x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

American dream can be a reality

Advent of Twenty20 and growing Asian and Caribbean population translate to brighter future for cricket in United States, writes Osman Samiuddin.

USA, seen here in action against Italy in Abu Dhabi, have a young team hopeful of the game's future. Courtesy of International Cricket Council
USA, seen here in action against Italy in Abu Dhabi, have a young team hopeful of the game's future. Courtesy of International Cricket Council

It is difficult to imagine a battle more forlorn than the one cricket must wage to register on the sporting scene of the United States.

Even to call it a battle is overheating matters; a noble effort is probably more accurate.

Those inclined towards history will know, of course, that the very first international game of cricket was between the US and Canada in 1844 and that cricket was very popular there around that time.

Over 168 years, however, the sport has slipped quietly into obscurity, a curious, pedantic game.

At the forefront of the noble effort is the US side currently participating in the World Twenty20 Qualifier in the UAE, which theoretically gives them a chance to appear on the big stage in September at the T20 World Cup in Sri Lanka.

They are unlikely to do it; on Tuesday they lost to Uganda in Sharjah and yesterday, at the Zayed Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi, they were beaten by Italy in another close game.

Their squad is a young one (eight of the 11 were making their T20 debuts against Uganda) and as is usual at this level, made up mostly of naturalised citizens, the vast bulk of them from India, Pakistan and the Caribbean.

None of them are professional cricketers, though that is not to say they aren't achievers: at least three are management consultants.

One of them, the Karachi-born Usman Shuja, knows well the plight of cricket in the US.

"It's a chicken and egg problem. We have to raise funds to make cricket professional but some people believe we have to do well in these tournaments to make it professional," he said.

It is not as if there is no infrastructure. There are many city-based club leagues [in Dallas alone there are 44 clubs]. The leagues fall under eight regions, which come under the purview of the USA Cricket Association (USACA).

There are grounds too but not enough have turf wickets on which international cricket is played (most grounds put a matting-type carpet over a concrete pitch).

"The standard is there but it is only weekend cricket," said Asif Mujtaba, the former Pakistan international who has relocated to Dallas and is with the side in a part-time coaching capacity.

"We have to work hard to implement a proper programme and we need a set of coaches, a chief coach. Until you have a permanent set-up it will be difficult."

This is where the shortest format of the game has its uses.

Not only is T20 cricket accessible (Americans no longer need to grapple with the concept of competing over five days and still not producing a result), it is also lucrative if done right.

So, in collaboration with New Zealand Cricket (NZC), USACA plans to launch a professional T20 league in 2013, headed by the former Everton FC chief executive Keith Wyness. The plan is to sell six franchises to raise roughly US$200 million (Dh734m), and broadcast rights as well.

It will not be straightforward. As the journalist Peter Della Penna has persistently highlighted, USACA's administrative track record is in no danger of breaking the already low bar for governance set by cricket globally; twice in the last decade in-fighting has seen USACA suspended by the International Cricket Council (ICC).

The proposed league was actually supposed to launch this year.

"The league could change things big time because a lot of guys will want to start playing again," said Steven Taylor, at 18, the squad's youngest member. "At the moment many guys have stopped because cricket wasn't going anywhere."

Taylor is a useful peek into what the future could be. He is the only US-born member of the squad - indigenous so to speak - though his twang reveals his Jamaican heritage.

He is gifted, wants to bat like Chris Gayle and break Brian Lara's record Test score of 400a runs, plays basketball, and he has lived all his life playing and learning the game in the US. "I do sometimes feel like, 'what am I doing playing cricket?', but it's the game I love," he said.

Major League Soccer (MLS) is proof that sports sustained on an ethnic fan base can survive and grow into something beyond a pastime. It is a grass roots model Shuja and others believe needs to be used by cricket, more than just relying on a flashy T20 league.

"Cricket in the US right now is where soccer was 15 years ago," said Andy Mohammad, another young, bright thing. "Now soccer is big but I think in five to seven years we'll be getting some sponsorships and that's all we need."

In today's action, Shakti Gauchan took a hat-trick as Nepal beat Denmark by nine wickets in the Twenty20 World Cup Qualifier. In other Group B matches, Ireland beat Kenya by 10 wickets and Italy defeated USA by eight runs while Oman lost to Uganda by three wickets.

In Group A Jamie Atkinson, the captain, led Hong Kong to an eight-wicket victory over Bermuda by hitting a superb half century while Papua New Guinea suffered a second successive defeat when they lost to Canada by six runs.