If you passed by Tufts’ Ounjian Field this past Saturday just before 4 p.m., you would have seen each player of the 15-member club cricket team with their arms around each other’s shoulders. They were taking part in a pregame huddle led by senior captain Pranav Jain, senior vice-captain Archit Jain and senior team president Saumya Mehta in advance of their match against Harvard. A team huddle before any sports game is not uncommon.
“[When] you're in a huddle, you're creating that energy, right? You just take the field feeling a part of a team,” Mehta said.
For club cricket, however, experiencing that feeling before a game on their home field has never happened before. This was the first intercollegiate match in three years, and it was the first ever at Tufts. The journey to the match, and that feeling, was a long one.
The club was first recognized by the TCU Senate in fall 2019, and during that semester, it built a team full of dedicated players. Mehta, Pranav Jain, and fellow seniors Sharan Bhansali, Adhiraj Saboo, Syed Taswar Mahbub, Annika Chauhan and Madhav Prasad are all those that were part of that original group who are still on the team. The team played matches at different Boston-area colleges and traveled to New York to compete in a regional tournament. Things were looking up, but then COVID-19 hit.
“In 2020 when we came back in the fall semester, club sports were decommissioned at that time, so there was no question about playing or even attempting to play cricket,” Mehta said.
By the time COVID-19 restrictions were lifted for the fall 2021 semester, much of the initial core group had graduated. In addition, since the club was a spring sport, they had to wait a semester in order to practice. Those who were still remaining used the fall semester to generate interest in the club. For the first time, they were able to take advantage of an in-person club fair.
“I remember [that] whenever people showed up to our desk, they were surprised that we had a … cricket club sport, but they were all willing to join,” Pranav Jain said.
With the excitement and interest built in the fall, the club kicked off regular practices in spring 2022. With a clean slate, the club wanted to make a change.
“In 2019 … we had a formidable squad with a bunch of players with very different skill sets. But one thing which I found was missing at that time was a deep connection between everybody in the team,” Mehta said. “But this year, our goal was to first build a team and then think about playing games.”
This was reflected in two major ways: First, the spring semester was focused solely on casual practices, and second, a softer ball was used.
Cricket, similar to baseball, is a bat-and-ball sport with the objective being to score more runs than the other team. A hard, red leather ball is generally used not only in professional competition, but in intercollegiate club matches as well. Without protective gear, however, playing with a hard leather ball can be unsafe. They opted for a softer hard tennis ball instead.
“Cricket at Tufts has changed over the last three years where in my freshman year, we used to play with the leather ball, and we were actually trying to eventually reach nationals,” Pranav Jain said. “However, what I noticed since COVID is that the new classes coming in over the last couple of years have preferred keeping cricket as [an activity] where they’re just enjoying and playing, so they're not as comfortable playing with leather balls. … So as a club, we've become more relaxed where the purpose has changed and has been modified to enjoy it.”
Using a softer ball also allowed the club to attract players who had limited cricket exposure. Cricket is predominantly played in South Asian countries, and junior Armaan Dugar, although of South Asian heritage, was born and raised in the U.S. and had not played cricket in an official setting. For Dugar, the practices and matches are not only opportunities to learn and grow in the sport but a way to connect on a deeper level with his heritage, all in a safe and encouraging environment.
“I definitely feel a lot more proud watching Indian cricket matches and can connect with them closer and also just discuss it with other people. So that's kind of what motivated me to play here. I want to continue and I knew a lot of people on the team but I was also able to meet others during the cricket club,” Dugar said.
The club was able to convince other schools to play matches with them using the softer ball, including the match this past Saturday. During the match, that sense of comfort was built as well on a variety of fronts.
“You need an [Archit Jain] on the team who just shouts and says ‘guys we’re not going to lose today.’ The tone in which he says it and the passion which he says it just energizes people. I don't think that it makes anyone feel pressured,” Pranav Jain said.
Led by Archit Jain’s passion, Pranav Jain’s extensive in-game experience and Mehta’s vast knowledge of the game, the team felt comfortable and confident to start the match. Tufts batted first, and four of their players got out very early on without too many runs being scored. Since only 10 outs were allowed, the game seemed to be slipping away.
The fifth and sixth batsmen, Saboo and graduate student Tejas Joshi, were able to bring back that sense of comfort in the match by scoring 80 runs together, contributing to a competitive team total of 122 runs before handing the batting off to Harvard.
Although Harvard was able to score more than 122 runs and win the match, there was nothing but positivity from the Tufts side.
“We had so many … people come cheer for us,” Pranav Jain said. “The thing is it was more than [just having] spectators, they were all our friends right? So watching your friends watch you bat and ball and field and just make fun of you and having banter with them was just really, really fun.”
Dugar described how the loss didn’t matter as he was grateful for the chance to play cricket with a team.
“It’s so exciting because I've always wanted to play team cricket. So the result didn't really matter. … there's more to learn from [the loss] because we still have three or four more matches this year,” Dugar said.
The match also allowed the team to develop a newfound sense of connectedness and motivation because of that shared experience.
“In future practices, people are going to be a lot more comfortable [and] connected, of course, but also motivated and energetic to seize whatever challenge you might throw at them,” Mehta said.
Post-match, a huddle was once again in store. This time around, though, the players were huddled just a little bit closer to each other. The club will play its next match this Saturday against Boston University at 2:30 p.m. on Ounjian field.