by Peter Della Penna
It’s been a little over four years since cricket hijacked my life. The stick and ball sport holds my thoughts hostage 24/7. A large part of these thoughts revolve around the fact that there are not a vast amount of white American-born people like myself who take pleasure in cricket the way they freely do in other sports like college football. Millions of people across the country were glued to their televisions on the night of Saturday, Dec. 12, to see who would win the Heisman Trophy. Unfortunately, the number giving their attention to the Test match between New Zealand and Pakistan was a fraction of that.
Cricket has the capacity to produce a prolific amount of dedication and fervor in Americans. We are a sports playing and watching society. Bobsledding and speed skating have a much fainter blip on the American sports radar than cricket, but two months from now in Vancouver, those will be two sports that everyone in this country will have a very keen knowledge of when the Winter Olympics are in full swing. If those sports can grab people’s attention, so can cricket.
What needs to happen is to make the sport more desirable. Cricket doesn’t need to be “Americanized” to get Americans to like it. However, there are five things that aficionados and administrators can do to help Americans get more involved by appealing to the things they already like about other sports.
1. Stop referring to it as “A Gentleman’s Game”
… unless you’re being facetious. At a recent workshop in Atlanta conducted by Cricket Academy of USA aimed at getting gym teachers to learn about cricket, footage of Yuvraj Singh’s six sixes in an over off Stuart Broad from the 2007 World Twenty20 was shown on an overhead projector to an audience of about 40 physical education instructors.
After the third six, one teacher bolted out of his chair to the back of the room where I was standing so he could ask me a question. “Can you hit him?” he wanted to know. This man was curious why Broad was getting smoked out of the park without trying to take Singh’s head off with a bouncer in retaliation. “Well…” I thought about it, considering it was a loaded question in which a proper answer would have to include explanations on Bodyline, one bouncer per over in one-dayers, no full tosses above waist height, etc. Yawn. He’ll get confused and lose interest. So I decided to keep it simple. “Yes, as long as you bounce it into the ground first, aiming for his body is well within the rules.” The teacher excitedly went back to his seat and relayed the word to colleagues on his left and right.
A similar conversation took place between myself and two guys I knew from college who I managed to run into a few weeks ago. They had never watched a cricket match before in their lives, but while watching the first day of the third Test between New Zealand and Pakistan alongside me, they got very excited seeing Umar Gul bowl. Tim McIntosh had just hooked him for four and Gul decided to follow up with two more bouncers. All of a sudden, they had their complete attention on the match. McIntosh was ducking out of the way in an attempt at self-preservation and these two guys loved every minute of it.
The stark brutality of cricket is not something that should cause cricket fans to hang their heads in shame. It should be celebrated. Cricket has long been stereotyped in America as “not really a sport because it’s played by men wearing sweaters.” An efficient way to combat this is by celebrating the likes of Mitchell Johnson. Not only is he an exciting talent for his wicket-taking ability, but also for the amount of times in the past 12 months he has sent someone off the field retired hurt. People don’t watch NASCAR for the left turns all day long. They want to see who crashes and who escapes the wrecks. Just as exciting as seeing the stumps rattled in cricket is seeing the ball whizz by a batsman’s head… or into it.
Which Mitchell Johnson spell against South Africa was more entertaining: Perth’s 8 for 61 or Durban’s 3 for 37? At first glance, most cricket folk would take the statistically impressive 8 for 61. However, for my American spirit, I’ll take Durban any day of the week because it included KO’ing Graeme Smith for the second time in three Tests with a broken hand and forcing Jacques Kallis off the field to get stitches after striking him in the helmet with a bouncer. Sit Americans down in front of that and their whole opinion towards cricket changes.
This point is two-fold. Americans love buying clothes if they just plain look cool. Last year during a segment on ESPNews, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson was being interviewed by one of the studio anchors. At one point, the anchor made mention of a New Jersey Devils hat that Jackson was wearing and asked if he was a big fan of Martin Brodeur. Jackson chuckled and said, “Nah, I don’t watch hockey. I’m just wearing it because I like the way it looks.”
