Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

In Pictures: Cricket in the Baseball Country

The unbelievable has come to pass - India and USA clashing for the Super 8 spot in the first-ever international game between the two at the T20 World Cup 2024 in Nassau County Stadium, New York. The hosts didn't pull off an upset, but the courage of US batters to make a match of it has left fans with mixed emotions - what with eight of the US squad having an Indian connection!

Published: Jun 14, 2024 11:20:00 AM IST
Updated: Jun 14, 2024 11:32:03 AM IST

Image: Matt Roberts-ICC/ICC via Getty ImagesImage: Matt Roberts-ICC/ICC via Getty Images
Saurabh Netravalkar of the US (right) celebrates victory with teammates during the ICC Men's T20 World Cup match between the US and Pakistan at Grand Prairie Cricket Stadium on June 6, 2024, in Dallas, Texas.

With a team of players who may have dreamt of playing for India someday and making the best of a chance given to them by the land of opportunities, America's victory against Pakistan a few days ago has been one of the greatest upsets in the sport's history. A boundary by Nitish Kumar off the final ball of the US' run-chase sent the match to a Super Over and a win before a delirious home crowd in Dallas. All eyes are now on the Mumbai boy Saurabh Netravalkar (2/18 from 4), who led the way with the ball in a nail-biting contest. Saurabh, a coder with Oracle, has come this far despite cricket not being his primary profession.

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The US cricket team pose with a trophy after winning against Bangladesh in the T20 series in Texas on May 25, 2024.

The US team is a mish-mash of South Asian immigrants, players of local origins, and, not surprisingly, talented cricketers from India, lacking opportunities in the Indian Premier League, who had left the shores to seek other cricket-loving countries like the Caribbean and England. The US is ranked 19th in ICC's T20 rankings, one of the fringe teams playing a sport where only 12 teams have full member status. However, the US team has made rapid strides in their performance since 2016, gaining ODI status in a couple of years. Barely a week before the World Cup, they caused a major upset by beating Bangladesh in a three-match T20I series.

Also read: ICC Men's T20 World Cup Trophy winners list: From 2007 to 2024

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A file photo of India's Harmeet Singh at play during the ICC U19 Cricket World Cup in Australia in 2012.

The American cricket dream began taking shape in 2020-21 when many playing first-class cricket were offered contracts by Major League Cricket (MLC) to move to the US and earn a living as professionals. Players like Delhi's Milind Kumar, Harmeet Singh and New Zealand's Smit Patel shifted base on being awarded visas for developing cricket in the US, with a base price of a contract at $50,000 a year. When not playing, these professionals coach at academies around the country. The mushrooming of private tournaments brought in active international cricketers and a competitive edge that raised the level of cricket.

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Kulvinder Singh of Silicon Valley Strikers in action against Seattle Thunderbolts in the Minor League Cricket (which preceded Majors) in North Carolina in late 2022.

It all came to a head in July 2023 with the launch of Major League Cricket, a franchise tournament on the IPL model, with six teams which drew a host of seasoned internationals like Afghanistan's Rashid Khan, England's Jason Roy and Liam Plunkett, South Africa's Faf du Plessis, Quinton de Kock and Kagiso Rabada, West Indians Sunil Narine, Kieron Pollard and Andre Russell, and Australian pair Marcus Stoinis and Aaron Finch. Owners of Indian Premier League (IPL) clubs had stakes in four of the six MLC teams. It was a dream—of thriving cricket culture—come true for the league's strategic partner, American Cricket Enterprises, backed by Sameer Mehta and Vijay Srinivasan, founders of Willow TV (the largest cricket broadcaster in North America, with more than 4 million subscribers), venture capitalists Anurag Jain and Ross Perot Jr and the financial backing of $120 million from powerful investors with Indian-American roots, including Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen.

Also read: Why Amul is investing heavily in international cricket teams like USA Cricket

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Fans of India fill the Nassau County Stadium during the ICC Men's T20 World Cup match between India and Pakistan in New York on June 09, 2024.

