November 18, 2015

Why I didn't watch the All-Stars

Overpriced tickets and mediocre cricket: fans in the US deserve better. How about proper international matches?

A win for nostalgists, but not quite one for cricket in the US © AFP

In the summer of 1989, two years after I had migrated to the US, I went to see The Who live at Giants Stadium in New Jersey. I sat in the nosebleeds. Pete Townshend - his ears damaged by years of non-stop exposure to cacophonous Marshall amplifiers - did not play electric guitar; he eschewed his famous windmills, and there was no smashing of guitars. I couldn't quite shake the feeling I was witnessing a greatly diminished version of a band I had once idolised in my college days. It wasn't quite Live at Leeds, if you know what I mean.

Many years have gone by, and now I steadfastly eschew attendance at reunion/revival events put on by superstar dinosaurs. I have little interest in watching former greats - pale shadows of their former selves - put on second-rate performances. Especially if the tickets are overpriced, and if it seems like the primary purpose behind the staging of the event is not the provision of high-class entertainment but the fattening of the pockets of cynical promoters.

As you might have guessed from this preamble, I did not attend the "All-Stars" Sachin and Shane Jamboree in New York City, and neither did I watch the telecasts of the games played in Houston and Los Angeles.

I do not mean to scorn those who attended these games. There seems to have been plenty of enthusiastic cheering for the barrage of sixes that went flying into the stands, and certainly many US-resident Indian fans came out to see The Little Master™in action again. For some, as has been reported in these pages, it was a nostalgia trip; for others a chance to spend an evening in the company of friends at a cricket game in the US - a rarity in itself. I do not begrudge the participation of former stars in these games either. Why not pick up a little extra cash and hang out with some old friends, all the while gently exercising your ageing muscles?

The ticket prices, though steep, didn't discourage many Indian supporters from turning up to see their idols in the flesh © Rob Tringali/ESPN

But if you wanted to watch high-quality cricket in the US - live, not on television - this was not for you. And if you wanted to take seriously - for even the briefest of moments - the idea that this game had anything to do with the "globalisation" of cricket, or "bringing the game to the US" then the sight of the men who took the field would have reduced your enthusiasm all too quickly. Shane Warne spun many legbreaks many a mile during his long and distinguished career, but some of his (and Sachin Tendulkar's) greatest spinning seems to have been reserved for the huckstering of this event as the kind of thing that would promote cricket in the US and spread the game worldwide. The tickets were overpriced; the men who took the field were almost uniformly incapable of playing at a level that remotely approximated their best. They were never going to advertise cricket the way it could have, or should have, been advertised.

In one of my earliest posts here on ESPNcricinfo, I wrote:

Will it ever be possible to get a fair depiction of cricket in the US media? On current evidence, the prospects are bleak. Every television advertisement that features a cricket game, whether it be a tourism clip for the Caribbean or something else, invariably features a rather staid setting, perhaps with cucumber sandwiches and parasol-holding landed ladies in the background, in which portly men in creams amble up desultorily and deliver donkey drops which are clumsily hoicked past geriatric fielders. In these settings cricket does not so much resemble a game as much it does a government-mandated exercise programme meant to replace drug prescription benefits for the rich and elderly.

I'm sorry to say that thanks to the All-Stars, this will continue to be the vision of cricket that almost all Americans will continue to entertain. In a follow-up post to the one above, I had wondered what could be done to improve such a representation of cricket in the US, and wrote:

No game can hope to make inroads into the [American] national psyche and pick up both players and audience in the face of such depictions…. I dream that American fans might be exposed to a high-quality broadcast of a one-day international final between two high-quality teams. The athleticism and power on display would be seductive.

Why not play a series between India and Pakistan in the US, along the lines of the Sahara Cup in the '90s? © AFP

We did not see any such high-quality cricket in the US from the All-Stars. We got instead a series of glorified pick-up games. Hooray for nostalgia; boo for actually taking care of cricket fans in the US. It is hard to not see the organisation of this series, complete with its bizarre ticket prices ($175 in New York City) and staging in baseball stadiums, as a cynical exercise in the exploitation of cricket fans in the US - mostly Indians, they of the "burgeoning middle-class" and "upward mobility" and apparently endless enthusiasm.

Which brings me to my pet grouse. Despite the growing presence of a large and dedicated fan base in the US, which spends ample time and money on following cricket the world over (they even travel, fattening attendance in Caribbean stands), international cricket simply refuses to pay attention to us. We get to watch live telecasts of cricket - a considerable improvement in our lot from some time ago - and that's about it. And even there, the situation is far from ideal: territorial restrictions often affect telecasts and result in blackouts; live streams are often flaky and prone to technical disruption.

Much more could be done. India and Pakistan - and perhaps England and Australia - could stage a one-day international or T20 series here; a few IPL games could possibly be played here as a preliminary to the main tournament in India (much like the NFL stages games overseas); heck, a World T20 in the US would not be such an outrageous idea. Almost 20 years ago, India and Pakistan played a series of one-day internationals in Toronto. Those games saw fans turn out in droves, a famous rivalry received a new showcase, and who knows, maybe some Canadians cottoned on to the game. That is not such a bad model to emulate.

Modern cricket fans are often puzzled why a game with such a rich history, passionate following, and great literature, is administered and run worldwide with such a singular lack of imagination and vision. The All-Stars games prove that we will continue to wonder.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. @EyeonthePitch

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