The good news and the bad news of cricket in America
A report out recently suggests that the Caribbean Premier League may play a handful of matches next seasons at Central Broward Stadium in Florida, and, in the future, that there might even be an American-based team in the CPL. If you're someone who thinks this would be a turning point in American cricket and the beginning of popularization of the game in the United States, you're wrong, and here's why.
First off, unless the matches are broadcast on free-to-air television, they will be ignored by the general US sports population, just as were the World Cup and the Indian Premier League. The fact that the matches are taking place in the US Eastern time zone will not be enough, by itself, to generate much interest. People will need to be able to stumble across it, and then have it hold their attention.
Secondly, for US fans, there will be nothing of value at stake in these matches. Foreign players, representing foreign cities (some that no American has ever even heard of), will be playing a foreign game, somewhere in South Florida. Want a comparison? After 25 years of staging NFL games in England, where does American football rank among popular sports in England? According to recent data, somewhere just below netball. Playing a few games in Florida, before a crowd of roughly 5,000 West Indian fans, will not magically make cricket fans of the Americans.
Third, while I know that cricket dogma holds that T20 is the holy grail for making all Americans love cricket, as an American, I'm here to tell you that T20, as it is currently played, isn't good enough, especially when played on a slow wicket. One of my recurring nightmares is that we get T20 on television, do a hard sell about how this is the most exciting sport in the world, and then we get a bunch of matches with winning totals under 150. Ugh.
I hate to break it to you, but Americans will not be wowed by graceful leg glances, smartly run singles and beautiful cover drives. We want to see big hitters putting up big numbers. Chris Gayle's game was built for American audiences. Shiv Chanderpaul? Not so much. (I think of Shiv the same way I think of Ichiro Suzuki. Everyone accepts his brilliance, knows that he's a future Hall of Famer, but no one really loves watching him play, or calls him their favorite player. You could probably count on one hand the non-Japanese baseball fans who walk around in Suzuki jerseys. On the other hand, we adore the crushers, even if their batting average is horrible.)
So, what's an American cricket product going to look like?
For one, it will be played on concrete and astroturf surfaces. Why? Practicality and scoring. There are almost no cricket pitch curators in the US, and not enough money in the game to pay them if there were. Artificial surfaces are fast and easy to construct, with no further maintenance needed, and Americans associate them with well-funded sports products. You see, we have no history of watching the game on turf wickets, so we won't miss them. But, you say, the game will not be a fair contest between batsman and bowler! Exactly. Americans don't want fair; they want exciting. American sports have been revising their rules forever to give offense a decided advantage over the defense, all in hopes of increasing scoring. Americans will want big scores, not well-defended wickets. (Remember the Hong Kong Sixes? That did quite well on an artifical wicket. If US cricket could do that well, I think we'd all be OK with that.)
Speaking of the Sixes, that's an innovation that might also be an attractive alternative to straight T20. Because of the wide open nature of the game, and the fact that the innings ends after just five outs, which will keep things moving along quickly, I can easily see Americans buying into that format. Kevin O'Brien is fronting the Dublin Sixes in September, and I'm personally very interested in how that goes. Everyone should check it out.
Another thing I think American cricket will insist upon is a representative body of players from the United States. It will not suffice to stage the usual traveling circus of international mercenaries. Americans will have to see the game as accessible to them, and that will mean players born and raised in the States who can become role models and local heroes. It will also mean that the teams will need to play longer seasons, and be based in local communities, so that they can build up a local fan base and establish an emotional connection with the city they represent. The six-week tournament model won't sell in the USA, not if you expect to capture hearts and minds, especially with a new sport competing against so many well-funded competitors.
The good news for cricket enthusiasts? Americans can be sold the game. The bad news for snobs and purists? It won't be your father's game, and probably not even yours. So, you can have ‘proper cricket' forever ignored here, or a type of cricket becoming popular in America. As an American with no emotional connection to Don Bradman or even Shane Warne, I'm quite happy to accept the latter, and am ready to get to work to make it happen.