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By Suresh Menon
If the future of cricket is in the US, then the International Cricket Council will have to work harder at attracting the average American. The US were pioneers, after all. In 1754, Benjamin Franklin returned from England with a copy of the Laws of the Game, and soon cricket was firmly established in America. It was among the first outdoor sports played there.
The US v Canada cricket match in 1844 was the first international encounter as we understand the term today. That was so many generations ago that today the sport exists well below the consciousness level of the Americans.
Baseball took over as America's most popular sport largely due to the Civil War in 1861. Two years earlier, an English team made its first tour – to the US. They travelled some 7000 miles to play five matches in two months, and had that tour been properly followed up, England-America Test matches might have preceded the Anglo-Aussie one.
The Civil War established baseball (till then played mainly by students and children) as the national game. It was difficult to get cricket equipment in the war years and tough to maintain pitches while it was a simple matter of throwing down four bags to mark the bases in baseball on any open ground. Soldiers returning to civil life assured the future of baseball.
In recent years, many private tours have been made to the US, and internationals from Sunil Gavaskar to Garry Sobers and Kapil Dev have all played there. But the players did not go as missionaries to establish the game, they were catering to a south Asian and Caribbean crowds who were already fans and needed no conversion; there was hardly any follow up.
The common problem has been the quality of the pitches. It was seldom conducive to strokeplay, and cricket, as obsessed with statistics as American sports are was not given a chance to seep into the national consciousness.
If the recent New Zealand-Sri Lanka series in Florida was meant to showcase cricket to Americans, someone surely miscalculated. Kumara Sangakkara made the point that for the connoisseur, a low-scoring match (as both games were) can be as exciting as a high scoring one. True, but Americans are hardly connoisseurs of the game. The format, Twenty20, was the right one, but there was none of the big hitting and excitement associated with it. And that was because of the kind of pitch the matches – the first true internationals between ICC members in the US – were played on.
There is enormous interest for the sport in the US, but not among the locals. In New Jersey, which I visited recently, there are a number of leagues but few Americans play in any of them. The passion exists, but it is directed inwards, among those determined to recreate conditions similar to those obtaining in Mumbai or Colombo or Karachi. These are worthy efforts – duplicated across the land in Florida and Philadelphia and other pockets – by those willing to make great sacrifices (some have given up their jobs or taken less taxing ones to focus on organizing the leagues) but the focus is not on selling the game to the Americans.
The ICC will need to work with those already in the field, and attract American children to cricket as a first step towards popularizing the sport. Children have too many options, and cricket is not a priority.
That is why it is important to bring to the sport the razzmatazz and the hoopla associated with Twenty20. Subtlety is not a strength when you are attempting to break through a well-established system. The approach will have to be as overstated as in the IPL.
If the ambitions are limited, and the focus is only on the subcontinental and Caribbean communities, then the occasional T20 international is sufficient to keep the game alive. But the ICC must dream big.