May 23, 2010

Keep it short for the Yanks

If the game is ever to take off in America, Twenty20 is most likely the way to go
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"I've been to two rodeos and three goat-ropings and I ain't seen nuthin' like this," was the reaction of an American baseball commentator when the Atlanta Braves recently mounted a freakish seven-run last-inning comeback. When Sri Lanka play New Zealand in Miami this weekend, the response from the Americans in the audience may be similar. On second thoughts, the bulk of the fans will probably be expats from the subcontinent or the Caribbean, so most of the comments will be well-informed.

However, if cricket is to become a viable sport in the USA, eventually the officials have to attract some genuine American fans. This is why the experiment this time, unlike those attempted in the past, is critical; the only way cricket is going to attract American fans in reasonable numbers is via the Twenty20 version of the game.

Past tours were all longer matches. In 1932 an Australian side toured America and Canada, and despite the presence of Don Bradman (who was on his honeymoon), the game failed to capture the imagination of the Yanks. There was a publicity shot involving Bradman and Babe Ruth, then a huge star with the Yankees, and the inevitable comparisons were made between the two kings of their sport but nothing came of it other than a nice memento for Bradman's mantelpiece.

There were also publicity shots taken at a film studio in Hollywood, but the British actors like Aubrey C Smith and Boris Karloff who figured in it were already cricket fans. I remember seeing photos from the tour, of stars like Jeanette McDonald and Jean Harlow. The photos were on my grandfather Vic Richardson's mantelpiece - he was the captain of the team.

Vic told a delightful story of a dinner party where Harlow kept referring to Margot Asquith (wife of British prime minister Herbert Asquith) as "Margot", pronouncing the "t". Margot finally had enough and said to her, "No, Jean, the 't' is silent, like in 'Harlow'".

Hopefully the crowd won't be quiet at Lauderhill, where the Twenty20 contests will take place. There were enough visitors from the USA during the World Twenty20 event just completed in the Caribbean to suggest there might be a reasonable crowd at Lauderhill. However, once again those tourists were mostly supporters of teams from the subcontinent.

There are American cricket fans but they are few and far between.

In 1973 the Australians were in the hotel bar in Kingston after the first day's play at Sabina Park when we heard this American drawl: "Rod Marsh and Ian Chappell. I never thought I'd meet you guys."

If cricket is to prosper and grow, the financial clout of India has to be diluted and forging a presence in the big-market regions is the only way that is going to happen

We asked the American what he was doing in Kingston and he replied: "My wife and I travel from Philadelphia every year to watch the Sabina Park Test.'' However, he said he wouldn't be attending the remainder of game because his wife felt threatened by the crowd. We asked if he'd change his mind if we could get him tickets for the members stand and he said yes. That's how there were two Americans in the Sabina Park crowd in 1973, barracking for Australia. That was a long time ago and since then I haven't met any American cricket fans.

Then there was the failed experiment in the 2004 Champions Trophy, when the USA was annihilated by New Zealand and Australia.

Twenty20 is the correct vehicle to promote the game and if they come up with the right formula, combining business and cricket administration in a franchise, they might just find a niche market. That's why the IPL needs to quickly sort out its problems so that the franchise model can eventually be exported to large markets like the USA, Europe and Japan. If cricket is to prosper and grow, the financial clout of India has to be diluted, and forging a presence in the big-market regions is the only way that is going to happen.

The last time I witnessed a cricket tournament in the USA, the contest between India A and Australia A was spoiled by a terrible pitch. Hopefully conditions this time will be more conducive to entertaining cricket. If the cricket isn't top-class, then in future Americans will be more likely to visit a rodeo or a goat-roping than attend another cricket match.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator and columnist