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Scoring a Home Run Yet?

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August 2005
Scoring a Home Run Yet?

When it comes to popularity of CRICKET in the U.S., we may yet be reaching first-base. But that doesn't stop passionate fans ? immigrants from cricket playing nations ? from reviving the game in their new country? and having a ball doing so.

By MALLICK HUGGAHALLI

It is Monday night and Hank Williams, Jr. is blaring away on prime time TV, "Are you ready for some cricket? It's a Monday Night Partyyyyyy!" About 50 million Americans sit glued to their TVs as Ian Chappell and Richie Benaud introduce another week's big prime time game between India and Australia?

Nah! We're not quite there yet. In this land of baseball, "cricket," to most, is just a noisy bug. What may be changing, if only ever so slowly, is that the game is starting to make small amount of noises in the U.S. It is now at least registering at the periphery of mainstream awareness. From an occasional snippet on ESPN to coverage in the sports page of major dailies ? even if only as a novelty ? cricket is certainly creeping up for curious Americans to explore. Just recently there was a Gatorade ad talking about a bat being a bat, round or flat, while showing a Caribbean kid swinging at a bouncer.

A true-blue baseball fan may still yawn at cricket, even as the "cricket in my blood" immigrant might scorn at baseball's "World" Series. What both are unlikely to be aware of is the deep history of cricket in the U.S. For example, it may come as a surprise to the modern sports fan that some of the founding fathers of this country, including John Adams, were avid cricketers. Indeed, the oldest international sporting event in the modern world, predating even today's Olympic Games by nearly 50 years, was the first annual Canada versus USA cricket match played in 1840 at Bloomingdale Park in New York. Teams from the West Indies, England and Australia played in USA and Canada until as late as the 1920s. Even cricket's unparalleled superstar, the legendary Sir Don Bradman of Australia has played on these shores.

Over the decades, beginning from the late 1800s, the game morphed into what is baseball today. So much so, that most Americans might now regard cricket as an alien curiosity.

If the game might now be seeing somewhat of a revival in the U.S., it is primarily because of the growing number of immigrant populations from cricket-playing nations for whom the game is sacrosanct. It ignites passion and respect that few games do. For fans who had left their native countries in the ?70s and ?80s, it was like having left behind a lover. The void in the interim years only intensified the longing. "It was terrible to have been disconnected from cricket," says Dr. Subhash Kothari of Fairfax, VA who was immersed in the game, both as a spectator and a player, when he left India in 1978. Now the doctor is struggling to get back into the thick of things even as he often stays up all night with fellow fans to watch live matches. "From rules and regulations to players and styles, it's a whole new and evolved game. It has been simply thrilling to get reacquainted to my long lost love."

For many, it is more than just a game. It is a reminder of the carefree days of childhood and youth. Played here, from an immigrant's perspective, cricket is also about roots, identity and solidarity. Many cricketers in the U.S. admit to fancying baseball as well; and yet, it doesn't do for them what cricket does. "I love my one day of cricket a week. Not only is it a great workout, I get to hangout with others who I can relate with through the game. We chat about old times and about our shared passion for the game," says Lada Bedi, president of Atlanta Georgia Cricket Conference (AGCC). According to Bedi, almost four hundred people showed up as spectators last year during playoffs of the local league tournament. There was noise, cheer and music, making it a festive outing over and above a thrilling sporting event.

Basil Williams and Clayton Lambert, former West Indies players based in Atlanta, play regularly in the AGCC league. Every Sunday morning through the spring and summer, they get together along with other players and their families, and create a lovely party atmosphere, transporting everyone around seemingly to Bridgetown or Kingston with their bajan music blaring in the background and the aroma of corn being roasted in the air ? even as fours and sixes fly from their bats on the field in College Park. They play with the flair of those yesteryear Caribbean stars like Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards and Alvin Kalicharan, who were household names even in India. They also try to emulate their awesome fast bowlers like Michael Holding, Joel Garner, Colin Croft, Andy Roberts and Malcolm Marshall who put fear in opposing teams even as they bowled their way into our hearts. Basil and Clayton claim that's how cricket should be played and that's what will win people over.

The curveballs: hurdles for cricket in America

Winning people over is the name of the game if cricket were to rise in America beyond its amateur status. Awareness about the sport is at a very nascent stage. (C'mon now, don't all of us begin explaining the game to the uninitiated by identifying it as the predecessor of baseball? And put on a smug smile when we say the longer version of the sport goes on for five days, and the short version is a full day's game?)

