Inside Cal cricket’s improbable rise to the top

photo of Cal cricket team
Rishi Arjun/Courtesy

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As Keshav Pabbisetty bowled the last ball to get to 20 overs in Cal cricket’s championship win against UCLA, the players rejoiced in their new reality: an organization established only three years ago was now the champion of the west.

“It’s a huge achievement for our club,” said captain Kishore Patra. “And we hope that with this victory, we will be able to put ourselves in the picture for the wider community. … We hope to attract more people who would be interested in learning the game from scratch … and hopefully represent Cal in the future.”

The Cal cricket club beat UCLA by 31 runs to capture the 2021 Pacific Zonal Tournament crown. In an era of sports that emphasizes new and young talent, it was the freshmen who stepped up to lead Cal’s rise to the top. Shamith Pasula anchored the innings with 39 runs and a 125.81 strike rate in the championship. Abhaypartap Grewal, who hails from Punjab, led Cal to a win against UC San Diego, amassing 56 runs en route to a 311.11 strike rate.

The team’s journey was an extremely unorthodox one. Even though cricket is the second-most popular sport in the world, it carries a minuscule footprint in the United States and the Berkeley community. It’s not surprising, therefore, to see cricket organizations struggle to advance the sport’s reputation. Cal was left to fend for itself to obtain some of the most basic needs for competition, such as playing conditions and recruitment.

Because of the lack of space around campus, Cal cricket holds its practices farther away in Richmond, where availability is determined by first come, first served, and it fundraises to support the team. To recruit, it resorts to an unconventional method: The team plays recreationally in the middle of campus, hoping to attract curious onlookers.

Despite these challenges, Cal cricket came together to make a Cinderella run through the tournament. The turning point was when the team played its first game of the tournament: a morning clash against Arizona State. Before the first bowl, Cal held only three practices as a team, so while it had the talent, it didn’t know how to fit all the pieces together. Although the Sun Devils won by six wickets, the Bears left the pitch knowing how to function better as a team.

“The first game that we played in the morning was really the first time playing together,” Patra said. “And we unfortunately lost that game, but we learned so much about each other and how we came together. Then the next few games, we actually significantly did much better.”

With the Pacific Zonal Tournament win, Cal now sets its sights on the national tournament, hosted by the National College Cricket Association. A good showing in Houston would add another chapter to the history of a team that finds itself at the forefront of collegiate cricket. In the face of limited information about the opposition, the team feels confident in its ability to maximize its strengths in time for the tournament. Figuring out how to complement different batters’ strategies, such as in the case for Pasula and Grewal, as well as getting the most out of its bowlers, will be the key to Cal’s run.

Armed with talent, including players who have represented the United States on the under-19 national team and showcased their skills on the stage of international cricket, Cal is set for success now and in the future. In the short term, the team hopes to gain club sports status and receive other sources of funding. If the Pacific Zonal Tournament win indicated anything, it’s that Cal cricket is in a prime position to bring one of the world’s most known sports to Bear territory.

Ali Fazal covers men’s soccer. Contact him at afazaldailycal.org.