“Ball by ball, over by over.”
The statement is the mantra of the Harvard club cricket team. It means to take the game a play at a time and to avoid brash decisions. It’s also the motto of team captain and founder Ibrahim Khan, one of the most important figures for the squad both on and off the field.
Despite his achievements, the senior from Lahore, Pakistan may not strike someone at first glance as a star cricket player who resurrected the Harvard program after two dormant decades.
“When you first see him, he looks kind of goofy,” team member Vivek Jayaram said. “He’s got long hair, a high school haircut. He’s always making a lot of jokes on the field, making fun of people…. He’s a very lighthearted person.”
Despite the laid back appearance, Khan has almost single-handedly built a program which just three years ago did not exist into a national powerhouse, all while maintaining a humble perspective on what has been an incredible journey.
It all started with a desire to play and fully discover the sport which Khan had grown to love from a young age. Despite playing recreationally throughout his youth in Pakistan, there still seemed to be a personal gap that Khan felt he needed fulfill.
“When I was very young, I had a bit of an injury,” Khan explained. “It was a minor injury, but my parents were always paranoid with the sport and thought if I played at a high level I’d get injured…. I had a sense I hadn’t really explored the sport to the ultimate.”
Just a year after forming the team as a recreational activity at Harvard, Khan took a big step forward by obtaining official club status for the team, allowing it to compete at a national level.
In order for the team to make further progress, however, a faculty adviser was necessary to back the club and provide support.
In came Professor Stephen Blyth, whose Statistics 123 class Khan was taking at the time.
After inviting Blyth to a Kirkland faculty dinner, Khan shared his vision and goals for the team.
Among those goals was making cricket a sport talked about on campus, competing at a high level, and winning a national championship within five years.
Khan’s vision and boldness impressed Blyth, who had played cricket at Harvard from 1989 to 1990.
“It never seemed like it would not [work] when he was talking to me,” Blyth said. “What was needed was someone to catalyze that, someone that’s charismatic, someone that’s got the energy, who can lead, and it never occurred to me that it would not be successful or well-run.”
Though having Blyth as a faculty adviser was a valuable boost for the team, the first year would provide challenges for the club and test Khan’s ability as a leader.
As the team’s head, Khan has dealt with various facets of the club both on and off the field. As a player, he captained the team while winning the respect of players who were older than him and had more experience playing at a high level.
Khan’s role was even more important off the field, as he managed the logistics of the team by organizing practices, competitions, and travel plans to make sure the team was ready to compete at the national level.
Among the biggest logistical challenges for young cricket teams is finding a venue in which to play and obtaining a sponsor. Under Khan’s initiative, the team secured Jordan Field to host matches and Hit Wicket Bar & Restaurant, a cricket-themed restaurant in Inman Square for a sponsor.
In addition, Khan and Blyth have been responsible for communicating with the Harvard Athletics Department as well as American College Cricket, the governing body for collegiate-level cricket, while simultaneously promoting the team.
“He’s been very active in getting publicity for the club,” Blyth said. “We’ve been able to get a story in the Gazette, the Harvard Magazine, the [Boston] Globe. We held a reception with the British Consul General at the Faculty Club…. [It was] something that’s bringing a little bit of momentum to his efforts of articulating what he’s trying to do.”
Arguably the biggest challenge, and by far the most frustrating for Khan, however, was getting club members to commit to matches.
“When we were starting, the most frustrating occasions would be when people like the sport, but at the end of the day, it’s not their number one priority,” Khan said. “We’d have times where we would have the game set up but we had difficulty putting out 11 players.”
This struggle to form a cohesive unit continued throughout the season. Yet Khan maintained positivity due to his love for the game, and the team became closer as the year progressed.
The point which really brought the team together in Khan’s mind and defined its dedication was its trip to nationals in Fort Lauderdale, Fl. last March.
At one point, the team only had five players who were committed to traveling south to represent Harvard. But Khan was able to pull together a full squad of 11 to make the trek.
“The team rented a car and drove down overnight for 26 hours to get to Florida,” Khan said. “That is commitment…. After that, the guys who went to nationals stuck with team and are still on the team, [and that] was really a turning point.”
AN OLD RIVAL LIGHTS A SPARK
In October 2012, the cricket club earned a feature headline in the Boston Globe after defeating Yale, 249-74.
The story noted that the match was the result of a challenge Khan’s predecessors had issued via The Harvard Crimson in 1887. Yale had finally responded 124 years later.
Among the players highlighted by the Globe was Khan. The recognition helped the college student grow not only as a leader, but also as a player.
“His performances up until that point were good but modest. But since then, he’s had some big performances,” Blyth said. “It’s interesting because the catalyst [was] the publicity, and it’s led to some really strong performances, winning a number of awards.”
The high-level cricket which developed as a result of this renewed focus on Khan’s play led to an outstanding senior season for the captain.
Khan took home various awards throughout the year, highlighted by his American College Cricket Player of the Year award in only his second true year of competitive cricket. He also was named ACC Tournament Player of the Year, ACC regular season MVP, and the Harvard Male Club Athlete of the Year.
His awards were indeed well-earned, as Khan led the ACC in both batting—by over 100 goals—and bowling for the year.
Aside from the renewed focus, Khan attributes his success on the field to a new realization he made while developing his game.
“I was naturally apprehensive because I feared getting out,” Khan said. “That changed when in our first game at nationals, we didn’t have anything to lose, and I went up to bat. I went all guns blazing, and I made a good score at a quick pace…. When I stopped thinking of the inhibitions, I’m a much better player.”
Khan’s performance helped Harvard win the ACC regular season championship.
At the national tournament, Harvard went 1-2 in pod play, an improvement from its winless showing in the previous year. A close loss to runner-up Auburn denied Harvard’s aspiration of taking home both the regular season and postseason title in Khan’s final season with the team.
While the Harvard cricket team looks like it will continue to prosper going forward, next year marks the first year in its youthful resurrected form that it will not be led by Khan, who plans to move to New York at the end of the school year.
Looking back on his time at Harvard, Khan expressed his honest surprise of the success that the team has experienced.
“To tell you the truth, the amount of success that we’ve gotten, I’m pleasantly surprised by it and very proud of it,” Khan said. “The amount of support we’ve gotten…it’s been a surprise in a pleasing way for me.”
While Harvard cricket will learn to move on in a new direction without Khan, the presence and impact he has left on the team will no doubt continue to influence the team, starting with his mantra.
“He was always the heart and soul of the Harvard cricket club,” Jayaram said. “Ibrahim was Harvard cricket. He’ll be remembered as the founder…. Without him we wouldn’t be here…. His lasting impact will always be ‘ball by ball, over by over.’ It’s our motto, it’s our spirit, it’s the way we approach the game, [and] it’s our strategy. And that’s Ibrahim.”