Cricket Invasion: The beloved sport comes to America. Will it be a hit?
NEW YORK—Last Saturday afternoon at Citi Field, less than a week after the Mets lost to the Royals in a dramatic 12-inning World Series clincher, the stage for the biggest event in America’s pastime gave way to a curious contrast: an all-star cricket match.
With World Series signage still emblazoned on the grass along the first- and third-base lines and the dugout roofs featuring the baseball teams’ fading logos, the pitcher’s mound was now draped in a sheet to promote the cricket match and the infield dirt appeared jaundiced, a physical confirmation that the off-season had arrived. In centerfield, a makeshift cricket pitch stood almost as a challenge, posing the question: Can this sport, the second most popular in the world behind only soccer, but little understood by the typical American, take off on this nation’s soil?
Perhaps as an initial answer, 36,000 fans boisterously cheered on the game’s greatest retired legends—with teams led by Indian demi-god Sachin Tendulkar and Australian Shane Warne. By bringing cricket exhibition matches to three baseball stadiums this week (Houston's Minute Maid Park hosted on Wednesday and Los Angeles's Dodger Stadium will do so on Saturday), the plan is to globalize the sport and tap into the U.S. market. Part of the motivation is also to make a bid to reintroduce cricket as an Olympic sport for the first time since 1900. Call it wicket evangelism.
The Twenty20 cricket featured in these exhibitions is a fast-paced style of the game that takes three hours—not the five days of a typical Test cricket match and close to the average time of an MLB game. In this format, six pitches from a bowler designates an “over,” and 20 overs constitutes an inning. Once Tendulkar’s Blasters finished their one inning at bat, Warne's Warriors would have their chance to try to hit more runs.
Tendulkar and compatriot Virender Sehwag served as batsmen first with Queen’s “We Will Rock You” blasting throughout the stadium.
In the stands, Jay Amar, 30, a Mumbai-native now living in New Jersey, pointed to a large sign beside him with Tendulkar’s image and the words “God of Cricket.”
“That’s what I made all night,” he said, proudly. He was awestruck to see Tendulkar live in New York and expressed how inconvenient it typically is to get his cricket fix—watching, as he does, at odd hours on Sling TV.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s 3 in the morning, I watch it,” he said.
On the pitch, Tendulkar then thwacked a six-point shot over the third-base line as the crowd erupted. The whole stadium was something of a paradigm shift, of course, with the typical oval of a cricket field contorted to work with the baseball diamond geometry. The rope—the boundary that designates the limit for four- and six-point hits—snaked along the warning track but also articulated a weaving path around the anemic-looking infield. When a six launched over home plate, it caused a peculiar breed of cognitive dissonance.
Soon thereafter, Tendulkar drilled a line-drive intercepted by Jacques Kallis, a wily South African who made a lunging grab. In cricket, quite dramatically, when a player gets out whether by a hit wicket or a caught fly ball, he’s out as a batsman for the rest of the match. As a result, a fielder like Kallis who catches a hit acts like he’s just scored the game-winning goal in the World Cup finals. He celebrated wildly, and the fielding team bunched in by the pitch to celebrate. Many in the crowd did the “we’re not worthy” bow.
That cricket had not been featured in a mainstream fashion here before is unfortunate, because with such a large Southeast Asian population in Queens, there’s a major built-in audience for this kind of competition.
Case in point, Anindita Biswas, 28, a Bangladeshi architect living in Corona, Queens, and her husband, Kunral Mandal, 29, a pharmacist also from Bangladesh, had never been to Citi Field before, though they live a stone’s throw from the stadium.
Why? Though Biswas had once been to a “Yankee match,” she left early because it didn’t command her attention the way cricket does. “Sometimes in cricket, it’s 400 points one team is making,” Biswas said. “[In baseball] it’s like two points. I’m like, ‘What’s happening? They’re running. There is no points.’ It’s a little slow for me.”
“In cricket, there’s more happening,” Mandal said. “Every ball, there’s something going on. It’s more of an adrenaline rush.” Part of that contrast stems from the fact that, unlike in baseball, there's no taking a pitch in cricket; the batsman needs to defend the wicket so he swings with abandon.
Chris Winter, 50, who has lived in New York for 20 years, grew up playing cricket in Tasmania wearing traditional all-whites. “Clearly, it’s unusual seeing cricket in a baseball stadium,” he said. “You don’t usually have the baseball diamond just behind the wicket.”
