How YouTube Brought Cricket Mania To NYC

A high school league in NYC benefits from YouTube coaching and matches broadcast online

illustration: Jack Dylan
Jun 14, 2016 at 9:43 AM ET

The weed-ridden lawn bristles in the sea breeze on a sunny, 73-degree afternoon in the nether regions of Brooklyn, as commercial airliners pierce the sparkling blue sky and descend across Jamaica Bay to JFK airport.

Four teams in white cricket flannels scatter across Marine Park’s expanse. Adjacent fields host a pair of playoff games in the country’s only high school cricket league, as the world’s second-most popular sport is relegated to this peripheral New York City outpost.

Rapid banter, little of it in English, flickers with excitement any time a bowler nearly induces an out. The concentric circles of fielders celebratorily enclose on each other at the wickets any time there’s an out, but that’s not happening on Field 3 where Long Island City High’s Oneeb Arif is impersonating his favorite player, Virat Kohli, India’s captain and a legendary batsman. Arif swings for the blue-cone-delineated boundary with regularity—scoring four points for bouncing the cork-and-leather ball past and six points for clearing the line in the air.

LIC, the bracket’s 13th seed, would upset No. 4 Brooklyn International, 112-97, in the league’s condensed one-day format, although the match was later overturned on a technicality. LIC won back-to-back league titles in 2012 and ’13 under the team’s founding coach, Dharmvir Gehlaut. His Brooklyn International coaching counterpart referred to him as “Vince Lombardi.” (That comparison is only valid for the championships, however, as Gehlaut is as mild-mannered and relentlessly positive as they come.)

Arif, who was born in Pakistan, played cricket with his brothers and cousins almost daily and now emulates Kohli by watching him online any chance he can.

“He’s the best in the world,” Arif, a sophomore, said. “He has timing—lots of sixes and fours.”

Though cricket is rarely, if ever, available through regular cable television packages, streaming video is giving the sport improved exposure domestically. Matches can be found through ESPN3, Willow, and other cricket-specific sites.

“All the time, 24/7,” LIC senior Mehran Ayub, who moved to the U.S. from Pakistan three years ago, said. “It’s cricket.”

When the 2015 World Cup was played in Australia and New Zealand—with venues 12-to-14 hours ahead—cricket-mad teenagers in the U.S. lost an awful lot of sleep at night.

“But it’s cricket,” senior captain Rejwanur Rahman, who was born in Bangladesh, said. “It’s a passion. It’s in my blood.”

When schoolwork or their own matches interfere—many of the LIC players also compete in New York adult leagues—they can check video archives.

“What I miss,” Ayub said, “I just watch on YouTube.”

While these teenagers are simply watching games of their favorite teams, there are bountiful resources available online in the burgeoning field of YouTube coaching. One leading cricket instructor is Ben Williams, an Auckland-based coach who has worked extensively with New Zealand national team captain Kane Williamson and who started Williams has posted hundreds of videos with coaching instruction on the subscription site and allows for players to submit film for his review and feedback. While acknowledging that in-person coaching allows for more consistent feedback, Williams raved about the ability to reach a broader audience, particularly for players who may not have access to proper coaching.

“Video coaching is still of tremendous benefit as the quality in coaching information and instruction can be the difference between developing at a good speed and training smart as opposed to flat lining,” Williams wrote in an email. “Cricket is a sport which is rather technical and personalized and many parents or amateur coaches who generally are trying to help a child’s skill development often make it a lot harder for the child to progress as they are leaving crucial elements to guess work.”

Williams noted the prevalence of biomechanical evaluations and how technology is a core component even of in-person tutoring.

“I use video analysis on a day-to-day basis with the youngsters that I coach at my academy, and there is no difference between this and coaching a young cricketer via video in India for example, as long as there is clear communication between both parties,” he wrote. “With our specialized key performance indicators, we can measure the players’ or coaches’ improvement.”

That was not available to LIC’s coach, who did not have access to a television until he was in college. Gehlaut grew up in a poor village near the town of Sonepat in the north Indian state of Haryana, about 30 minutes from New Delhi. His father farmed wheat, sugar cane, and rotating seasonal crops. Gehlaut, who is one of nine siblings, learned to play cricket with the local children, who pooled money for one bat and made a second one out of tree branches.

“For an Indian, whether in the countryside or the cities or the towns, they enjoy cricket as the unofficial sport of the country,” he said. “Cricket has been almost everywhere. I was constantly attached.”

The village had no official medical records so, even though Gehlaut was born in 1970, his parents said he was born in 1968 so he could start school two years earlier. There was no local schooling after 10th grade, so he went to university—effectively at the age of an eighth grader—without knowing the predominant language of Hindi. (He spoke in the local dialect.)

Now a high school math teacher at a school in Manhattan, Gehlaut is as engaging and well-spoken in English as anyone even though it’s his fifth language, having also learned Urdu and Punjabi along the way. He also has four university degrees—undergrad diplomas in journalism and also in math and economics from Maharshi Dayanand University, as well as master’s degrees from the City University of New York in business journalism and from St. John’s in math education—not to mention having received several fellowships, including becoming the first Hindi journalist to win the British Chevening Scholarship to London.

In the early years at LIC High, Gehlaut said he had to recruit players who had never tried cricket before, including students from Colombia, Mexico, Japan, and China. Assembling a winner with novices was a challenge. “It’s a really, really complex sport,” he said. Now, he has plentiful options of players who grew up playing the sport in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India. LIC’s practice venue, however, is the concrete Ravenswood Playground, whose size and lack of proper cricket pitch can be limiting.

Even in the early days Gehlaut had it better than some coaches, as he has more playing experience than many peers. The cricket circuit is run under the jurisdiction of the city’s Public School Athletic League, which requires that all coaches have a New York City teaching certificate.

Steve Apollon, the coach at Brooklyn Tech, never played but said he loved watching the passion of the cricket games he saw online and on TV. When a vacancy arose to lead the team this season, he immersed himself in the sport—reading about it, attending PSAL coaching clinics, watching semi-pro leagues in the city, and reviewing YouTube clips. Parents and player captains help fill the void, as on Brooklyn Tech where six of the 16 students on the roster had never played before.

“Sometimes the captain of the team would send them things to read or suggest they watch some videos on YouTube,” Apollon said.

Instruction is no longer restricted to local availability. While LIC has a good leader in Gehlaut—“He’s the best coach,” said sophomore manager Muhammad Shan—anyone now can have a coach such as Williams, who has mentored at least two Black Caps (players on New Zealand’s national team.)

“I have to say,” Williams wrote, “god bless the internet.”