Welcome to the US, cricket's final frontier

Members of the Long Island United Cricket Club in New York, one of many amateur clubs in the US.  (AFP)
Members of the Long Island United Cricket Club in New York, one of many amateur clubs in the US. (AFP)


The US, which qualified automatically for the World T20 as a co-host of the tournament, remains a final frontier for the sport

"It’s huge, especially for the US," says cricketer Corey Anderson. “People will look at it and say: things happen in T20. But we knew as a group that we wanted to make a statement and ideally win, which we did. I think now people are watching what the US is doing."

Anderson was referring to 21 May, when the US beat Bangladesh in a Twenty20 International at Prairie View, only their second win against a Test-playing team. The US is ranked 19th (in International Cricket Council or ICC’s) T20I rankings, one of the fringe teams playing a sport in which only 12 sides have full member or Test match status, including Bangladesh. The US went on to beat Bangladesh 2-1 in a three-match T20I series, making the kind of statement that Anderson, who formerly represented New Zealand in international cricket and now plays for the US, talks about. It’s taken 180 years for the US to make a strong statement in cricket.

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From the time the ICC awarded the World T20, starting 1 June, to the US and the West Indies, the country’s erstwhile relationship with the sport has come to the limelight. The US and Canada will play the opening encounter of the World T20 in Dallas, as a reminder of cricket’s oldest rivalry—the teams played the sport’s first ever international match in 1844 in Staten Island, New York, over 30 years before England toured Australia for the first-ever bilateral cricket Test series.

The US, which qualified automatically for the World T20 as a co-host of the tournament, remains some sort of a final frontier for the sport that’s for long remained the preserve of a few. The ICC ranks 87 teams in T20Is, with Croatia at the bottom, below teams like Lesotho, Samoa and Seychelles. But only a dozen teams form the creamy layer, the traditional Test playing set.

The US team for the World T20 is a mish-mash of players of local origins, Asian immigrants and cricketers like Anderson, who once held the record for the fastest One Day International (ODI) century (36 balls, for New Zealand against the West Indies in 2014). Anderson moved to the US in 2021 to play Major League Cricket (MLC)—also because his wife is American—and now finds himself in the US international team as their only player to have played a (ODI) World Cup (2015).

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“Being an immigrant-friendly country, it’s not 100% possible to have homegrown players until cricket becomes (a) mainstream sport," says Venu Pisike, chairman of USA Cricket, over a text message. “Next four years would be the focus to increase the US born and citizens to represent Team USA as we develop national teams to LA28 (Los Angeles Olympics 2028, in which cricket would be a medal sport)."

Harmeet Singh, another member of the US squad, moved from India to the US for the “simple reason" of a lack of opportunities back home. When the Minor League Cricket started in 2021, it gave him an opportunity. Since he had a tourist visa, he did a recce—to Atlanta and other cities—before settling in Seattle and then Houston, Texas. His unbeaten 33 (13 balls) with Anderson’s 34 not out took the US past Bangladesh’s total in the first T20I last month.

“When four years ago, if you said I would play Major League Cricket (which started last year) and for the US… this is what I desired for and everything has been accomplished," says Harmeet, 31, over the phone. “The US needed a domestic league and a structure to get talent out, which has happened in three-four years. We were early investors coming here (as cricketers moving to the US to play), with not many grounds or turf pitches. Now, we have stadiums in Dallas, Florida, one proposed in San Jose… Every year it keeps upgrading."

Last year’s opening season of the MLC was a resounding success by all accounts, opening up another pathway for cricket to spread its wings in the US. After the initial interest in the sport, in the early-mid 1800s, cricket lost out to baseball after the American civil war, pushed into being a bit of a boutique sport.

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But international cricket’s dwindling popularity in many cricket-playing nations—barring the subcontinent—fuels the need for the sport to find newer markets. America’s growing expatriate population of South Asians makes it a fertile ground for expansion.

“If you look at the States, it’s one of the biggest broadcast markets in the world. Cricket is not a part of it, which is a shame," says 33-year-old Anderson over a call. “Even football, or soccer as they call it here, has taken time to develop and is getting bigger and bigger names to play the MLS (Major League Soccer). It will take time, but the cricketing world has been intrigued by the US."

The MLS example, if cricket were to take a cue from it, serves as a template for how a sport can grow in popularity. Football is not the most popular sport in the US, though it has been catalysed by a growing Hispanic and Asian demographic. When Lionel Messi joined Inter Miami in MLS last year, tickets for every Inter Miami game sold out, according to The Athletic. The club’s valuation increased from $600 million (around 4,980 crore) before Messi’s arrival to $1 billion, the report added.

“This is the biggest sport market," says Singh, “with a lot of potential for growth. Once the US takes it and puts it in colleges and schools, it will blow up. Like lacrosse or other smaller sports… if you see the facilities they provide, it’s world class. We will have an NCA (National Cricket Academy, India’s premier cricket facility in Bengaluru) equivalent in every corner. Once the infrastructure is in place, the talent will come out."

The MLC, the World T20 and the LA Olympics combined give the sport the kind of push its not experienced before in the continent. Cricket must grow to “take advantage of huge marketing and commercial opportunities," adds Pisike. “As the game grows, it requires financial support, which ultimately creates sponsorship opportunities. To increase performances and create professional careers, there will be focus to host international teams, which generates lot of broadcasting opportunities. Also, since cricket is played in multiple formats, (it) can also create many sponsorship and broadcasting opportunities."

While similarities have been drawn with baseball—several years ago, an American sports agent even tried to find baseball players in India with a talent hunt, later documented on celluloid as a feature film, The Million Dollar Arm—it will take some effort for cricket to find a place in American hearts.

“When I first came here, the quality of cricket surprised me," says Anderson. “Everyone thinks it’s low, because it’s not a cricketing nation. Everyone is surprised that there is a strong culture of cricket. Moving forward, we welcome anyone who wants to tour our shores."

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle. 

Read the rest of our ICC T20 World Cup stories here and here.

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