The driving force behind the interest in cricket is the South Asian American population in the US, which is 5.4 million strong and growing. They are also the highest-earning ethnic group. Immigration law changes in the 1960s had drawn thousands of skilled workers from Asian countries to the San Francisco Bay area, New York City and Southern California. According to USA Cricket, there are now almost 1,100 registered cricket clubs in the US, with some 200,000 people playing across 400 local leagues. One of them is the Queens United Cricket Academy, which has players and coaches from all cricket-playing countries in South Asia, apart from the Caribbean and South Africa.

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Michael Levitt of the Netherlands engages with young enthusiasts at Grand Prairie stadium in Dallas, Texas, on June 03, 2024.

It is Texas—with 1.9 million South Asian immigrants—and Dallas, more specifically, drawing coaches, parents and players to an increasingly sophisticated cricket development infrastructure. North Texas Youth Cricket League accounts for more than 300 players, boys and girls, who spend the bulk of their weekends on the pitch, as do their cricket-obsessed parents—the majority of whom work in infotech—keeping a watchful eye on their wards between samosas and biryani breaks.

Also read: T20 World Cup 2024: Ten players to watch out for
 
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A general view of play during the ICC Men's T20 World Cup match between the US and Canada at Grand Prairie Cricket Stadium on June 1, 2024, in Dallas, Texas.

In 2023, a cricket venue sprung from the ruins of a baseball stadium renamed the Grand Prairie Stadium. A year and a $20 million redevelopment later, it was home to Texas Super Kings, a MLC franchise team. With a capacity of 7000, the stadium is one of the smallest venues to host the 2024 T20 World Cup. The opening match on June 2 between the US and Canada, which the hosts won by seven wickets, roused a historical memory between the two teams, going back to 1844.

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Way back before the Ashes, before the invention of basketball and when baseball was still a little kids' game, it was in the United States of America, on September 24 1844, in New York, at a site that is now in the middle of Manhattan, that the US met Canada for what many regard as the first international encounter in any sport. A crowd of just over 5,000 turned out, and an estimated $100,000 to $120,000 worth of bets were placed on the match, which the US lost by 23 runs. The prize money was $1,000. The two teams agreed to make it an annual game, and cricket became the biggest sport in this period. Just when cricket reached its peak of popularity, the Civil War started in 1861, and the sport became a victim of the war. Experts attribute cricket's decline to its slow pace back then. Baseball took hold, a game that didn't require a perfectly flattened and groomed turf, and established itself as an emblem of American character, which cricket couldn't.

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A photo from the early 1900s shows members of the Indian cricket team preparing to leave Victoria station after cricket matches in England.

Collegiate cricket flourished in England's public schools. Once international cricket began to consolidate around the Imperial Cricket Conference, formed in 1909 by England, Australia, and South Africa, America was sidelined. The terrain of cricket became the terrain of the Empire and its colonial agenda, a shared legacy of the Indian sub-continent, Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, West Indies and South Africa. These countries' occasional wins over England would soon take on a more impassioned meaning. Decades later, immigrants to the US from cricket-playing nations, particularly the Caribbean, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, would offer a foothold to the game in America, while cricket's soaring popularity as a spectacle of 'national pride' in these nations would playing a significant role in revitalising the sport's appeal in the latter half of the 20th century.

Listen: Cricket and team sports: The growth strategy for Delhi Capitals co-owners

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Dylan Carlson of the St. Louis Cardinals drives in a run against the Pittsburgh Pirates on June 12, 2024, in St Louis, Missouri.

While baseball is often referred to as "America's favourite pastime", American football has long surpassed baseball as the nation's favourite, the primary reason being its better suitability for television. In recent years, basketball has also surpassed baseball, as younger audiences prefer the action-packed, star-studded NBA over a three-hour baseball game. According to Statista, 64 percent of US sports fans aged 55 to 64 follow baseball, while just 43 percent of 25 to 34-year-olds and 34 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds do the same. Soccer is making its presence felt, too. When Lionel Messi joined Inter Miami FC in MLS last year, tickets for every Inter Miami game sold out.

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Kolkata Knight Riders' team and co-owner Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan pose with the Indian Premier League winning trophy on May 26, 2024, in Chennai, India.

