RESTON, Va. USA, July 16th 2016: Danial Ahmed never once played cricket growing up in Pakistan, where the sport is immensely popular.
Instead, the 6-foot-1 spin bowler became a professional basketball player in Lahore, in part because his father had been a player for Pakistan’s national team.
It wasn’t until he moved to the United States – where basketball was invented and cricket is fairly rare — that he first picked up a cricket ball.
Within a year, he was selected to represent the U.S. in international cricket tournaments.
Unlike most boys in Pakistan, Ahmed didn’t want to play cricket. All he wanted to do was make his father proud. He worked out every day, becoming a gym rat to get his jump shot right.
But when he moved to Washington, D.C., six years ago, he discovered many of his new friends played in the Washington Cricket League.
“You tend to follow your friends and that’s how I started playing cricket,” said Ahmed, who is 31 and owns a web design firm in Virginia.
There is a twinkle in his eyes as he reminisces about his journey in cricket. His English is impeccable.
Ahmed was a fierce competitor, quickly climbing the league’s ranks with a consistent stream of wickets (outs). In 2012, the U.S. national team took notice. He was asked to play in practice matches, and he has been a permanent fixture on the U.S. team ever since.
With 42 teams, the Washington Cricket League holds cricket matches in Virginia, Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Maryland during spring, summer and fall weekends. It was created in 1974.
Ahmed plays for the Washington Tigers, a team based in Reston, Va. The teams have players from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Jamaica, West Indies, England and Australia.
From the moment Ahmed picked up the ball, team recruiter Dawood Ahmad realized he was a prodigy. His technique, his passion to be a good athlete, coupled with his calmness made him a lethal bowler, Ahmad said.
Ahmed is also one of his teammates’ favorite people – a player who can crack a joke and lighten the mood when things get intense, they said. Players swarm around him – his positivity clearly infectious.
“I am from a different country and he always ensures that I am smiling and included in the conversation,” said Zeniffe Fowler, a Jamaican batsman.
The switch from basketball to cricket was simple. He did the same things – spent time in the gym, woke up early every morning to practice before work. The only real difference was he perfected his spin bowling on an indoor cricket field, not the hardwood.
He bowled more than 1,000 balls per day, throwing overarm with rapid rotations that causes the balls to fly straight before bouncing off the pitch in different directions.
It is difficult to find full-time cricket coaches in the U.S.. But Ahmed sought help from former Indian all-rounder Robin Singh. He sent Singh videos of him bowling during practice and Skyped with Singh regularly.
“Robin Singh is so hardworking and he never over-burdens players – if he thinks I can handle learning one technique per day, he will make sure that he doesn’t teach me three techniques,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed is attending the Caribbean Premier League (CPL) training camp in Fort Lauderdale later this month, where his aim is to spend time with internationally acclaimed cricketers from the West Indies, England and Australia. He hopes to improve his bowling skills. He is also a part of the one-off game played as part of CPL in August.
He is also training to be selected in the 15-member-squad to play in the 2016 Caribbean Premier League and the 2016 Pakistan Super League – both professional leagues. His goal: play pro league cricket.
“Five years is all I have – so I want to get picked by one of them and continue playing as long as I can,” Ahmed said.
Bowling on artificial turf is one of the greatest challenges cricketers face in the U.S. That changes the way bowlers practice and play. Ahmed said once you know how to spin the ball on artificial turf, it is much easier to bowl in a soil pitch because soil pitches help spin balls a lot easier than turf (just like clay court versus hard court in tennis). Ahmed says this has made him a tougher bowler.
“[Ahmed] is the kind of guy you call a textbook spin bowler – he follows the rules and bowls proper line and length and keeps doing it over and over again,” said Fowler, his Jamaican batsman teammate.