According to Nandu Vaid former president of Atlanta Cricket Association, "It will take years before we can make any inroads in such a baseball-influenced culture. The concepts such as innings, scoring runs, and making catches are similar; but the two games are worlds apart. Techniques are totally different and a lot of baseball-honed habits have to be unlearnt to be able to learn cricket the right way." This, along with the fact that cricket currently can't offer the major league pay and glamour that baseball does, makes it harder to find converts.

As per Neil Cagle of West Virginia, one of the few Americans playing cricket, for the game to score a home run in America, it must attract more funding and sponsors, beyond minority owned small businesses belonging to expatriates from cricket playing countries. Corporate America would only give cricket the time of the day if it were to emerge as a major sport. Presently, such a task may appear about as plausible as a sixer from the bat of Bishen Singh Bedi. So it seems like a catch-22.

Soccer has been trying for years to attain a status as a major sport that can tap into the big dollars of American capitalism; but it has found it very difficult to make any inroads. It took decades starting from the grassroots of primary schools to make any impact. Perhaps one reason soccer has had a limited following is that it doesn't appeal to the statistics-crazy fans of this country, even though it is an extremely athletic sport. Cricket has the advantage of having plenty of numbers to entice Americans ? however, the games ? even of the shorter version, the ODI (One Day International) ? are too long to maintain the average sports fan's attention.

For the most part, Americans prefer their sports canned into three-hour packages, where they can relax at home at primetime, or go to the ballpark and wash down a pizza or hotdog with some beer, and call it a night. They like to play a regular season for several months, and then follow it up with a month or so of playoffs.

Such a regimented routine and predictability is missing in international cricket. The game doesn't really have a firmly etched season. About the only series that takes place with any predictability is the Ashes, which is played once every two years; but it involves only two cricketing countries: Australia and England. Other international series and World Cups happen when Boards get together to chalk out the details of an upcoming series, sometimes with only weeks of lead-time. And then too, these are frequently cancelled at the last minute for varying reasons.

All this makes it is quite hard for even a hardcore fan to keep up with, let alone a distant one in a country that is only now getting into the sport.

Another worrisome factor is the rising interest in baseball in neighboring Caribbean. Since many of the star players in major league baseball are from these islands, the glamour, money and star-making power of baseball has enticed the young crowd here. This whole effect is further facilitated by the fact that American TV has a significant presence in these islands, making it easier to follow the game and worship its superstars. Since these West Indians are one of the leading migrant groups involved in cricket, what happens to cricket in the Indies can have an effect on the game here.

Most importantly, the U.S. is hardly a blip on the radar as far as international pro cricket goes. Most of the game here happens in the realm of spectatorship and league matches ? not pro cricket. As would be expected, U.S. did not do quite well in the International Cricket Council (ICC ? the world governing body for cricket) tournament to qualify for the World Cup. To top it off, there is an election related dispute that is threatening the functionality of USA Cricket Association (USACA), the key governing body for cricket in the U.S. It is not being permitted to participate in any ICC sessions until it resolves the internal disputes.

Immigrants: Pushing cricket to first-base

Not surprisingly, the bulk of cricketing action in the U.S. is largely by and within immigrants from cricket playing nations. Caribbean, Indian and Pakistani immigrants make up for the most active groups, followed by South Africans, Australians, British and others.

Incidentally, America is the 9th most active cricket playing country in the world with over 700 teams across the nation. Viewers of live cricket telecasts on satellite TV amount to 1.3 million. These consumers make up a lucrative and growing aspect of the global cricket economy, considering they pay as much as three times as viewers in other countries!

The USACA and Major League Cricket (MLC) are two fast growing national associations that are striving to promote the game. One of their goals is to increase the number of registered players from an estimated 10,000 to 40,000 in the next 5 years. They also stress education and increasing the number of trained umpires. The USACA, MLC and their affiliated leagues ? there are about 29 of them currently ? are also starting to do cricket coaching camps in schools across America.

These efforts along with the increasing number of cricket leagues and clubs have rejuvenated the hundreds and thousands of casual cricketers in America. In recent years, significantly more players and tournaments have been evident. Weekend leagues, both the professional "season" ball kind as well as the tennis ball variety, have popped up all over the U.S.

In New Jersey and in New York, where there are a very large number of immigrants from the subcontinent, Sundays have become a wonderful opportunity for family outings in the name of the sport. Tennis ball cricket has been a great equalizer, considering that it calls for less equipment, and also carries relatively lesser risk of injury. It is also more informal; memberships and dues are not generally required.

Of course, for the purists, the only game that matters is the one that is played with the season-ball with full gear. Usually, these are the league games. Increasingly, these games are drawing a higher number of spectators. More and more families are taking the time out to go watch and cheer their folks, bringing with them their Bollywood music, pav baaji, chat and chai.

