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How the USA’s shock cricket triumph reflects a global sporting and geopolitical transformation

United States’ Muhammad Ali-Khan, second right, celebrates with teammates at the Grand Prairie Stadium in Grand Prairie, Texas, June 6, 2024. Tony Gutierrez/AP

Call it the Miracle on Grass.

A national cricket team that most Americans didn’t even know they had beat one of the sport’s global powers Pakistan, for whom the game is a national obsession.

The triumph Thursday in the T20 World Cup – a global tournament using a shortened, three-hour version of a game that can last five days and still end in a draw – shocked the cricketing world.

Cricket briefly flickered into US consciousness as the result popped up on news sites in a rare moment for a sport that lives in obscurity in the United States outside the South Asian and Caribbean communities.

“Beating Pakistan in the World Cup is going to open many doors for us,” said USA Cricket captain Monank Patel in Texas, where the game took place in a converted minor league baseball park.

Corey Anderson, who represented New Zealand internationally and now plays for the US team, told CNN he got hundreds of text messages after the win.

“It’s probably shocked the cricketing world,” said the 33-year-old who has an American wife and kids. “I know definitely here in the US it’s been a lot of media coverage, which is fantastic. I think USA Cricket is just not that well known within America, and I think we put ourselves a little bit more on the map.”

Cricket faces huge barriers to becoming anything more than a curiosity to most Americans. But the US victory over Pakistan is exactly what global cricket chiefs hoped for when bringing some of this year’s T20 World Cup to the United States, which is co-hosting along with islands in the Caribbean, a more traditional hotbed of the game that has faced challenges from the encroachment of US sports.

In the biggest game ever on US soil, more than 30,000 fans will Sunday pack into towering bleachers in a temporary stadium that materialized out of nowhere in a Long Island, New York, park to watch India play Pakistan. Tickets are selling for $700 on the secondary market. The global TV audience could at least double the 124 million who tuned into the Super Bowl this year.

Peter Della Penna, an American journalist and broadcaster who covers cricket in this country after falling for the game during a college exchange stint in Australia, was stunned when he saw the new infrastructure on Long Island.

“They had a recreational cricket field, but it was basically just a community park,” he said. “To see what was there when I got there was quite extraordinary. Talking to the residents and the community, they are taken aback.”

America’s most famous cricket victory on Thursday tells a story about the changing demographic mix in the United States. Cricket’s new Field of Dreams in Nassau County is testimony to a dynamic and highly educated South Asian community that is becoming increasingly prosperous and connected in US business and society and politically more important.

It’s no coincidence that former President Donald Trump appeared alongside Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi before around 100,000 people at a rally at the world’s largest cricket stadium in Ahmedabad in 2020. He wanted to woo a slice of the electorate back home.

“The diaspora is sizable, and they clearly have connections to (India) … the most populous nation in the world,” said Simon Chadwick, a professor specializing in the geopolitical economy of sport at SKEMA, a global business school. “You’ve got a large diaspora, a large country. You’ve got a sport that has proved to be commercially incredibly successful. You got have investors, not just from the United States or from the Gulf region, hungry for potential commercial opportunities and willing to take a punt.”

How cricket mirrors a revolution in global sports

The T20 World Cup games in the United States also reflect one of the most dynamic new realities in the multi-billion-dollar market of global sports. This is the shift in power away from traditional sports administrators and marketplaces like the United Kingdom and Europe to rising countries in the Middle East and South Asia.

Cricket was spread around the globe by colonialists at a time when the sun never used to set on the British Empire. It’s still most popular in nations the British used to rule, like India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. Its premier international contest is the Ashes, a series of five-day contests that span the summer between England and Australia that date back to 1877 and take place twice every four years, once in each nation.

But the balance of power in cricket has now shifted to India because of its massive television market and the emerging middle class in a nation with a billion people.

The Indian Premier League, an annual short-form tournament that draws the world’s top players with huge salaries, is transforming the game in a way that alienates many traditionalists and has spawned a series of spin-off franchise leagues — including the fledging Major League Cricket in the US that debuted last year with games in Texas and North Carolina. Indian cricketers, especially the batting legend Virat Kohli, are megastars back home and the strong viewership of the IPL among US fans built a rationale to bring World Cup games to America.

The transformation of cricket parallels the growing power of soccer’s new elites like the United Arab Emirates, which is the majority owner of Manchester City, and Qatar, which bankrolls Paris Saint-Germain.

Middle Eastern money has flowed into Formula One, which – like cricket – is expanding in the US. Saudi Arabia is behind a split in professional golf after buying up top players with its LIV golf league. Cricket will become an Olympic sport in Los Angeles in 2028 partly because Modi, a just reelected Hindu nationalist, leveraged India’s growing international clout to get it included.

The internationalization of sports finance is not universally welcome. Some critics dismiss investments by Middle Eastern nations and events like the FIFA World Cup in Qatar or the Beijing Olympics as “sports washing” — a way for authoritarian nations to clean up their images abroad. But it also reflects how developing nations are changing world’s balance of economic and political power and, in some cases, are eclipsing their former colonial rulers.