Finding cricket too longwinded, American comedian and actor Groucho Marx once described the game as "a wonderful cure for insomnia". Groucho hadn't contended with T20 Cricket, the newest format begun in 2003. A brainwave of the England and Wales Cricket Board, the fast-paced format suits Western audiences. The Indian Premier League, the form's supreme iteration, established in 2008 and packed with globetrotting stars and Bollywood allure, currently holds a valuation of $11 billion as of 2024. America cannot ignore the profitability of this game format, while ICC is keen to find a toehold in the largest sports market in the world, which has a GDP of over $25 trillion. Pulling out all stops to engage with the American audience, ICC got eight-time Olympic gold-winning sprinter Usain Bolt on board as the World Cup ambassador and promoted the event at the recent Formula 1 race in Miami. With an already crowded and developed sporting landscape, promoting cricket in the US is a challenge for the ICC and other stakeholders. However, the sport's return to the Olympics in 2028 should be a draw for the medal-loving country.

Also read: The WPL has been a gamechanger for women's cricket: Mumbai Indians' Charlotte Edwards

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Fans of Bangladesh soak in the pre-match atmosphere before the T20 World Cup match against South Africa at Nassau Stadium on June 10, 2024, in New York.

For cricket in the US to flourish, some operational challenges must be overcome. The first is whether its administrative infrastructure can recover after the USA Cricket Association was suspended by the ICC in 2015 because of concerns regarding its "governance, reputation, cricketing activities and finance including a US$4 million debt". Ultimately, the future of US cricket is all about money. Will there be enough advertising, broadcasting and sponsorship revenue? Will it be used to pay marquee players to play on poor surfaces, or will it be invested in infrastructure, facilities, and grassroots development? It seems unlikely that cricket will take long-lasting root in America until it is played in schools and colleges and women's cricket acquires the momentum it has elsewhere. Only time will tell how far Cricket's American dream will score on the nation's psyche.

Image: Cecilia SANCHEZ / AFPImage: Cecilia SANCHEZ / AFP
The pitch being laid at the Nassau County International Cricket Stadium under construction in Eisenhower Park in East Meadow, New York, ahead of the ICC Men's T20 World Cup 2024.

The lack of infrastructure showed. A day before the Indian team were to open their T20 World Cup campaign against Ireland, they found themselves at a practice session in a public park instead of a stadium! What queered the pitch was the unpredictable playing surface at Nassau County International Cricket Stadium in New York, which has been described as "bordering on dangerous" after a succession of body blows on players and low-scoring matches. The drop-in pitches arrived a week before the inaugural match at a $30 million, 34,000-seater temporary stadium, grown in the sub-tropics of Florida before transporting it 2,000 kilometres north through multiple climatic zones.

Also read: IPL built a talent pipeline for Indian cricket, we hope SA20 does the same for South Africa: Graeme Smith & AB de Villiers

Image: Mark J. Rebilas-USA Today Sports via ReutersImage: Mark J. Rebilas-USA Today Sports via Reuters
A file photo of East infielder Arjun Nimmala during the Perfect Game All-American Classic high school baseball game at Chase Field, Phoenix, Arizona. 

While India's most popular sport expands in the US, Major League Baseball has been looking to make its inroads in India. Last year, MLB and Disney Star partnered with IMG and Amped Pictures to produce a new docuseries titled "Indian Baseball Dreams" to grow baseball and the MLB brand in India. The league is also promoting the ascent of Arjun Nimmala, an 18-year-old whose parents immigrated to the US from India. He grew up playing some cricket before pivoting to baseball and was picked in the first round of the MLB draft in late 2023. No first-generation Indian American has ever been drafted that high in any of the four major sports in the US.

Image: Arun SANKAR / AFPImage: Arun SANKAR / AFP
Rajasthan Royals' Yashasvi Jaiswal executes a shot during the Indian Premier League Twenty20 cricket match against Mumbai Indians in Jaipur on April 22, 2024.

Closer home, in a surprising twist, Rajasthan Royals have been taking lessons from baseball—and mechanics of the swing to hit the ball further—to power their six-hitters in the recently concluded Indian Premier League. Take the technique of hitting the ball upwards instead of flat, a key takeaway that caused a revolution in baseball, increasing home runs by 50 per cent. The game-changer is the sixer tally—351 sixes, the third most by RR since IPL became a 10-team format two seasons ago. Swing that!