket academy.
“Our academy’s foundation is built on three pillars – character, community and cricket – so the focus on building a strong character for our youth and serving the community comes ahead of cricket, to make sure these kids are learning the value of giving and sharing to be productive citizens of society,” Jhamb said. And it’s not just local kids who are learning those lessons.
With leadership assistance from individuals who work at MasterCard, Monsanto, Panera Bread, Microsoft and other companies, Jhamb, as the academy’s executive director, has seen the American Cricket Academy and Club grow to include members from all over metro St. Louis and Illinois. Currently, it has 26 teams and more than 500 players organized into [among others] a Major Women’s League, Major Men’s League and Minor Kids’ Leagues. Ten area schools, including some from the Rockwood and Parkway districts, now have physical education programs that include instruction from the academy at no cost, and they conduct inter-school tournaments.
The American Cricket Academy and Club now is recognized as one of the nation’s best youth cricket academies. They have extremely strong support from more than 500 area families, most of whom attend the cricket matches each week, set up picnic tables with plenty of food and beverages, and cheer for their teams. The robust program also includes significant volunteer work in the community, including efforts through schools, churches, synagogues and temples that promote teamwork, reinforce values and build character. In 2018, the academy’s youth performed 21,000 hours of community service project work.
The cricket playing season starts April 27 and, with access to a few additional cricket pitches in nearby communities, there is room for new players.
From June 10-June 19, the academy will host a summer camp for 50 top youth players. The kids will be housed at The Principia School’s dormitories with camp activities conducted at the Dardenne Prairie cricket pitch and taught by coaches from England, Australia and India.
Labor Day weekend, the academy will host a national cricket tournament with clubs coming to Dardenne Prairie from 20 cities across the country. Learn more at americancricketacademy.org.