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U.S. aims to expand Twenty20 cricket, hoping it will attract fans

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -- There was a moment back in 2004 when cricket fans in the United States could be forgiven for believing that the sport might one day rise above a curiosity at home.

The national team had reached the Champions Trophy and was playing alongside cricketing giants Australia and New Zealand after a historic victory over Zimbabwe.

Though they were beaten badly in the elite competition, the experience had the potential to be a turning point for the sport - much as the 1994 World Cup was for soccer in the U.S. But it has never caught on despite being introduced in the American colonies nearly 275 years ago.

Instead, the team began a free fall from which it has only started recovering.

The U.S. team - made up mostly of immigrants from South Asia and the Caribbean - is now playing in lowly Division 4 alongside the likes of Malaysia and Tanzania. Its young and inexperienced side hasn't fared much better at this month's World Twenty20 qualifying tournament, losing five of its seven matches and ending any chance of it appearing in the World Cup in Sri Lanka later this year. It ended the group stages on a high note, upsetting Scotland.

"It has been a roller coaster," said head coach Mark Johnson, who comes from Jamaica and was part of the Champions Trophy side.

"One of the reasons why it has been a roller coaster is because of our preparation in between tournaments," he said. "We have long layoffs. Cricket as we play it back in the States is an amateur sport. We are not truly prepared for these games in terms of level of competition. We are Sunday afternoon cricketers."

The aim in the United States is to expand Twenty20 cricket, a faster format that supporters believe will attract a younger audience and Americans unfamiliar with the game. Unlike traditional cricket test matches that go on for several days, Twenty20 cricket lasts about three hours and is defined by big-hitting offenses.

It has taken off in India, South Africa and Australia because it takes less time to watch and is considered more fun since matches often feature loud pop music, cheerleaders and, in India, plenty of Bollywood stars.

Cricket purists are opposed to the flashier format, concerned it will take resources and attention away from the more traditional formats of test and one day internationals - which last more than twice as long as Twenty20 matches.

Efforts to promote the sport in the region also have been hurt by the failure of a proposed Twenty20 league in the Caribbean backed by Texas tycoon Allen Stanford, who was convicted of orchestrating a massive Ponzi scheme that scammed investors out of $7 billion.

Much of the blame for the U.S. team's downfall has been directed at the United States of America Cricket Association, where poor governance and political infighting resulted in the association being suspended in 2005 and again in 2007 by the International Cricket Council. That team was scheduled to play in Division 3 in 2007, but because of the suspension it was relegated to Division 5 in 2008.

The USACA also has come under attack for failing to develop the sport at the grass-roots level - New York City is the only school system that has a cricket program - and doing little to sign up American corporate sponsors. Facilities also are a major problem. A stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is the only purpose-built cricket venue in the U.S.

"I think (the United States) they have a lot of talent. They have a lot of cricket background. It's just not channeled very well," said Robindra Singh, who played for India from 1998-2003 and is now a consultant with the U.S. team.

"Because they are so scattered around, some of the good players miss out. That happens purely because they don't have enough cricket," he said. "Plus, they play too much on surfaces like concrete, synthetic turf. They need to play a lot more on turf wickets. I think all ICC tournaments are played on turf."

The team's problem of late has been its inconsistency, which some players blame on the association's tendency to replace players and coaches following a poor result. It was promoted to Division 3 after winning a Division 4 tournament in 2010 only to be relegated when it finished last in the Division 3 tournament last year. It beat Canada on the way to finishing second in the Americas qualifiers for the T20 tournament, but only beat Oman and Scotland at the tournament in Dubai.

As a result, the team hasn't appeared at marquee events like a World Cup, which has deprived it of a chance of producing homegrown stars.

"Kids need heroes," said U.S. team member Usman Shuja. "If you can't see them on TV, newspapers, it makes a huge difference. ... That contributes a lot to not developing the sport in the U.S. If we ended up in the World Cup, that would help."

Ahmed Jeddy, a USACA board member since 2008, acknowledges there are problems with cricket in the U.S., but says the federation can't be blamed for everything. He said the eight regions should do more to develop cricket, and the players themselves have to take more responsibility for the training and fitness.

Despite the team's struggles in Dubai, Jeddy said a side with an average age of 27 and including many making their international debuts would improve over time.

"I really don't care what the results of this tournament will be," Jeddy said in a phone interview from Texas. "I want people to look at this team in two years. We have started the process of rebuilding. If people allow us to work and get the consistency we want, I believe we will make a difference."

Jeddy said the sport's growth will be helped significantly by a Twenty20 cricket tournament, which is proposed to start in 2013 along the lines of the lucrative Indian Premier League. The league, expected to feature big-name players along with local talent, is scheduled to debut in six U.S. cities. If successful, some revenue generated by the league will go to the association.

It has brought in Keith Wyness, a former CEO at Premier League soccer club Everton.

"Without a doubt Twenty20 is the format that is going to achieve most visibility and penetration in the USA," Wyness said. "There are two goals here: firstly, we are looking to make sure the cricket opportunity is fully exploited in America in terms of bringing it to the general population and from that there will be development at the grass roots to eventually get more kids playing."