The Islanders in Carolina

ICC Men’s T20 World Cup 2024

219

In a cricketing universe reverberating to the tune of the IPL, the arrival of the Sri Lankan cricket team in Morrisville, North Carolina made little waves. Even the most ardent fans were not aware of the Sri Lankan national team’s pit stop in a small rural town in the Southeastern United States enroute to the T20 world cup. Locally, the word got around quickly livening up the Morrisville cricket scene. None were more thrilled than the Carolina Islanders.

In South Asia, cricket builds nations. Kumar Sangakkara once elaborated that he is a Buddhist, a Hindu, a follower of Islam and a Christian, but above all a Sri Lankan. The cricketing thread that weaves Sri Lankans together is only stronger outside of the country. This is why, in a small American town, a group of grown men who left Sri Lanka years ago—many of whom are loving fathers—convince their spouses that playing cricket on a Sunday morning, week after week, is critical for the very essence of their heritage. This is why these men, the Carolina Islanders, took time away from work to greet the incoming Sri Lankan team at the Raleigh-Durham airport in North Carolina.

Cricket in North Carolina has flourished over the past decade. The booming tech industries have transformed the once rural tobacco farming towns into vibrant multi-cultural hubs. Brick by brick, the influx of South Asia diaspora along with a few other cricketing expats have formed the Triangle Cricket League (TCL). The league now boasts over thousand players. But hosting the Sri Lankan national team was never a part of their wildest dreams.

The TCL provides a weekend sanctuary for those who wish to relive their childhood street cricket days. While some still are able to chase leather without clutching their back, many prefer the hard tennis ball with aging skill levels and the rising costs of health insurance. To the average American, it likely makes little sense when a group of men are standing around a grass patch shouting Shabazz!! or Allannaa!! Even for a baseball fan, it must feel that that the words speak louder than action in a weekend TCL match. Rain or shine, whether the match is played or not, these men come to the grounds, because in their new home in America cricket stirs an identity.

Morrisville was put on the cricketing map last year when Kieron Pollard and Rashid Khan were on full display in the Major League Cricket tournament (MCL). Set to return this year, MCL aims to grow American cricket, particularly among the youth. The Sri Lankan community, as they did last year, eagerly anticipates greeting MCL stars, the likes of Dasun Shanaka, while hoping to catch a glimpse of the legends in Lasith Malinga. For a cricket starved community of ex-pats, the arrival of MCL was a momentous blending of sixes, wickets, the Afghan drum beats and the Sri Lankan Papare.

It will be a while before cricket becomes a thing in America. Last year, apparently there were complaints from the neighbors around the cricket ground. Loud cheers, traffic, and the sudden display of multi-colored flags and drums certainly were amusing to the quiet neighborhood. This is why perhaps the arrival of the Sri Lankan team may feel like a moment of redemption. A validation. A thrill. A thrill of seeing an international cricket star running down the same pitch at Church Street Park that hosts weekend TCL games. It only helped that the local Morrisville boys were called in as net bowlers. Though redemption came bearing the Sri Lankan flag, having an international team training in Morrisville is a physical manifestation of a cultural phenomenon that honors a deep seeded identity of every cricket lover in North Carolina.

To the Sri Lankan born Mr. Shaluka Perera, a veteran of the local cricket scene, it has been a dream come true. “This is by far my biggest moment for me as a cricket fan and a former player. I am truly starstruck.” says Mr. Perera. He is not alone in this sentiment.

Fans have come in all colors to see the Sri Lankans practice. Plenty of selfies. Smiles are shared. The Sri Lankan cricketers have graciously obliged, at least for now.

“The humility and approachability of the Sri Lankan players are simply humbling” says Mr. Perera. He thinks that their visit will leave a lasting impression specially for the youth in the community. “Seeing our heroes right in our backyard is a proud moment for the local community. It will motivate the next generation to consider cricket as a sporting option which is fundamental to the grassroots growth of the sport.” Mr. Perera is confident of the lasting impact.

The impact of the visiting Sri Lankan team is certainly profound for the Carolina Islanders. Since the national stars arrived They just won a hard-fought game against a better ranked team. Mohammed Shiab, a pillar of the Carolina Islanders, says “Being the only Sri Lankan-origin team in a league dominated by Indian and Pakistani players means we have to be at the top of our game. Dasun Fernando, the chief architect of the Carolina Islanders, adds “Seeing our national team playing on our turf gives us a mental edge to stand tall above other teams.”

For the Carolina Islanders, a cricketing version of merry-men, there is little to gain from picking up a cricket bat every weekend, paddling against the tides of American workaholism while being weighed down by young families at home. They do it just so those who grew up in the far away island can reminisce the lion’s pride in their hearts. Cricket builds nations.

Locals aside, perhaps this brief stop in the American South is more of a powerful reminder to the Sri Lankan cricket team of their pulse that beats in faraway corners of the world.