Chak De in the USA! Just don't count your home runs yet

In 1844, a good 33 years before that Australia-England encounter, USA and Canada played a cricket match in Manhattan. Canada won that game, regarded as the first ever international cricket match.

180 years later, the same two teams faced each other in the first-ever cricket World Cup match on US soil on June 1. Cricket was finally making a serious attempt to penetrate the richest and most complex sports market in the world.

So, why has it taken so long? And why is this tournament being looked on as a possible inflection point? For one, the presence of a rising, and mostly affluent, desi population in the US (currently 5.4 mn). Two, emergence of a 20-over format, which finished in around 3 hrs, could compete with baseball.

Test cricket – 5 days that could end in a draw -bewildered most Americans. Robin Williams summed it up for American audiences by describing cricket as ‘baseball on valium’. But Robin had never seen Travis Head murdering attacks in IPL. Or Bumrah spearing in a yorker at 150 mph.

T20 cricket, since its appearance in 2005, has been the booster shot that cricket needed, and ICC, accepting all matches as full internationals, broke it away from the cosy club of nations who played Test or ODI cricket.

Last year, Major League Cricket (MLC) finally launched in the US, four years after USA Cricket formally accepted a bid for a $1 bn investment by American Cricket Enterprises (ACE). The six teams included blue-blooded IPL franchises like Mumbai Indians, Kolkata Knight Riders and Chennai Super Kings, and the likes of Satya Nadella and real estate developer Ross Perot Jr. After a successful first season, ICC has given it an ‘A’ status, and a nod for an expanded third season with more matches and teams.The World Cup is the big event that Cricket USA saw as its opportunity to kickstart its growth. And to give the event centre stage, a pop-up stadium in Nassau County, New York, was chosen, rather than smaller venues in Dallas or Fort Lauderdale in Florida. LA was also in consideration -before the need to broadcast in India/South Asia during prime time meant that any match in LA would have to start at an unearthly hour of the morning.As it turned out, plenty turned out for the India games at Eisenhower Park. Tickets started at $300 and climbed steeply. But the demand remained huge, and black market rates went through the roof. And while the drop-in pitch made stroke-making difficult, the closeness of the needle match of the India-Pakistan encounter ensured that most spectators went home happy.

The US team, an assortment of players mostly of Indian, Pakistani and West Indian origin, started with a bang, first chasing down an imposing Canadian total and then beating the Pakistanis in a match that went to super overs. And former-U19 Indian cricketer, Oracle engineer, occasional ukelele player and fast bowler Saurabh Netravalkar was the toast of the cricket community, inspiring a deluge of memes about his all-round abilities.

Whatever happened after, this US cricket team was a hit.

The only doubt is whether cricket managed to make a dent outside the South Asian diaspora. And while NYT dutifully reported the India-Pakistan match, its original description of a ‘119-113’ win for India perhaps told us how unfamiliar even sports journalists are with the sport.

Cricket in the US is definitely there to stay. But let’s not get too unrealistic about it conquering American hearts anytime soon.

In 1994, when the US hosted its first football World Cup, people thought the sport would soon sweep the US, given its rising Hispanic population, and the game’s global appeal. Three decades later, football – or, rather ‘soccer’ – is finally achieving serious numbers, displacing ice hockey as the fourth most-watched sport after American football, basketball and baseball. It took them that long – and a Lionel Messi to play in MLS – just to get to fourth place, something US cricket should bear in mind when it plans its growth strategy.


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