Saturday, July 13, 2024

Rain, grit and skill: how USA’s part-timers came to mix it with cricket’s elite

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Why was a Florida man named Chuck dressed in stars and stripes overalls wandering round a damp park near Fort Lauderdale yelling “I cheer for dingers”?

It’s the magic of the Men’s T20 Cricket World Cup, inspiring fans to fall in love with a new sport and a fresh set of American heroes.

How so?

It’s been quite the World Cup debut for the US, a raw band of part-timers who conjured one of the greatest upsets in cricket history by beating a traditional powerhouse, Pakistan. It was, mused one presenter, akin to “the Boston Red Sox losing to the Durham Bulls”.

Susan Sarandon and Kevin Costner are yet to comment. But it means that, allied with the US’s opening victory over Canada and the point they picked up on Friday when their fixture against Ireland was washed out because of the storms hammering south Florida, the improbable has become the actual. Along with Group A winners and tournament favorites India, the US has qualified for the next round at Pakistan’s expense.

This is the Super 8, which is both the title of an under-rated JJ Abrams sci-fi thriller and the name for the second group stage.

Could the US go all the way?

Let’s not get greedy. They’ve done superbly to make it to the Super 8s, where they’ll face South Africa (19 June), the West Indies (21 June) and reigning champions England or Scotland (23 June). Still, there have been other upsets. Afghanistan crushed New Zealand and Canada overcame Ireland. Perhaps most importantly, being in the Super 8 guarantees the US a berth in the next T20 World Cup, to be held in Sri Lanka and India in 2026.

Who are these newly minted sporting legends?

The US are coached by the former Australian batter, Stuart Law. The US’s star bowler, Saurabh Netravalkar, is a software engineer at Oracle. Netravalkar, 32, bowled the tie-breaking “super over” against Pakistan and took the wicket of Virat Kohli, the Indian superstar with 269m Instagram followers, though India won the match. Netravalkar was born in Mumbai and played for India under-19s. Batter and vice-captain Aaron Jones, born in Queens and raised in Barbados, smashed 10 sixes in the win over Canada. (A six, or a “dinger”, as Chuck would call it, is scored when a batter hits a fly ball over the boundary, similar to a home run.)

Who’s here, and why?

This year’s tournament has 20 teams. It started in the Dallas area on 1 June and will end with the final in Bridgetown, Barbados, on 29 June. It’s being jointly hosted by the West Indies (a grouping of Caribbean nations) and, for the first time, the US. Cricket’s bosses aim to capitalize on the huge diaspora from cricket hotbeds such as India and Pakistan, as well as sell the sport to neophytes in the belief that the US is a vast untapped market.

Three American venues have been used: small grounds near Dallas and Fort Lauderdale and a 34,000-capacity temporary stadium on Long Island. It hosted a clash between rivals India and Pakistan that saw Super Bowl-esque levels of demand for tickets. After 16 June all the action takes place in the Caribbean.

I’m not bothered. I’ll concentrate on the Olympics, thanks.

Cricket will be an Olympic sport at Los Angeles 2028! Also, the American links run deeper than you might imagine. This is the biggest moment for US cricket since 1844, year of the world’s first international cricket match (a win for Canada over the US in New York). Even if you’re not into the jargon-jammed sport itself, and – like the US team itself – struggle with the rules, consider the compelling cultural context. North American cricket is a window into colonial history, given its rise under British rule and fall as baseball blossomed after the Civil War. It’s also a symbol of the energy and potential catalyzed by modern immigration trends, since its current resurgence owes much to fans, players and investors of South Asian or Caribbean descent.

What exactly is T20, anyway? Sounds like the name of yet another Terminator sequel.

This origin story has a (tenuous and tar-coated) American connection. A county cricket cup competition backed by an American-owned cigarette brand was axed after the UK government outlawed tobacco-sponsored events in 2002. That created a gap in the match calendar which English cricket’s overlords filled with a bold new format.

Matches that last 10 days instead of five? Weekend brunch in addition to the usual pauses for lunch and tea?

They went the other way. T20 is a condensed version first introduced professionally in 2003 in England – a country with a generally snobbish and dismissive attitude towards baseball – in order to make cricket more like baseball. Counter-intuitively, it quickly became hugely popular. World cricket’s governing body, the ICC, has organised an international men’s tournament pretty much every two years since 2007, with the first women’s edition in 2009.

Games usually last under three hours, there’s an emphasis on bashing the ball as far as possible, and plenty of color, noise and commercialism in a sport known for being slow and staid. With its shallow but addictive adrenalin-rush appeal, commitment to brevity and flagrant attention-seeking, it’s basically cricket’s equivalent of TikTok. No one calls it by its full name, Twenty20, anymore, because who has time for that? T20 is a reference to the number of six-ball overs each team faces: two sets of 20, unless all the batters are out. Scores of between 100-200 runs per team are typical. “Cricket is like baseball on steroids,” one player told Axios. Although to be honest we already have a pretty firm idea of what baseball on steroids is like.

Of course, no elite-level professional cricketer would dream of lighting up a cigarette these days.

Uh, yeah, sure. Whatever you say.

I’m jumping on the bandwagon. How can I watch?

In the US the matches are on Willow, a subscription cricket channel. The lack of free-to-air live coverage on a mainstream network is a downer. Absent that, or a sighting of Taylor Swift in the crowd, it’s going to be tricky to move beyond preaching to the converted and capitalize fully on the current momentum. No disrespect to cricket-curious segments on Good Morning America, but we’re not witnessing a phenomenon anywhere near as pronounced as when the US men’s soccer team reached the knockout phase of the 2014 World Cup and 16-18m viewers tuned into ESPN.

Still, in the wake of the win over Pakistan, YES, the New York Yankees’ television network, has struck a deal to show seven Major League Cricket matches when the US’s premier club competition – a T20 league with international stars, backed by seriously wealthy investors – returns for its second season next month.

Baseball and cricket, co-existing peacefully.

Like I said, magical.

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