SEFFNER — Al Higginbotham has never been much of a cricket fan.
A fifth-generation Plant City native, local politics has long been the former county commissioner’s game of choice. And when he hung up his hat on a 12-year career in November, Higginbotham told his staff he didn’t want any fanfare.
Still, he couldn’t say no when Hillsborough County staff surprised him with plans to rename the county’s first — and only — cricket field in his honor. It had been Higginbotham’s idea to re-purpose the derelict grounds of Seffner’s Evans Park into a permanent home for the then-fledgling Tampa Cricket League in 2015.
“To tell you the truth, this whole cricket thing was a selfish endeavor on my part,” Higginbotham told a crowd gathered earlier this month to officially rename the grounds Al Higginbotham Park.
His daughter Kaylon had moved to New Zealand shortly after her 18th birthday and began dating a cricket player.
“I thought if I got cricket going here it might entice Kay to come back,” Higginbotham said. “Well, it didn’t work but we do have 40 adult teams and 30 youth teams now and it has grown rapidly.”
It didn’t take much to find a groundswell of support for cricket culture in Hillsborough County. Most stats and commentators credit cricket with holding the second-largest fan base in all of sports with 2.5 billion followers worldwide, Higginbotham said. And Hillsborough County has long boasted one of the largest populations of Indian Americans in the country - leaving hundreds of batsmen and bowlers looking for a wicket to call their own.
Nitheesh Shetty, president of the Tampa Cricket League, was among the group of Indian residents who helped Higginbotham convince the county to invest in cricket in 2014, rising on the success of Tampa's turn hosting the Bollywood IFFA awards. Like many of the players in his league, a job opportunity moved Shetty from southern India to the U.S. in 1999. Five years later, he moved to Tampa Palms.
The first few years were hard, Shetty said. But he quickly found that he wasn't alone.
"When I think of growing up in India and my family, I think of cricket," Shetty said. "When we play cricket we're home."
The Tampa Cricket League was born in 2007, with just four teams of largely Indian and Asian Americans playing wherever they could find a large, flat expanse of land: parks, or the heavily trafficked grounds of the University of South Florida. But it quickly became difficult to find a space large enough to accommodate the growing league, Shetty said.
Higginbotham knew the perfect spot — an underutilized park on Kingsway Road in Seffner he passed every night on his way home to Plant City. In 2015, Evans Park reopened as the first cricket grounds in the Tampa Bay area.
"There were some skeptics, but the staff knew that I didn't come with a half-baked idea," Higginbotham said. "We had the money in the parks budget and we already had lighting in inventory that needed to go somewhere, so all we really needed was a level field where we could put the pitches in. And then it really just caught on like wildfire."
Now, the Tampa Cricket League has generated enough interest to offer youth clinics every Friday night. Soon, Higginbotham said he hopes to see the youth cricket leagues expand to the school system.
"It's not the easiest game to follow when you don't grow up with it, but the hope is that it's something that's so unique and looks so different that the youth will reall gravitate to it," HIgginbotham said. "It's something that can connect them to home no matter where life takes them."
Contact Anastasia Dawson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.