Drive past Camden Yards and continue on another 16 miles. You’ll hear a bat smacking a ball.
The echo itself has more bass, coming from the flat head of a Gunn & Moore cricket bat rather than a Louisville Slugger. But the sound is as constant at the Columbia Cricket & Sports Complex as it is during batting practice before an Orioles game.
Behind a plexiglass wall — strong enough to withstand the occasional thumping of a ball — owner Rajit Passey can see everything happening within the building. He remembers when part of it was a baseball facility that left little space allotted to cricket players.
Now, the entirety of the 19,000-square-foot indoor facility, one of the largest in the country dedicated to cricket, according to Passey, holds two full run-ups, a bowling machine, fielding space and a weight room.
“I wanted to go all out-to offer a world-class facility,” Passey said. “I want to give back to the sport that I love.”
Passey opened the Columbia Cricket & Sports Complex in December 2022. The space has mainly been used for coaching youth players throughout the week, but it also serves as the main training ground for the Baltimore Royals, a new team in Minor League Cricket (MiLC). The Royals are 3-1 this year, hoping to qualify for the playoffs in their inaugural season.
The training center has also become a home for top cricket athletes hoping to live, work and train in the United States — a situation Passey himself would have found unfathomable when he arrived here three decades ago.
Passey longed to play the sport he loved when he came to the United State in 1992 as an MBA student at Robert Morris University, but was unable to find any organized leagues. Eventually, he found tennis ball tournaments in Pittsburgh against other universities. Sometimes he drove to Ohio State or Penn State, hopping in a car with five or six of his teammates.
Passey founded Columbia-based Intersoft Data Labs in December 2003 and started playing for the Potomac Cricket Club. Potomac CC is one of the oldest cricket teams in the country, a founding member of the Washington Cricket League in 1974. He took over the team’s operations in 2012, hoping to revamp the club.
Passey was a top junior cricketer in his hometown of Patiala, Punjab. As a right arm leg spinner and all-rounder (if those terms are new to you, here’s a quick explainer on the sport), he captained the state’s Under-15 and Under-19 teams. Every time he visited home from America, he stopped by the local facilities and met with the first-class players from the top level of the sport. In 2015, he began inviting some of them to play for Potomac CC.
“I always stayed connected with the game of cricket back home in India,” Passey said. “I would host these guys for my club every year.”
But players had to leave after each season because they came on B-1 visitor visas. Passey began thinking about ways they could stay, and the idea for the facility was born.
“The thought was, ‘Why not have them here permanently and get them into coaching?’” Passey said. “It would be a great service in the form of coaches who have a lot of international experience and come from a great cricketing background.”
Passey has continued recruiting, with a focus on the Royals, and as a result the roster has a staggering level of experience. Derval Green and Paul Palmer are on Jamaica’s national team. Bipul Sharma and Sarabjit Ladda, among others, played in the Indian Premier League, the most competitive T-20 (each team bats for a maximum of 20 overs — 120 legal balls) league in the world, and India’s national team.
Captain Jaskaran Malhotra was the first player for Team USA to score a century in One Day International cricket, the traditional, longer version of the sport that. He also played for the Los Angeles Knight Riders in Major League Cricket, which launched this summer.
MLC was organized by American Cricket Enterprises, finishing its opening season on July 30. This latest venture by ACE is meant to grow the game in the United States and put the sport’s popularity on par with basketball, baseball or football. Over $100 million was raised for the league.
Malhotra saw those efforts first-hand in Grand Prairie, Texas, where the league’s opening ceremony and matches were held. He remembers walking through a mall near the stadium and seeing locals who knew about the tournament.
“They were excited, it’s a new sport happening in the U.S.,” Malhotra said.
In the opening game against the Texas Super Kings, Malhotra wasn’t intimidated by walking into a stadium with 10,000 people, hitting one of the longest sixes of the tournament (106 meters).
“Punjabis are not pretty nervous,” Malhotra joked. “We like to put the pressure on other guys.”
Malhotra returned to Baltimore after his final match with the Knight Riders, going back to his daily routine of coaching at the Columbia Cricket & Sports Complex. For a lot of the kids there, it’s their first time learning about the sport. Playing with a tennis ball, plastic bats and wickets, they argue over where the “slip” should place themselves or if the previous ball was a no-ball (an illegal delivery).
“Just letting them know how cricket is played, just seeing them enjoy it is a good feeling,” Malhotra said.
Next to the Under-10 players, the Royals trained on their own with Uday Kaul, the team’s coach. Kaul got to know Passey through his brother, Siddarth Kaul, who has played for the Indian national team, meeting him in Chandigarh in 2018. He left domestic cricket in England to play for the DC Hawks, which became the Royals, last year.
Kaul is excited about the Royals’ chances this season. But he’s putting even more time into training the youth at the facility, since they’ll be the “feeding ground” for the minor league side.
“Cricket is developing, but it’s developing in a good way,” Kaul said. “If you spread the word and go to the grassroots level, in the coming future you might have thousands of people playing out here in the facility.”
Passey is just as confident in growing the number of youth teams, one of which is already named the Cubs, of course. Malhotra is hoping they can build an outdoor facility soon to give the players more experience on a full field.
Howard County has already constructed multiple spaces for cricket, but the sport is spreading: Baltimore County is supposed to get its first designed and designated cricket ground after lobbying efforts by the Saathi Baltimore Cricket Club last year. Construction of the field at Cloverland Park, near Loch Raven Reservoir, would begin in 2024.
Until then, Passey has his indoor facility, and he’s focused on educating more locals about the sport.
Passey invited members of the Howard County administration to the Columbia Cricket & Sports Complex opening, including the chief executive officer for Howard County Public Schools.
By January and February, Passey, Malhotra and others from the Royals organization were in Howard County elementary schools, introducing the sport to students. They gave demonstrations, letting the students play with a tennis ball, plastic bat and wickets.
In the fall, they’ll go again, spreading word of the sport that’s sweeping the United States.