USA cricket October 6, 2012

Twenty20 in the US: We've seen it before

The US launch of a professional T20 league reminds me of another, more humble US-based T20 competition I took part in some 25 years ago

Reading about the US launch of a professional T20 league reminds me of another, considerably more humble US-based T20 competition I took part in some 25 years ago. As you might have guessed, these games involved students. In this case, a motley crew of Indian, Pakistani and West Indian undergraduate and graduate students enrolled at a New Jersey technical school. (Thanks to the large number of South Asian students enrollees, local wags suggested the NJ stood for 'Nehru-Jinnah'.)

Back in 1987, shortly after arriving in the US, I had already participated in one attempt to bring cricket to campus: arranging a telecast of the World Cup final. This done, our local band of cricket enthusiasts felt sufficiently emboldened to get off our collective backsides and actually play some real cricket. Miraculously, not only was cricket equipment like bats, balls, wickets, gloves and stumps procured, but lo and behold, so was a matting pitch. We would need it to solve the problems inherent in playing our games on the university's soccer ground.

As organisation proceeded and word was spread among the student populace about the upcoming games, a few of us met to plan the logistics. Twenty overs per side was settled on as the right number of overs; many of us had played games in that format at the school level, and the time we had for the game (on the weekends, after the soccer team had finished practice, and we were done installing the matting pitch) would only allow a 40-over game. We wanted to draw up teams as well from the list of those who had thrown their hat into the ring; we clearly had enough to make up two XIs, with some extra folks who could be counted on to not show up on the actual day out of laziness or forgetfulness. If we ran over the limit, we'd just have to find a creative way to substitute players.

At this point, one of the meeting attendees spoke up: "Hey, we should have a India v Pakistan game!" Three horrified pairs of eyes turned to look at him. Finally, someone spoke: "Are you mad?" (The literal translation of this from the spoken Hindustani roughly came to: Methinks thou hast had your brains eaten by ants.) We were perhaps overly sensitive about the potential for an international incident, but in any case, we quickly settled on the far more pacific alternative of an undergraduates v graduates game. Besides preventing an outbreak of hostilities, it would facilitate the mingling of the Indian and Pakistani players on the same team and lead to a cosmic Kumbaya sing-along, a Hands Across the Indus or the Wagah moment, if you will. (I should hasten to add that these teams featured one West Indian player.)

We played a few games on successive weekends. The pitch was as devilish as might have been expected, with awkward bounce despite the matting pitch, and fielding was very often a dangerous challenge thanks to balls that reared up at the most inopportune moments. There were a few dazzling batting performances mainly consisting of clean, straight hits delivered by those who realised quickly, like most amateur park cricketers in the US do, that the best way to get to the fence is to eschew the muddy, potholed ground, and take the aerial route.

And yes, we attracted many bemused and amused looks from passers-by; we were, after all, playing in the heart of Newark's grim inner city. The undergraduates won a few; the graduates won a few. No clear pattern of superiority emerged. There was little to no India-Pakistan tension in the games; perhaps the most awkward moment came when, on facetiously describing myself as a 'regular Fazal Mahmood' on being handed the ball for a bowling spell on the matting pitch, I had to inform my Pakistani teammate who Fazal was.

Our little tournament did not run too long; soon, early snows and the dismal north-eastern weather brought an early end to our season. It never restarted. For some reason, when the weather warmed up again, we had lost access to the borrowed equipment, became more busy with school work, and soon enough, lost our critical mass of sufficiently enthused organisers. I've never played cricket in the US again. Still, for those few weekends, our little proto-IPL (International Premier League) made us just a little less homesick with its sights and sounds, its importation of a whole new ballgame into these distant lands.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here