“There is this pivot from global north to global south,” said Chadwick. “And this pivot is evident not just in cricket or sports, but obviously in economic and political affairs, generally.”

What is cricket?

Cricket is a game of bat-and-ball with distant similarities to baseball. Batters stand before a wicket – three vertical wooden poles stuck in the ground at either end of a strip of tightly mown grass called a pitch – that is a bit like a strike zone.

Bowlers, who can reach speeds of 90 mph or more – and slower specialists called spinners who exert revolutions on the hard cricket ball with a flick of the wrist or a snap of the fingers – deliver the ball with a straight arm hurl. The ball must bounce on the pitch before it reaches the batter, allowing skilled bowlers to create deviations off a surface that becomes more receptive as it gets scuffed up.

Runs are scored by batters running between the wickets. If a ball is hit out of the playing area with the flat faced wooden bat along the ground, the batting team gets four runs. If it goes into the stands on the fly, it’s six runs – the equivalent of a home run.

The bowling side records outs either by hitting the stumps with the ball or by rapping the batter on the leg pad in front of them in a dismissal known as leg before wicket or LBW. The bowling team can also get outs – also confusingly known as wickets – when close catchers or outfielders catch the ball before it bounces or by using it to knock down the stumps if a batter is running between them.

Each team has 10 outs in an inning and the winning side is the one that gets the most runs.

The match is divided into units called overs – groups of six balls delivered by one bowler. The T20 format is played over 20 overs. There’s a day-long version of the game over 50 overs.

The most exalted form of cricket is the Test Match. These games are limited by time and not overs and play out like a long Shakespearean drama in five six-hour days in a row and include two innings per team. Test matches have waned in popularity in some countries as life speeds up and attention spans wane. But they are still popular in places like England and Australia. In the 1932-33 season Down Under, the two nations came close to breaking off diplomatic relations because of a dispute over “Bodyline” tactics pioneered by the England team – the bowling of fast short-pitched deliveries at a batter’s head designed to thwart Australian phenom Donald Bradman, the Michael Jordan of his day.

The first ever international cricket match was in the US but can the game catch on here?

Cricket has a long history in this country. The first ever international fixture was between the United States and Canada in 1844 in New York. But baseball soon superseded cricket in the US. The game however is becoming increasingly visible. There are hundreds of club teams, and it is no longer unusual to see games in public parks in big US cities with teams mostly drawn from Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi communities.

Elite US cricket is dominated by players of South Asian or Caribbean descent. The bowler in the super over – overtime play after the match against Pakistan – was Saurabh Netravalkar, a left-arm fast bowler who played Under-19s for India and now works in the tech industry in California. Milind Kumar, the outfielder who pulled off a spectacular catch (cricketers use their bare hands not mitts) was born in New Delhi.

The question now is whether the USA’s stunning win will trigger a rush of interest from outside the South Asian diaspora.

The obstacles are huge. Most Americans couldn’t watch Thursday’s game even if they’d have known it was on. The World Cup is being carried in the US on Willow TV, a streaming service that is also available on cable systems for an extra fee.

It’s tough for foreign sports to break into the idiosyncratic US market as established sports are bedded in popular culture, local communities and the rhythm of the seasons. The global game, soccer, has several times hubristically tried to conquer the US and it’s taken years to reach its current level with strong pro leagues the MLS and the NWSL.

But NBC’s coverage of England’s Premier League has broadened the game’s appeal. It’s not unusual now to see a Manchester United or Arsenal game on TV at college football tailgates in the Deep South on Saturday mornings. But considering almost every American kid plays soccer, the game ought to be bigger than it is.

The wildly successful US Women’s National Team might be a model for USA Cricket as it seeks to get girls involved. The best thing that could happen for America’s cricketers would be a prolonged run at the 2028 Olympics that could catch the public’s attention on national TV. The Olympics, and the national pride that comes with winning medals could also help cricket expand far beyond its current geographic footprint.

“Inevitably, you have countries like the United States, China, and others that as far as possible, try to enter teams or athletes into medal winning sports,” said Chadwick, who was speaking from Belgium. “I think this transition from being a colonial pastime to being a medal winning Olympic sport is a game changer. It’s a predictor of a likely increasing engagement with cricket around the world.”

But the game’s growth in the US will be hampered by the lack of school or community cricket for kids and no path to the currently impossible dream of the sport being played in colleges. And the women’s game is starting from a tiny base. Only about 400 of the 200,000 registered players in the US are female.

“You can look at this event in two ways, depending on how you define success,” said Della Penna, mentioning good World Cup ticket sales to South Asian expatriates and fans originating from Commonwealth nations. But there are high cultural and economic barriers to entry for other Americans to a sport that requires expensive equipment and coaching.

“If you’re defining success by a measure of what kind of legacy will be left behind after the circus leaves town, you’re not going to find much success because you’re not seeing kids play,” Della Penna said.

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