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Two Texans on U.S. national team

Irving, Texas, resident Orlando Baker spends his days as a computer programmer. Well, most of his days. If there's a major cricket tournament on the horizon, the corporate vacation policy becomes rather liberal.

"I have a good boss," Baker said with a deep laugh. "The owner of my company is from India. He has a cricket background. I have to give a lot of respect. He never holds me back. He lets me go and express my talents."

Baker, 32, has taken those considerable talents all the way to the United States national cricket team. Baker and USA teammate Usman Shuja of Dallas represent both the skill level and popularity of the burgeoning cricket scene in North Texas.

Cricket's roots in Dallas-Fort Worth date back more than 50 years. Dallas County Cricket Club, founded by an immigrant from Africa in 1960, is considered the pioneering club in the region. DCCC and the clubs that followed were established to give their members a sporting taste of home, regardless of where home was.

Players from countries such as Australia, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, South Africa and West Indies help make up the cricket fraternity throughout North Texas. Baker and Shuja are both proud Texans, albeit transplanted ones.

Baker is from Jamaica, having moved to the States 10 years ago before settling in the Dallas area in 2008. The right-handed batsman and right-arm medium pace bowler made his national team debut that same year after previously playing first-class cricket in Jamaica.

Shuja, 31, left Pakistan after high school in 1998 to attend the University of Texas at Austin. His career as a management consultant has taken him to other parts of the country, but there's always been something special about the Lone Star State.

"I didn't realize how much of a Texan I was until I moved away," quipped Shuja, the opening fast bowler for the American team.

The growth of cricket in sports-crazed North Texas has occurred gradually. Only a handful of clubs existed into the 1990s. The formation of the North Texas Cricket Association in 1996 brought structure, organization and expansion to the region. The NTCA is an affiliate of the United States of America Cricket Association, which falls under the ICC, the world body governing cricket.

The NTCA now has 40 teams and claims more than 1,000 active players. In addition to the NTCA, which uses the regulation hard ball and follows international cricket rules, there's the Dallas Cricket League. The DCL is recreation-based, employing a taped tennis ball and featuring more than 300 members.

Between the NTCA and DCL, and the 30 or so grounds (fields) in the area, cricketers from every corner of the Metroplex can find a club or place to play. Skill levels run the gamut, with divisions for premier players to beginners. The sport has also helped build a community where families and friends gather from one weekend to the next.

"It's a very strong social group as well," Shuja said. "It's like a group of brothers. You have people from multiple backgrounds playing on the same teams. It's a good thing."

Irving dweller Ayaz Sheikh, a member of United Cricket Club and wired into the local scene, insists cricket is basically a simple sport, even for those schooled on more traditional North American pastimes. Each team in cricket takes its turn to bat (scoring runs) and to bowl (getting the opposing batsmen out). The team with the most runs when it's over wins.

Sounds simple enough.

Cricket is generally played in two different formats in North Texas -- One Day International and Twenty20. ODI matches require 40 overs and last 6-7 hours, while the more popular Twenty20 format is 20 overs and takes 3-4 hours to complete. Test Cricket, the longest form of the sport, is played over five days and usually between national teams.

The U.S. national team isn't competing in the Cricket World Cup, which is currently taking place in Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka. As with most worldwide competitions, nations have to qualify for the World Cup, and the Americans are still a few tiers below the elite countries.

That hasn't dampened the enthusiasm for cricketers like Baker and Shuja. National team cricketers do it for the love of the sport, since most aren't professional players. They hold down full-time jobs to fund their travel and training. Because of scheduling and the expense involved, the team usually meets just one weekend before a tournament to practice together. Those sessions typically take place in Florida.

"For me just getting to play is pleasure," Baker said. "Getting an opportunity to be on the national team is a privilege."

Dallas is the site of the inaugural USACA Men's Twenty20 Championship from June 17-20. The national team will compete in the ICC Americas Division One Twenty20 in July. The tournament pits teams from across the Americas, with the top three countries earning a place in the World Cup qualifier.

If the American team gets through, count on Baker earning a few extra days off. He has a good boss, after all.

Art Garcia is a special contributor to ESPNDallas.com.