According to Lada Bedi of AGCC, Atlanta has 21 league teams with about four hundred active players who meet every weekend at several fields all over the metro area. Besides, there are many other tennis-ball matches all throughout the year. There are about half-a-dozen charity tournaments that give an opportunity to the interested players who cannot make the weekly commitment of joining a league team. Noteworthy amongst these are the tournaments by Vibha, an organization working for a brighter future for underprivileged children in India. Started a few years back, the Vibha games have emerged as the preeminent cricket event in the community that also doubles up as all around fun day to benefit a good cause. It has been a good marker of the spirit of cricket loving enthusiasts in the area. The final game of its most recent tournament (where 16 teams from all over the Southeast competed) was a nail-bitter where 20 runs were needed in the last over for a victory. To further top off the suspense, nothing short of a boundary (four runs) in the final ball would do for the chasing side to win. (The batsmen fell just one run short when it was all over!). Such drama and excitement is what characterizes cricket at its best.

Watching Test cricket (and later, ODIs) has always been at least as much fun as playing the game. At most graduate schools with Indian students, World Cup games or the big bouts between perennial rivals India and Pakistan, are occasions for a feverish, if only vicarious engagement with the game, for many fans. From university auditoriums to Indian restaurants and banquet halls, if one sees hundreds of desis gathered at the wee hours of the night, it is a sure sign of a live telecast.

Stealing a base: inching cricket ahead in the mainstream

Even as most in America are either ignorant of the game or regard it primarily as an excruciatingly long (and therefore, boring) game, there are those few who have come to know the joy of it. Doug Dunn from Kansas and Neil Cagle from West Virginia are two of the few hundred Americans who have taken to the game out of curiosity and genuine interest, and are now hooked! Doug likes the camaraderie that cricketers show between teammates and opponents, and finds playing very relaxing. Neil plays regularly in the Midwest league for the Charleston Cricket Club and says the intensity he saw in some of his friends from India piqued his interest and now he's so into the game that he's planning to go to the West Indies for the next World Cup, which is scheduled there for 2007.

Edward Fox, an Aussie expatriate who resides in Kansas City seems to be enjoying some modest success in promoting cricket in schools. He has been relentless in his efforts to get youngsters involved, with clinics, organized coaching and youth tournaments. He has started his own version of the game (www.hotshotcricket.com). While the purists may scoff, Fox has tried to mold the game to cater to the realities of modern times as well as to the American sensibilities towards sports. Amongst his sponsors is the local franchise of Century 21, the real estate company. Fox has introduced the game to over a couple dozen schools in his area.

Pravin Kotian is the league director for the Hoover Cricket League in Birmingham, Alabama. This league is unique in that it was initiated through the county Parks and Recreation system. The league for kids, ages 5 to 12, has had close to two-dozen takers so far. Kotian's goal is to have enough players to form four teams in order to have a formation of a league similar to baseball. Amy Green, the athletics manager at the Hoover Parks and Recreation was quoted in the local paper as saying that they were planning to do a lot more marketing this year for the cricket league.

In the Tri-State area in the northeast, which seems to enjoy a good bit of a lead in cricketing activity, several youth leagues have shaped up. Almost 10% of the players in these are mainstream American youngsters.

Exciting events in international cricket are also having an impact here. Take for example, the recent historic India-Pakistan series. The populous of these warring neighbors share many things in common, the passion for cricket being one of them. The series was historic because the countries were playing each other after a hiatus of many years caused by political rivalry. The passion, energy and the subtle promise of mending relations through the games lent the series worldwide attention. In America, from college campuses to sports bars, the live telecast of the games drew in huge crowds of Indian and Pakistani fans ? giving the few Americans who cared to notice, a taste of sports passion that is usually associated with soccer. Newspapers of most major metros covered the series in the sports section. Many found it refreshing to see American media talking about Indians in context of sports, rather than usual associations with outsourcing or Indo-Pak conflict.

A home run, powered by technology

A major catalyst for facilitating cricket in the U.S. is technology; more specifically, the internet. These days, even as we check the ball-by-ball on a live match on our Wi-Fi, Blue Tooth enabled PDA phone, we forget the plight of cricket enthusiasts who migrated to this country in the bygone eras of the seventies and eighties. Most had no choice but to forfeit their interest in the game.

