Can cricket crack America? New T20 league aims to take US by storm

Can cricket crack America? New T20 league aims to take US by storm

The dream is in place, the field has been built. Major League Cricket finally launches on Thursday outside Dallas. But will the people come?

For decades, cricket’s powers have dreamed of making it big in America. Starting on Thursday the grandest, richest attempt yet to get Americans hooked on cricket will begin in a converted baseball stadium (capacity: 7,200) on the outskirts of Dallas. Major League Cricket, as the new competition is known, has money: close to $50m already spent, with another $130m on the way. It has wealthy patrons: Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella leads a roll call of leading Indian-American tech executives who’ve signed up to throw cash at the new venture. It has the blessing of an International Cricket Council desperate to lift its sport’s profile in America ahead of the 2024 T20 World Cup, which will be co-hosted by the United States and the West Indies. It has powerful allies: four Indian Premier League franchises and two state cricket bodies from Australia have signed on as either full owners or operational partners for the fledgling league’s six founding teams. It has a slot in the international cricket calendar that’s relatively uncrowded, with only the men’s and women’s Ashes as real competition for the committed global cricket fan’s attention. It has a list of team names that combine, in delightfully unbound American style, the patriotic (Washington Freedom) and ecological (Seattle Orcas) with the borrowed-from-the-IPL nonsensical (MI New York).

Most importantly it has players, and some extremely capable ones at that: sprinkled among the little-known local talents (Corne Dry, anyone?) the new competition features the genuine stardust of Wanindu Hasaranga, Kagiso Rabada, Tim David and Anrich Nortje, among many other established T20 internationals who’ve made the trek out to the suburbs of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex to help launch cricket’s latest big shot at success in America. But will Major League Cricket have any viewers? Will the American public thrill to the spectacle of a beefy heave through midwicket from Aaron Finch? Will it learn to lament, as millions of cricket fans throughout the world already do, the lost opportunities of a wasted PowerPlay? Will it grow to appreciate the finer points of an Adam Zampa strangler down leg side, or a topless cameo from Faf du Plessis on the player balcony? The final touches – the marking of the boundary barrier, the laying of the turf wicket, the engineering of the outfield – have just been applied to convert the former home ground of now-defunct off-brand baseball side the Texas AirHogs into an international-grade cricket venue. The dream is in place, the field has been built. But will they come?

The history of the flatter-batted of the bat and ball sports in the United States provides some basis for caution. Vying with baseball for local supremacy in the late 19th century, cricket enjoyed a brief American “golden age” thanks to the exertions of the Philadelphia Cricket Club, once seen as the equal of the best international teams. But Britain’s late-imperial insecurity saw the US frozen out of international competition, and American cricket went into a rapid and seemingly irreversible decline in the years following the first world war. Since the turn of this century there have been several failed attempts to launch a professional domestic cricket league: Pro Cricket, a prototype of T20 cricket, played a single season in 2004 before folding, while the original ‘Major League Cricket’, launched in 2005 with the patronage of West Indian greats Clive Lloyd and Desmond Haynes, quickly fizzled into insignificance. Shane Warne and Sachin Tendulkar hosted a series of exhibition matches across the US in 2015 that got expats and immigrants of South Asian, Caribbean and Australian backgrounds excited but no one else. How many times can a sport this old to America be rebranded as something exotic and new? Compounding the inauspiciousness of this history are the troubles facing USA Cricket. The administration and finances of cricket’s governing body in America are a mess, continuing a long history of mismanagement of the sport in this country; the previous governing body was expelled by the ICC in 2017. USA Cricket will have no permanent CEO in place when Major League Cricket launches on Thursday night.

Texas Super Kings assistant coach Eric Simons has claimed – half-jokingly, one assumes, but only half – that one day his team will be “bigger than the New York Yankees”.

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