The IPL has introduced a fantastic opportunity for people to buy nifty designed hats and jerseys to get them interested in cricket. While speaking with Amar Shah, author of the award winning ESPN.com 2005 E-Ticket feature “A Wicket Wedding”, Shah recounted a story of a party he was at in Los Angeles in which he wore a Kolkata Knight Riders jersey. The people he was mingling with had no clue who KKR was or that they were the laughing stock of the IPL. They just saw the black shirt with gold trim and a shiny NOKIA logo in the middle and wanted to know where they could get one.
American fans also love buying trendy clothes that represent success in some way. While soccer’s current popularity in America can be mainly attributed to having Pele and other stars come in during the NASL years as well as getting the USA to host the World Cup in 1994, another significant event has also contributed greatly to the appeal and awareness of the game.
In February of 2001, Manchester United and the New York Yankees, two of the most successful sports franchises in the world, teamed up for a joint marketing venture. According to a news article from the BBC, the partnership’s aims were for the clubs to “share market information, develop sponsorship and joint promotional programs and sell each other's licensed goods.” At the time, Man U had a certain midfielder whose reputation was on the rise. For the men in this country, and even more for the women, David Beckham was someone who helped people follow United and got them even more interested in soccer and the English Premier League. Before the end of the decade, he became a full-fledged international icon, got a fat contract to come play in the MLS and his former club Man U is now one of 20 English Premier League teams regularly featured on ESPN networks as part of a new television contract.
On a recent visit to a Sports Authority, I could find Brazil soccer team merchandise as well as items with New Zealand All Blacks rugby logos. If those things can make it in there, it shouldn’t be long before vibrant colored cricket team apparel makes it onto the racks.
3. It’s a stick and ball game
That’s all anyone needs to know. Don’t bother trying to explain the LBW law, or any other law about cricket, within the first five minutes of introducing them to the game. All that is required is sticking a bat in their hand and telling them to hit a ball. The rest of it they can learn at the rate their curiosity allows.
While visiting the Philadelphia Cricket Club in October, I was awestruck at the fact that they had white American-born playing members at their club, most of whom had only picked up the game in their 40s and 50s. When I asked one member how long it took him to learn how to play with proper technique, he replied, “six weeks.” His method was simple. To him, it was just another see the ball, hit the ball game. He’d spent most of his life playing sports and this one was not too far different from the others he’d played. The only difference for him was the fact that he needed to form a defense to pair it with attacking shots in cricket. In most other stick and ball sports, attack is all that’s required. Once he got his defense down, he thought cricket was completely normal.
He was clear that he didn’t understand the rules immediately and that it took him some time to learn. However, he was also clear on one other thing. To him, playing cricket required seeing a ball and hitting it. That’s it. Hitting the ball gave him pleasure. It’s what got him coming back on the weekends with the rest of his American friends.
4. Duration is a plus, not a minus
Newsflash: Americans love long sporting events, contrary to popular belief. In fact, the longer they go, the better and more memorable they become.
For Mets fans, two of the most legendary games in the team’s history were two of the longest. In 1999, the Mets beat the Braves in Game 5 of the NLCS on Robin Ventura’s “Grand Slam Single” in a 15-inning classic that went five hours and 46 minutes, which at the time was the longest game in MLB Postseason history. It was eclipsed in 2005 when the Astros beat the Braves in Game 4 of the NLDS in an 18-inning epic that went four minutes longer. An even more famous victory for the Mets came in the 1986 NLCS, on their way to the World Series, when they defeated the Astros 7-6 in 16 innings in what is considered one of the greatest playoff games of all time. I don’t know anyone who talks about these three games and complains that they were too long.
In college basketball, last year’s Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden saw Syracuse and UConn play in one of the most tense and dramatic games of all time, one that went a whopping six overtime periods. The game started at 9:37 p.m. and didn’t get over until 1:22 a.m., not that anyone was complaining. The game was the longest in Big East history and second longest in Division I basketball history.