But the high-decibel count also prompted him to note some contrast. “Cricket’s not normally this crazy,” he added, as the Jumbotron noise-meter prompted the audience to scream. “There’s loud music every two or three minutes.”
Just then “Fetch That” flashed on the screen, as a six flew over the rope and into the stands off the bat of South African Shaun Pollock. At the next pitch, the crowd taunted in a sustained ohhhh that accelerated toward crescendo upon release. A fan nearby intoned a vuvuzela in orca whale staccato.
Though enthused by the energy—and excited to watch fellow Australian Warne, whose antics tend toward the braggadocious, complete with Babe Ruth bat pointing—Winter said he did not anticipate the sport will take off Stateside any time soon.
“I think it’s going to be exhibition games,” he said. “To create an entire league seems a long way off.”
One barrier to entry with the game in the U.S. has been the rules, which are viewed as idiosyncratic or flat-out complicated.
James Buckley, 35, a native of Ireland who is living in New York, never played cricket growing up but assured the Indian banking client he came with to Citi Field that he had a grasp of the sport. He ran through the four- and six-point designations before pausing. “After that, it starts getting hazy,” he said.
International music played—calypso from Trinidad and Bollywood tunes. Fans held signs reading “Cricket, Welcome to New York” and “Sachin For President” along with flags from countries around the world. That international presence, Buckley said, may ultimately be a major selling point for the sport.
“With baseball, there’s such a focus on it, but it’s American-centric,” he said. “It’s called the World Series, but nobody else is playing. This is more of a global sport.”
As the end of the second inning drew near, the drama amplified. Warne’s team needed 29 runs with 30 balls left. In keeping with the day’s combination of built-in cricket drama and American acoustic pump-up, the White Stripes' song “Seven Nation Army” kicked into high gear: Woah oh oh ohhhh oh…
The fanbase once again showed its wild passion, and if there’s any grass-roots effort to promote this sport’s foothold in the U.S., it starts with the leagues where enthusiasts sustain interest in the game and introduce it to newcomers.
Take, for instance, Sri Lankans Ahmed Pakeer, 24, and Mohamed Yamani, 21, from Edison, N.J., who took a break from their information systems studies at Rutgers to cheer on legend Kumar Sangakkara.
Typically, the two friends play on a team called the Edison Lions, using a community baseball field they’ve repurposed to maintain an active commitment to cricket.
“We are all cricket,” Pakeer said.
Sri Lankan compatriots Ajay Hetti and Rohan Karunaratni, both 36, are cricket enthusiasts above all, even though they live in the Bronx near Yankee Stadium. Saying they play in cricket leagues in Staten Island and Queens, they started scrolling through photos on their cell phones depicting their various contests.
“Last summer, we played six a side,” Karunaratni said. “This is what we did, and we won the cup.”
He swiped to another photo.
“And this is the cup,” he said.
“This is another tournament, seven a side,” Karunaratni continued. “And we won the cup.”
He, once again, swiped to a new photo and zoomed in.
“And this is the cup,” he said.
These communities and their leagues are the lifeblood of the sport in the U.S., and this type of big-time exhibition match can reinvigorate their commitment to their beloved game and its proliferation. Ammad Siddiqui, 35, from Pakistan, flew in from Chicago, where he works as a director of finance for Hilton Hotels, to see his countryman Wasim Akram play at Citi Field.
“It’s the talk of the United States in our communities—these legends,” Siddiqui said. “They’re inspirational people for my generation. When we found out that these guys are coming to play, you just couldn’t resist to come down. It doesn’t matter where the game is.”
Ultimately—despite the crowd’s overwhelming pro-Tendulkar chants of “Sa-chin! Sa-chin!”—Warne’s Warrior’s took the match with 16 balls left to bowl. And though for cricket players, "Royals" usually refers to the House of Windsor, not a Kansas City baseball team, Tendulkar admitted he was able to draw on his World Series experience at Citi Field as comparison for the cricket all-star match.
“You saw the atmosphere—it was electrifying,” he said after the match. “I was there to watch the finals of Mets … And the atmosphere was exactly like that.”
Australian cricketer Ricky Ponting concurred that showcasing a skillful brand of cricket would inspire an attractive vibe for Americans to overcome some of the hurdles that have prevented the game from taking off in this country. Making cricket up-close-and-personal for American audiences is a start.
“We were that close," Ponting said of the fans. "It was the first time I’ve had a selfie taken in the outfield."
Ross Kenneth Urken is a writer based in Manhattan who has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Paris Review and other publications. See more of his work here.