- Associated Press - Saturday, June 20, 2015

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) - The asphalt adjacent to Georgia and Pacific avenues is their oasis.

Sometimes they played all night in the shadow of old Boardwalk Hall. You could hear the pings and pangs of the rectangular wooden bats all the way to Atlantic Avenue. The sound rang over and over again.

Abdullah Bukhari, 19, a Pakistani immigrant from Ventnor, often leaned on a fence next to the vacant lot where they played. He’d join or just watch, depending on the day. But as long as he was there, that was the important thing.

Cricket was his release. Cricket was another way of explaining his community.

In ethnically diverse Atlantic County, 8.1 percent of the county’s 275,209 residents are of Asian descent. Bukhari is one of many teenage Pakistani immigrants in Atlantic City who are embracing and displaying their heritage through the sport they love.

After school and sometimes into the night, on hot days or with snow falling, you can find them on an empty parking lot, ambassadors for both the sport and their community.

“Not a lot of people know (about us), but they do know about cricket that happens in Atlantic City,” Bukhari told The Press of Atlantic City (http://bit.ly/1d7E54a ).

Dozens of people would swing by the steely, gray gates holding in their vacant lot-turned-pitch, no matter the hour.

They might see Bukhari, poised at bat, squinting over his shoulder, defending a metal and concrete stump that stands in for a wicket, the smile on his face meant for them.

Syed Shah, 58, sat behind the shiny, khaki desk in the lobby of the Cassino Hotel adjacent to the cricket crew’s makeshift pitch on Georgia and Pacific. The window beside his desk showed a clear view of the action.

The economic instability plaguing Atlantic City now is preferable to being in Pakistan, he said.

Nearly three years ago, at 5 a.m. in a chilly, hushed terminal in Islamabad, Pakistan, he and his family were headed to America for a better life. It was October 17, 2012, and violence was on the rise. Media accounts documented 92 terroristic incidents that month, up from 23 in the previous month.

On that day alone, seven violent episodes occurred.

“The best thing was to get my children their education,” Shah said of his three kids, including Heeba and Haleema Ali. “There were a lot of problems with the Taliban.”

Shah’s brother sponsored him and his family and helped them get green cards and begin the long, five-year process toward citizenship.

Shah said he works tirelessly to find the money for his family. He said he left Pakistan so his family would have a better life in America.

There’s no thought of going back to the violence consuming his homeland. America is his new home now and for the near future.

“I hate those things. Hundreds of people killing,” he said. “It’s not just better here (than Pakistan). It’s much, much better here.”

He enrolled Bukhari in Atlantic City High School in November 2012.

It wasn’t long before Bukhari met his long-destined friends. These were the kids bringing Pakistan to deserted lots citywide. These were the rebels teaching Atlantic City a new game.

The sun was setting one evening by the Atlantic City Boardwalk off Hartford and Pacific avenues when you heard the members of Vikings Cricket Club of Atlantic City High School bellowing from their home field.

Just past the closed Atlantic Club, 15-year-old Konain Shah, a sophomore at Atlantic City High School, was bowling a beauty.

The youngster was unhittable. Until Waqar Ahmed stood at the plate.

Ahmed is one of eight from his family who emigrated from Pakistan to the United States in 2010. His upbringing mirrored that of Bukhari.

Ahmed is the team captain. He is the teenager who brought together these once nameless players from across the city.

Atlantic City High School students have been playing cricket since 1999, said Nasim Khan, 35, a Pakistani immigrant who played at the school then and now plays in for the Royal Albert Cricket Club in Philadelphia.

Ahmed inherited the crew when he was a freshman. He started with one bat and five players. The club has grown to more than 30 teenagers on his watch.

Cricket isn’t exactly a complex game.

There’s a bat and a ball and 11 players each on a field at the center of a 22-yard long pitch. Though it draws similarities to baseball, more people play the game than baseball, according to the Economist.

It’s also one of the sports with the longest playing times. First-class cricket matches are usually three to five days on average, with six hours played a day.

Those long matches mean more eyes on the boys’ game, and that’s fine with players such as Shahil Gauhar, 17, a member of the Vikings cricket team and a 2010 Bangladeshi immigrant.

“(People) come to us and they want to learn about the game and how we play,” he said. “I want real Americans to play this game.”

“We like to think we have a lot of fans here,” Konain Shah added while he giggled.

Michael Rafferty jogged past the game one recent day.

He stopped and watched a bowler deliver a hurl and the willow bat slap the ball past the right field fence. Amazed, he stared for minutes before continuing his trot.

“I’ve never seen this before (in Atlantic City),” he said in awe.

The players could recognize Rafferty’s expression: confused but amazed by the brilliance barely anyone knew of behind the crisscross gates at Georgia and Pacific.

For now, the Vikings still roar on the intersection of their main lot. They still joke with each other when one misses a routine ball or can’t outrun a simple throw back to the bag.

The battered ground at Georgia and Pacific avenues is still their domicile. Cricket is their release from their human constraints, whether it’s for an hour or until they can’t see the ball fly past their russet faces at sunset.

The broken, erect chunks of concrete at these lots are all they know.

“Georgia (Avenue) is our paradise,” Ahmed said. “We go there and we feel fun. We feel safe. We feel like we are in our country playing cricket. All the people watching us are like a crowd. It’s our pride and joy.”

Sometimes Syed Shah will steal a glance at his son out a window at the Cassino Hotel. He beams knowing he’s safe, and he’s proud of Bhukhari, who will start at Stockton University in the fall.

This is the culture they’ve fought so hard to retain.

Shah and Bukhari are proud to be Pakistani, as much as American, as much as cricketers.

“By playing cricket, I hope they are all happy,” he said. “Everyone can see a piece of Pakistan in the middle of Atlantic City.”

___

Information from: The Press of Atlantic City (N.J.), http://www.pressofatlanticcity.com

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