July 5, 2012

New Zealand's American dream

They have a lot riding on promoting cricket in the US, but you wouldn't know that going by the team's recent performances in Florida

New Zealand Cricket can thank West Indies for providing a reason why the sport might be a show worth watching (and paying for) in the United States. Cricket Holdings America, a company formed by the United States cricket governing body and NZC, is planning a US-based T20 league next year, but the New Zealand team did little to advertise cricket over the weekend in Florida. In two skewed contests West Indies secured 61-run and 56-run victories; trouncings in T20 terms. The batting of Chris Gayle and spin bowling of Sunil Narine were highlighted in front of reasonably healthy crowds.

New Zealand's performances gave fans little confidence, especially on a pitch that had improved from NZC's first American experiment, when New Zealand played Sri Lanka in May 2010. Mark Perham, the groundsman at Auckland's Eden Park, helped monitor the wicket's progress after being seconded to Fort Lauderdale while on a recent American holiday.

New Zealand's lack of nous playing spin and their ineffectual bowling to the likes of Gayle means hopes must be tempered of their surpassing West Indies in the one-day and Test rankings as the series continues in the Caribbean. In addition, an injury crisis beckons with the loss of Ross Taylor, Jacob Oram and Roneel Hira, and Mark Gillespie (before he even travelled).

The absence of four of New Zealand's better T20 players - Daniel Vettori, Brendon McCullum, Jesse Ryder and James Franklin - further impacted on showcasing the game to an American audience. Still, all is not lost. Twenty-five West Indian sixes, a token ten from New Zealand, and a class in spin subtlety from Narine ensured the audience got a slice of entertainment. Compare that to the lifeless pitch, 375 runs and four sixes in the two matches of the 2010 New Zealand-Sri Lanka vintage at the same venue.

Promoting cricket as a spectacle in the United States was the aim behind the matches. NZC is set to to invest intellectual property and playing stocks in the proposed six-team US league over three weeks midway through each year. Whether the spectacle convinced possible franchise investors in the league's host cities of Fort Lauderdale, Toronto, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia remains to be seen.

A shareholding in the rights to cricket matches in America remains a potentially smart business strategy for New Zealand. Future revenue could be earned from negotiating broadcast deals within the US market. The alternative is NZC continuing to be restricted to selling matches within its home market and struggling to match the established high-rollers India, Australia, England and South Africa.

The stakes of the NZC gambit are upped by cricket's lack of credibility in the US. The loss-making failure of the first international foray against Sri Lanka didn't help. The lopsided nature of this weekend's results might have exacerbated that effect.

Research suggests there are approximately 15 million cricket "supporters" in the US. Many are part of expatriate Indian subcontinent and Caribbean populations, meaning a wider market exists. There is some way to go. New Zealand's players and management generally mouthed the right things about supposed local interest and the responsibility of putting on a spectacle. Yet Andrew Ellis may have been closer to the truth when he said "there is no reference to cricket anywhere around this part of the world" in a recent newspaper column. His comments may have come in the wake of Miami Heat winning the NBA basketball crown, but the US cricket experiment remains a work in progress.

Andrew Alderson is cricket writer at New Zealand's Herald on Sunday