Ali Qureshi has a flair for the dramatic. Propped up by his cricket bat on the electric green turf of Lakeside Field, Qureshi is articulate and animated, his passion loud and clear as he recites his favorite story yet another time.
“So,” Qureshi begins, “Barack Obama once said, ‘I do not know what cricket is, but I would like to know what it is, because every time Pakistan and India play, my country’s production goes down by 20 percent!’”
Rohaan Advani rolls his eyes at his exuberant friend, who has taken some liberties with the president’s wording. “See, I cannot do these things,” he says with a laugh, Qureshi’s zeal too much to handle even for his partner-in-crime.
At first glance, Qureshi, a Weinberg sophomore, and Advani, a McCormick sophomore, seem like unlikely friends. Qureshi is outspoken, extremely friendly and always knows what to say. Advani is quiet, thoughtful and picks his words carefully. Qureshi is tall with a scruffy beard. Advani is short and clean-shaven. Qureshi is from Pakistan. Advani is from India.
But they were brought together by one love: the game of cricket. Both had played cricket their whole lives in their home countries, and both planned on giving up a key part of their identity when they came to Northwestern. Until they decided to bring it with them.
Before arriving on campus, Qureshi messaged Advani on Facebook, looking to make other international friends. It was only a matter of time until the conversation shifted to cricket. In the winter of their freshman year, Qureshi says they assembled 10 friends, two broken bats and two punctured balls, and “barged into Patten at 10 p.m., a bunch of goons trying to get space to play.”
The next week, they went back. Everyone chipped in five dollars to buy a bat and some new balls, and they made a Facebook group to attract interest. Sixteen people showed up the next week. Then 24.
“The fourth week I step in, and I see 36 men in one tiny Patten court, and I was like hang on, things are getting serious,” Qureshi says. “We’re not the bunch of goons anymore – this looks solid.”
With his eyes set on becoming an official club sport, Qureshi organized a friendly match against University of Chicago’s cricket club, which formed two years ago. Qureshi’s team lost, but they learned about themselves.
“We have people that are willing to show the commitment,” Qureshi says, “who have the passion, who want to take this responsibility, who want to take this challenge and promote the game on campus.”
Most of these students, like Qureshi and Advani, are international. Only eight kids are from the U.S. – 17 are from India, three are from Pakistan and four others are from England, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia. For these international students, cricket is a way to take back part of their identity.
“It matters a lot to me because I’ve grown up playing the sport,” Advani says. “It’s the one thing that’s second nature to me. It’s basically like home, playing with these guys.”
In Pakistan and India, cricket is everything. An estimated 1 billion people tuned in to the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup match between the two countries – that’s over 13 percent of the whole world.
“Back home, it’s not just a game. It’s a religion,” Qureshi says. “It defines us, it symbolizes us, and for international students [at Northwestern], it’s a game with which we can represent and affiliate ourselves.”
But when these students arrived at Northwestern, there was no cricket. Instead, they had to learn the rules and customs of an entirely new country.
“There’s a culture shock,” says Qureshi, who didn’t originally understand why students tailgated before football games, why American food servings are so “massive” or what “going Greek” meant, which resulted in a Google search he describes as “not very PG-13.”
But with cricket, international students can bring a part of their culture with them, adding a level of comfort and familiarity while helping to ease the difficult transition across the globe. Qureshi gave a speech at the South Asian Students Association bonfire at the beginning of the year and announced the formation of the club cricket team.
“Everybody just roared,” he says, “because now they have a game with which they can identify.”
At practices, the team members playfully chirp at each other in Hindi. The mood is serious and the team works hard, but laughs, high-fives and encouragement fill the air, camaraderie and pure enjoyment plastered across the players’ sweaty faces. They look at home – and even though home is actually thousands of miles away, Qureshi, Advani and all the international students have been able to shorten that distance with a new community of their own.
In the first match of the fall season, a bitter rematch loss to UChicago on Oct. 9, Qureshi felt the strength of the community he had created.
“I could see every single person on the team, whether they were on the bench or on the field, just putting their heart out there,” Qureshi says. “When you see those emotions, they are contagious. You become more than just a team or players on the field, you become a family – people that always feel for each other, always back each other.”
The unifying nature of cricket has a storied history. Pakistan and India are not allies – the bordering nations have feuded for centuries and have even had nuclear weapons pointed at each other. But time and time again, when there is conflict and war seems imminent, cricket matches have cooled tensions, bringing the two countries together.
If cricket can prevent nuclear wars between feuding countries, just imagine the kind of loving, inclusive community it can create at Northwestern. Both Qureshi and Advani say their goal is to bring all kinds of students together – not just the international ones – through the game they love.
McCormick sophomore Paul Ankenman is one of those students. A lanky, laid-back, blonde-haired white kid from Lake Bluff, Illinois, Ankenman isn’t used to being the odd man out.
“There’s times when people are speaking Hindi and I don’t really pick up on it,” Ankenman says. “But I’ve learned a couple words – mostly curse words. It’s been cool to experience a different culture.”
Ankenman may have a different background from his teammates, but he shares the same desire for community. After not getting involved in any clubs last year, Ankenman says he wanted to find a place to belong on campus. Luckily, he found cricket, and he fits right in.
In many ways, Qureshi and Advani have already achieved a lot of their goals, successfully creating a global community through the sport they love to play. While they would like to see it continue to grow, they can take pride in the fact that they have brought together students from feuding regions, far-away countries and Illinois, demonstrating the unifying nature of cricket.
“On the field, we’re all bonded together,” Ankenman says. “Nobody cares about those kinds of divisions. We’re just playing cricket together.”
Editor's note: After losing its first game of the season to UChicago, the Wildcats bounced back, winning the next two against their rivals and taking the overall series.