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Analysis: Still long way to go, but cricket seeing growth in U.S.

By Aishwarya Kumar Lakshminarayanapuram

Players were padded up for their first practice session of the year Saturday in Glenview. The weather was in the 60s, and the sun was shining on a Glenview Park District’s field.

The season of cricket has arrived and the 100 recreational league teams in Chicago are excited.

ANALYSIS

Now, why should people care about a sport that has little awareness in the U.S.?

Ten years ago, the UFC received little attention. This January, the MMA fight between Conor McGregor and Dennis Silver drew 3.16 million fans across the U.S.. The same goes with soccer with the World Cup and Premier League doing robust ratings for the networks.

Cricket could be on a similar path. The sport, which is followed by 2.5 billion people across the world, is still in its infant stages but there are signs of its potential  in the U.S. in the next two decades.

Locally, cricket in Chicago has grow from 40 league teams in 2010 to 100 in 2016, an indicator that interest is growing.

Cricket actually is similar to baseball. It is played with a bat and a ball and has 11 players in a team. Batsmen from one team score runs in the first inning and the opponent team tries to outscore them to win the game.

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Comparison between cricket and baseball (Wikimedia Commons).

The reason cricket is picking up in the Midwest and in the U.S. is twofold: there are a large number of Asian immigrants with a passion to spread awareness about the sport; the International Cricket Committee—the international governing body for cricket– is trying to promote the sport by hosting international tournaments here.

“Chicago has one of the biggest Indo-Pakistan communities and for us cricket is the greatest passion,” said Manish Varma, general manager of American Cricket Conference.

In countries like India, England and Australia, you would know that cricket is about the big sports story on many days. So, it is not surprising that the 12 million Asian immigrants in the U.S. now are trying to promote the game by playing at recreational league levels.

And then there is the effort by ICC. It is pushing to introduce competitive cricket at high school school and college levels in the Midwest and the U.S. They recently met with heads of cricket leagues to start the process. They also are pushing to qualify Team USA for the 2019 World Cup, 2020 World T20 and 2024 World T20.

Let’s also not forget the Cricket All Stars tournament held last November between between Sachin Tendulkar’s Blasters and Shane Warne’s Warriors. U.S. is one of the few places these world renowned players from India and Australia, respectively, will be able to walk on the roads without attracting attention. It is by far the biggest cricket tournament U.S. has ever hosted, considering the previous ones were one-off games between team USA and countries like Afghanistan and Ireland.

The cricket scene in Chicago is interesting. If you decide to jog around Glenview Park District on a Saturday or Sunday morning, you will see Indians and Pakistanis, who are arch rivals back in Asia, playing for the same league teams. They exchange news about cricket games and mock each other when their countries lose a tournament. There is definitely potential here and more than 10 percent of the players in the league teams definitely have it in them to make it to the national team.

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Players of American Cricket Conference celebrating after their victory in 2015 (Courtesy of American Cricket Conference).

And there are the night tournaments that show promise. Held from 6 p.m., this 20-over tournaments have been drawing a lot of American fans, said Varma.

Twenty-over cricket is fast-paced. It spans just over three hours and there is a good chance that this format of cricket will draw people’s attention.

“People in Chicago are getting excited about the smaller formats of the game – they see it on TV, online, and there are also lots of advertisements – so they want to know more about it,” said ACC’s batsman Vineet Chopra.

Illinois Institute of Technology and University of Chicago have their own cricket clubs launched and run by Asian students. They host 20-, 30-, and 50-over games throughout spring and summer. This will help spread awareness about the game at collegiate level.

Air India is the sponsor for IPL CC’s championship games, offering two tickets for the winner of the tournament. Air India’s banner has helped with the league’s popularity, said IPL CC’s president Raees Nizami. The hope is, once people’s curiosity is piqued, they start caring about the sport.

The Skokie Park District is in talks with the leagues in Chicago and ICC to build a ground for cricket. Though the ground will have to be doubled up to serve as a soccer field, this is a step forward for cricket in the U.S.

There is a long way to go before cricket is considered a mainstream sport in the U.S. but there is hope that in the next couple decades, it makes headway.

If soccer can break through the big U.S. sports wall, so can cricket.

Photo at top: A file image of Sri Lanka playing against Australia (Wikimedia Commons).