In the early days of Internet, fans sometimes managed to network with a kind soul from a "cricket speaking" country with a shortwave radio who typed the scorecard and posted it on a newsgroup. By today's standards, even that seems quaint. But what an excitement it was for the fan to get the "latest" (if not the ball-by-ball) news on their beloved sport. Eventually, by the mid-nineties, we got to the ?Mosaic' world and the early versions of Cricinfo. IRC (Internet Relay Chat) and live ball-by-ball commentaries were other exciting forums. Interviews and reports from the ground were typed furiously as hundreds of thousands of fans followed at all hours of the night across this huge baseball playing country.

Today, we live in an age when, even oceans across, it is still easier to follow cricket in real-time, than it was trying to keep up with it during the times of transistors with poor receptions ? no matter if the game were being played in one's own town.

The options today are limited only by your inclination. You can merely browse the latest scorecards online between phone calls at work, or, as long as you have the right version of media player and a broadband connection, watch the game online and not even stop working! Of course, the ultimate is to kick back in your La-Z-Boy and bring home the game, life-size, into your living room (or home theater), courtesy of satellites and high-definition televisions. To top it off, the ample "action-replays" shots and modern conveniences such as TIVO further ensure that you don't miss that sensational Sehwag sixer even if you were momentarily called away by nature.

Only those who have sat cross-legged in an overcrowded Bombay apartment room watching a black-and-white relay on a tiny screen (invariably with an irritating flicker passing through the screen every few seconds) can appreciate the boon that technology today is to the game.

Hitting well: A rosy outlook

Some of the changes that cricket is seeing internationally are also specifically what could make it more appealing in the U.S. One of the most significant amongst them is the concept of a 20-over game. The "Twenty20", which is starting to receive serious consideration in the cricketing world, is being described as the "most revolutionary step since the advent of one-day cricket 40 years ago." Since this format requires each side to bowl 20 overs in 75 minutes, it seems perfectly suited to the three-hour capsule that has proven to be a successful formula for the key American professional sports.

Sure, there is significant resistance to this new proposition from many veterans of the game. But so was the case when ODIs were first introduced. Now the situation is such that the ODIs have replaced the 5-day Tests as the primary force in the game. The veteran Sunil Gavaskar, in an exclusive interview with Khabar, commented that "the ICC is looking at other sports, and is trying constantly to reinvent itself. They are not the same old traditionalists running the show any more," affirming, in effect, that the time may be ripe for this revolutionary change. Just like was the case for the one-day format, it may take another decade or two for the Twenty20 to be fully acclimated.

There are other sundry developments that have an indirect but definitive impact on the prospects of the game here. Both, the rising stock of India in the world, as well as the growing consumer clout of Indian-Americans ensure that capitalism will work in our favor. Indians, along with other immigrant groups from cricketing countries have made live satellite telecasts of games a lucrative business. Major players such as Sony, ESPN, and DISH Network are investing resources to cater to our needs. In the bigger urban areas, even Sports Bars have gotten into the action. Now, many fans can gather over buffalo wings, pizza and beer to watch the game on multiple wide screen TVs. But instead of yardage or RBI, fans would be discussing run-rate averages and wickets down.

Not withstanding internal political disputes, even the governing bodies of cricket in the U.S. are at some good work. Earlier last month, the MLC announced an inter-state cricket tournament, to be held in Florida in November 2005. Such tournaments could help stir interest in an otherwise uneventful year for many of the league players. Another hit from the MLC was the hiring of Desmond Haynes as the national coach for the U.S. ?Dezzie' was a fantastic opening batsman for a long time in the eighties, and his experience could be invaluable in helping the American team develop into a more cohesive unit.

Locally, last year, the AGCC hosted Australian star Greg Chappell (he is now the newly appointed coach of the Indian team) for a cricket camp. Chappell was here for a whole week promoting the game at a local school. Other leagues in California, Texas and New York are attempting the same and are looking to attract interest with star-power. Kapil Dev is set to visit clubs in Washington and the Bay Area for coaching clinics this month. So, more than ever, cricketers are pushing to draw the spotlight on this fascinating sport, and slowly but surely, it seems to be working.

This year Clayton Lambert played for the American team in their attempt to qualify for the World Cup. Although they didn't qualify, with all the developments, growing interest, and young future stars like Imran Awan and Barrington Bartley, Clayton thinks they have decent shot at qualifying for 2011.

Cricket is a game of miracles. If Bangladesh, the underdogs of the last order, could beat Australia, the masters of the game, who knows, perhaps the newly minted American team could manage a minor miracle in a world cup in the near future ? and that's all shot-in-the-arm that would be needed for the game to grab a toehold in the U.S. Then, the pipedream of Hank Williams, Jr. singing a theme song about Monday night cricket would inch one step closer to reality.


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