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By Tom Melville
The Mirage of T20
In my many years of working with Americans at cricket I’ve found they have four pronounced stereotypes about the game: (1) it takes forever to play (2) it’s a dumb, boring, game (3) it’s impossible to understand, and (4) it’s not a big time sport played by top class athletes. With T20 you’ve got over the first hurdle, maybe the second. But you still have to get over the others, and they’re just as tough.
I’ve always thought it rather naïve on the part of the cricket world to think that all you have to do is shorten cricket and Americans will come flocking to the game. A soccer game is “short”; a rugby game is “short”; an Aussie rules football game is “short.” But being “short” hasn’t boosted the popularity of these sports with Americans and it’s unrealistic to think this alone will boost cricket’s popularity.
“But,” everyone says, “T20 is the most exciting form of cricket.” Perhaps, but the matches at Lauderhill clearly showed “excitement’ is highly unpredictable. Some matches are exciting. Many are not. Sports that have shown the greatest staying power are those that can hold fan interest not only during the “exciting” moments but during those long stretches of non-excitement (how many boring stretches does a fan have to endure over t he average baseball game?).
Sure, you have to show Americans cricket is “exciting.” But they must also feel comfortable and at ease with the game as a totality. They must feel this is a game they can identify with. And to accomplish this any first class cricket match staged in American must have much loftier aims than to just show Americans cricket is “short” and “exciting.” It must be approached as an opportunity to completely remake cricket’s image with Americans.
The Need for an Integrated Approach
When I was watching the Lauderhill matches only one thing was going through my mind: “What’s going to happen when all this is over? What’s going to happen when the lights are out, the teams are gone, and the gates are locked?”
The event was intended to energize American interest in cricket. But how was this “interest” to be directed, channeled, or even monitored? Sports interest exists in a closed loop system; spectator interest generates grass roots interest which, in turn, generates more spectator interest in a self-reinforcing cycle.
But if an American, after watching a Lauderhill match, was motivated to play cricket, or have his son/daughter play, where could he turn? How could he start? Who would help him? And the answer is: nowhere and no-one. Right now, there’s virtually no outlet in this country for an American novice to comfortably and easily interface with cricket. No rec programs, no school programs, no college programs. He can try joining a local cricket club (if there happens to be one in his area), but most of these clubs don’t want to bother with beginners.
I’ve always thought an American’s first experience with cricket should be playing the game, not watching it. Once he experiences the game from the inside, with a bat in his hand, it opens the door for everything else. Staging first class matches is fine. But this should be just part of a more integrated promotional plan that will make the game easily accessible for Americans, of all abilities, and at all levels of sports play.
To use an analogy from the business world: with Lauderhill the USACA has rolled out cricket to the American public. Now it has to get the product on the shelves.
[Opinions expressed here are those of the author. Tom Melville is a member of the rare species of American-born cricketers, he is the author of The Tented Field: A History of Cricket in America (Bowling Green State University Press).]