T20 World Cup: Can cricket make inroads in baseball-loving America?


New Delhi: Cricket, a popular pastime in the United States in the mid 1800s, makes a big-ticket return to North American shores through the T20 Word Cup but will it be able to leave an impression on the local audience that knows little to nothing about the gentleman’s game?

Cricket globally is driven by India but the International Cricket Council sees huge potential in the American market and claims there are already 30 million fans that follow the game in the massive country.

The T20 showpiece is also seen as a major stepping stone to the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics, where cricket will make a comeback after 128 years when the big event kicks off on June 1.

A total of 16 games will be played across three venues — New York, Dallas and Lauderhill — with a majority of 55 matches scheduled in the Caribbean including the knock-outs.

Day three of the competition will have South Africa and Sri Lanka battling it out in New York, where the first ever international cricket game was held between USA and Canada back in 1844.

It was a phase when the sport was played widely across America before a much faster alternative in Baseball gained prominence during the Civil War in the 1860s.

“…(T20) it’s entertainment and that’s what people look for. That’s what Americans look for, you know, they want entertainment,” says legendary West Indian Brian Lara, one of the most recognisable cricketers in the world but someone who admits that he could walk around Miami without getting a second look.

“You know, you speak to an American and I’ve done that many times and they’d say ‘you play a game for five days and then you end up in a draw? What’s that all about?’ So it’s, it is difficult,” he explains the challenge of selling Test cricket to an American, who might just warm up to the shortest format though.

A couple of weeks of international cricket in an alien land will not be enough to evoke long-lasting interest from the local audience and to ensure the game grows beyond the South Asian and Caribbean expat community, the stakeholders will need more time.

For a beginner, cricket can be rather complex to understand especially when one is introduced to “third man”, “fine leg” or “deep mid-wicket”, some of the terms used for the many field placements in the game.

The ICC is pulling out all stops to engage with the American audience, whether it is getting eight-time Olympic gold-winning sprinter Usain Bolt on board as the World Cup ambassador or promoting the event at the recent Formula 1 race in Miami.

To distract the average American household from the world of baseball, NFL and NBA, cricket will need to grow at the grassroots level.

“I surely think the game can grow in the USA. When you have presence in a country people start gravitating towards it and want to know more about,” Bolt, who belongs to the cricket-loving Caribbean, told PTI in a recent interview.

The Americans have surely one reason to follow the event. Their team, mainly made up of players from South Asian and Caribbean heritage, will be making its World Cup debut.

Venu Pisike, head of USA Cricket, reckons the ICC event will bring much-needed awareness around the game but eventually, it is the lure of taking part in the 2028 Olympics that will draw masses to the sport.

“So far, cricket is predominantly an expats’ game, but with the marketing and promotion activities during the World Cup, there is some momentum and the World Cup will definitely boost the opportunities to expand the game in the USA,” said Pisike.

“Definitely, the World Cup is bringing a lot of awareness and then the opportunity for cricket to be in the Olympics, that will definitely attract the community because the US is a huge sports country.

“Olympics is the prime area where all the sports bodies are focusing on since cricket is going to Olympics, that will actually give more opportunities to expand the sport between the World Cup and the Olympics,” added Pisike.

The USA squad picked for the tournament makes up for a bunch of semi-professionals who rely on full-time jobs to run their families. That will have to change if the sport is to appeal to a broader audience in America, believes India-born USA squad member Nisarg Patel.

“Ultimately what needs to change in the USA is that an American kid in a high school needs to see a future in the game. There are so many sports in America, the country is built on Olympic medals.

“For cricket to succeed, we need to show them there is a career out of playing cricket,” said the spinner, who works full-time with a medical research company in Los Angeles.

The start of Major League Cricket last year, the sport’s first professional league in the country, was a big step in that direction.

However, to capture the imagination of people in a country with an already crowded and developed sporting landscape, would be a gargantuan challenge for the ICC and other stakeholders.

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