The same is true for sudden death overtime in the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. Eleven of the 20 longest games in NHL history have taken place since 1990. Yet, there hasn’t been any hue or cry to eliminate sudden death in the playoffs. The same things that are appealing about sudden death in hockey are what make batting in cricket so alluring. As players head into a second, third, fourth, even fifth 20-minute overtime period, everyone is glued to the television waiting and wondering who will make the heroic breakthrough, or the fatal error. In cricket, a batsman can be at the crease for three, four, five hours, but one lapse in judgment and the bowler has his man.
The endurance element is not limited to just these traditionally American sports. The 2008 Men’s Wimbledon Final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal started at 2:35 p.m., but because of an incredible number of long rallies, weather delays and a stunning fifth set without a tiebreak, the match ended at 9:16 p.m. local time. It was nearly pitch black outside, but the flashbulbs were bursting on the court to capture the end to the greatest, and longest, championship match in Wimbledon history. ESPN Classic made it a habit to run the match on a loop and whenever there is a rain delay during a major tournament on ESPN, they don’t hesitate to unleash the footage from that eventful day.
Then there is golf. 2008 US Open Playoff. Four days was not enough. Unlike just about every other golf tournament, the US Open does not use a one-hole or four-hole sudden death playoff. So Rocco Mediate and Tiger Woods played another 18 holes on Monday, except that they were still tied. They went one more playoff hole before Woods prevailed.
Reflecting on the way things unfolded, John Maginnes of PGATour.com wrote, “This Monday finish may go down as the most exciting day of golf all year. Considering the way things played out -- with only five of the 18 holes in the playoff being tied -- it was a tournament that deserved a fitting conclusion. Had there been a sudden death playoff or even a four-hole playoff, we would have been cheated out of the most compelling theater golf has to offer.”
Five days to decide a winner. Compelling theater. It sounds an awful lot like Test cricket to me. The length of a cricket match should be embraced, not defaced.
The Super Bowl consistently remains one of the highest rated American television programs of the year despite the fact that fans from 30 of the 32 NFL teams will not be seeing their team playing in the game. What then is the most exciting part of the game: the on-field action, the commercials, or the halftime show? None of the above.
The correct answer is the coin toss. Billions of dollars will change hands depending on which side it will land. The average man tunes in ten minutes before kickoff to scream, “TAILS! TAILS! TAILS FOR THE LOVE OF GOD!” so that he can turn $50 into $100. After the coin toss, it’s exciting to see whether or not the player who scores the first touchdown has an odd or even numbered jersey, how many coaches challenges there will be, if the ball is ever spotted on exactly the 50 yard line and other incredibly banal elements of the game that all of a sudden become heart-pounding when you know you’ve got some money riding on it.
This is not exclusively an American phenomenon. Betting has long been a part of cricket. Unfortunately, it is usually seen in a negative light with match-fixing scandals in the game’s past. However, a positive step has been taken by Cricket Australia to make betting a welcome part of the game. They now routinely show the latest Betfair odds over the course of the match during coverage on Channel Nine.
When I went to my first Test match four years ago, I wanted to see Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne bowl as well as Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist bat. When those things weren’t happening, the things that kept me interested were what was going to be the method of dismissal for the first wicket of the match (caught fieldsman, bowled, LBW, runout, stumped, or the very long odds for hit wicket), whether or not darkhorse Shane Watson would take the most first innings wickets, which team would wind up with a first innings lead and would Michael Clarke get out between 50 and 74 runs. A single Test match offers just as many wild and crazy options as the betting lines on Super Bowl Sunday, and man are they fun.
As Masaood Yunus of the Minnesota Cricket Association said in a radio interview promoting the USACA Western Conference Tournament this year, “We get bored sometimes too.” An excellent way to make sure a person stays interested in any new sport is if they have a healthy wager on proceedings. It makes them eager to learn the rules and the structure, who the stars are, what history shows and what the latest trends are. Cricket is no different. The most important city in America for getting people to follow cricket isn’t Fort Lauderdale. It won’t be Indianapolis, New York or Los Angeles either. It’s Las Vegas. Once cricket carves out a niche in the casino sportsbooks, interest will skyrocket.
So there it is, five ways to make cricket appealing and desirable to Americans. Sure the old clichés like grassroots development and domestic cable television exposure will help. But these five simple yet effective concepts will play their part too.
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