During Ramadan, late-night cricket is in full swing
After playing cricket at night for years in parking lots during Ramadan, the South Asian Muslim community organizes the first Ramadan cricket tournament at Big League Dreams in West Covina.
By 1:30 a.m. the cricket matches at the West Covina ballpark were in full swing. Farrukh Zafar stood in front of the wicket and gripped the flat bat made of willow wood, his eyes glued on the bowler who stood 22 yards away.
It was Zafar’s job to protect the wicket, the bowler’s job to hit it. The bowler hurled the ball, Zafar swung, and what followed sounded like a heavy object dropping on a wooden floor. As the ball flew beyond the reach of the opposing team, Zafar’s teammates erupted in cheers.
It was like a scene out of Zafar’s native Pakistan, except the cheering was in English, as well as Urdu, and the field a small-scale replica of Dodger Stadium. Popular tunes from the 1960s, such as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” blared from the PA system.
Then there was the timing — a chilly morning on Day 21 of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, the most important time of year for Muslims. Late-night cricket matches are a long-standing tradition in Pakistan during Ramadan, when Muslims abstain from eating and drinking during the day.
On this Saturday in May, scores of Muslims, both immigrant and U.S.-born, combined traditions from the motherland with the American culture that they’d come to cherish. Doing so transformed the stadium into a space that helped revive their faith and recall childhood memories from Pakistan while allowing them to embrace their identities as Americans.
The players set up the “pitch” — where the bowling and batting take place — in the baseball infield, between second and third base. Most of the men wore sweatpants, T-shirts and baseball caps, while a few opted for comfortable overnight attire: PJ bottoms.
Zafar’s initial triumph on the field was short-lived. A few minutes after 2 a.m., the match concluded. Zafar and his team members weren’t exactly sure of the final score. All they knew was that they lost — badly.
But that didn’t irk Zafar or his squad.
“I knew we would lose. That’s why we call our team ‘Lakers,’” he said laughing. “But winning doesn’t matter at all to us. There was no strategy when we played because it wasn’t about winning. It was about having fun.”
Throughout the Muslim world, cities radiate with life after the sun goes down during Ramadan. Families roam streets to buy groceries and mingle with neighbors. In Pakistan, a particular practice emerged — late-night cricket.
The sport is beloved throughout South Asia, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India.
But that wasn’t always the case. Many who lived under British colonial rule viewed it as a symbol of oppression and a game for wealthy white men. It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century, after Pakistan’s independence, that the sport started to gain a foothold throughout society.
Today, cricket is a source of pride and plays a significant role in Pakistani culture. Professional cricketers take on the status of celebrities, and the games offer people a reprieve from mundane responsibilities.
For the nighttime matches during Ramadan, young adults and kids play in any open space with lights — playgrounds, of course, but even empty roads. Players recall matches played on city streets, when balls sometimes crashed into houses and windows. Sometimes they had to pause and move off the street to allow frustrated drivers to drive by, their horns honking.
Often unable to afford a proper cricket ball — leather stitched around a center of cork and string — they played with tennis balls wrapped in electrical tape.
Such balls were used by Zafar and his fellow players. Along with the flat bats, players had brought dozens of neon green tennis balls and rolls of white electrical tape. They could be found throughout the complex of ballparks, built to replicate big-league fields such as Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park.
The players ranged in age from 30 to 50. Some were born in Karachi, others in Lahore and Punjab. Many started playing the sport as young as 4 years old, while others didn’t start until they arrived in the U.S. This evening was their second of three late-night cricket outings during Ramadan, which ends Tuesday.
Zafar left Karachi and moved to Los Angeles in 2001 when he was 21 years old. He now owns two fitness gyms and lives with his wife and two young children in Eastvale in Riverside County.
When he’s not spending time with his family or working, Zafar tries to immerse himself in the world of cricket. But finding time to do so isn’t always easy. Ramadan gives Zafar, and others like him, an excuse to carve out time. Because the men can only eat and drink after sunset, it makes sense to reserve evenings for exercise.
This was the first time the men rented out the stadium. It was a far cry from how they first played in the U.S. in 2010. That year, they played in the parking lot of the Best Buy in Yorba Linda. By 2011, the games had ballooned, with nearly 100 people wanting to take part.
Because of the lack of space, however, the games fizzled out over the next several years. But this year, Sharjeel Muhammad, 44, a passionate cricketer, and several friends wanted to revive the matches in honor of their fellow sportsman Zeeshan Khamisani, who died of brain cancer in 2018.
By 3 a.m. another match was underway, and Minhaj Berket gasped for air as he ran after the ball. He decided to take a quick break. He walked toward the dugout where his 10-year-old son, Aayan, waited.
“You’re not doing too well out there,” Aayan said to his father. “Your first pitch was slow.”
Berket smiled and placed his hand over his son’s head.
Aayan is a quiet kid with a slender physique. He wore an oversized sweater with a hoodie and a black baseball cap to shield himself from the cold. Meanwhile, his father sported a short-sleeve T-shirt and black running pants.
It was the first time Aayan had joined his father for a midnight game of cricket. Both father and son prayed at a nearby mosque before making their way to the stadium that evening.
The pair stood side by side and looked out at the field. Above the dugout a few men huddled together, smoked cigarettes and drank cups of tea sweetened with sugar and condensed milk.
“Shabash!” Berket shouted to his team member who was out batting. Good job.
By 3:30 a.m. the games had finished, and it was time to eat. Muslims call this meal before dawn suhoor. Outside in the parking lot, aromas of the traditional Pakistani dishes surrounded the group of men who were forming a line. They eyeballed the food getting unloaded from the navy-blue GMC Terrain as it was placed on a plastic white table, eager to dig in.
The steam from the warm basmati rice rose into the cool air as the men piled their plates with biryani, rice cooked with chicken, and chana masala, chickpeas prepared in a spicy tomato sauce.
Soon after, the men gathered their belongings and walked slowly to their cars. Some planned to go to a nearby mosque to pray.
By 4:20 a.m., only a few people remained outside the stadium, including Berket and Aayan.
They rolled out a blue prayer rug next to a 10-foot-tall gold statue of a man throwing a baseball.
They took off their shoes and stood close to each other on the carpet and faced the direction of Mecca.
In Pakistan, and other Muslim-majority countries, mosques typically broadcast the call to prayer over loudspeakers. Berket did the next best thing: He began to recite the prayer in Arabic. His delivery was melismatic, making the prayer sound musical.
Nearby, lights illuminated the entrance to the stadium, revealing gold letters bolted on the concrete: “City of West Covina. Big League Dreams.” The pair kneeled on the ground and buried their heads into their hands. As they continued to pray, birds chirped in the background, signaling the start of a new day.
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