USA cricket dares to dream big
USA Cricket has dared to dream big. In a country where baseball is the game of the people, initiating the masses is going to be a massive task. No matter that the game in the US dates back to the 18th century, the American interest died out at the time of the Civil War and it could be a while yet before it catches on again. But, this weekend's historic two-match Twenty20 series between New Zealand and Sri Lanka in Lauderhill, Florida is a promising start.
USACA chief executive Don Lockerbie's 'Destination USA' vision for cricket in the States is a plausible one. Both teams have said publically that they are impressed with the pitch and excited to play in a new country, adding spice to what can sometimes be a monotonous travel schedule in a demanding global calendar. They have been well looked after. The New Zealanders have been spending time with the Florida Marlins, and experiencing some of the American culture.
There is still some way to go if Lauderhill and other US cities, like Indianapolis, Los Angeles and New York are going to ensure that this gains some momentum and inspires the full-member countries to play in the States. Thursday's evening match was cancelled mainly because the lights were not broadcast quality. The ground, built before Lockerbie - whose background is in stadium and venue development - took over in 2009, has its flood-lighting towers stationed too close to the outfield meaning they cast deep shadows.
Lockerbie says that temporary lighting was considered but that combined with an 80 per cent chance of thunderstorms in the area convinced organisers to cancel. That only 200 tickets were sold probably also played a part. Lockerbie says he believed it was important that "Destination USA was not launched with a potential bust but a boom".
New Zealand and Sri Lanka, semi-finalists at the recent ICC World Twenty20, aren't exactly the marquee teams that will sell-out the 20,000-capacity ground - organisers expect 3,000-5,000 on Saturday, but should India play in the States and in New York in particular, Lockerbie believes the numbers would rapidly rise.
"If India played anyone, the West Indies, Australia, England, Pakistan, in New York a 50-000-seat stadium wouldn't be big enough. There are millions of people living within an hour radius that love cricket," he said.
The IPL has been eyeing the untapped US market for some time, but the competition now has its own problems to concentrate on. Investors are said to be interested in building as many as ten purpose-built stadiums in the US. Pearls, an Indian developer, are the title sponsor for this weekend's series.
Lockerbie says all eight full-member nations have been in touch and are watching this weekend's outcome with interest, as is the ICC. Pakistan's displacement could prove perfect timing for the US to offer a home away from home. Lockerbie has pinpointed the relatively quiet period between May and August as a time that the US could slip itself on to a congested global calendar.
If there is a next time, Lockerbie would like more time to prepare for the international teams. The dates for this series were only publicised three weeks ago, leaving little chance for proper marketing of the event. As well as that, there was plenty of last-minute preparation going on on Friday while USA were being beaten by Jamaica by 127 runs in a 50-over match.
The television platform was still going up, the scoreboard being tested, media desks outside in the 90-degree (F) Florida heat still being built. The security was in place though. Broward County officers were in force, a flak-jacket brigade had swept the ground for bombs on Wednesday. The increased security may have had something to do with Homeland Security being informed of the Sri Lanka team's presence. The department were on alert mindful that the team were a target in the 2009 shootings in Lahore.
Lauderhill is about a 15-minute drive from Fort Lauderdale. Its inhabitants are mostly from the West Indian community and when Broward County Regional Park was mooted, the community was outspoken in his desire for a facility where commonwealth sports could be played. As well as the cricket ground, which can also be used for football (soccer), there are netball and tennis courts. The ground definitely has a West Indies feel to it, with grass banking and a pavilion that seats 5,000. Lockerbie says there is room for improvement to attract international teams. Expanding the dressing-rooms, a proper press centre with broadcast facilities and television towers are top of the list.
But the ground is useable. New Zealand have brought with them groundsman Jared Carter, who has spent the past week making the wicket up to standard. Jamaica scored 305 runs on one of the surfaces on Friday so it's possible that a decent scoring affair will ensue on Saturday. It's important that both New Zealand and Sri Lanka, with the match being broadcast to 88 countries - including on ESPN3.com in the States - impress their audience with some "home-run hitting".
The large expat communities are certainly excited by the prospect of international cricket being played in the US, but as well as getting the ICC and full-member countries enthused Lockerbie's other problem is getting the uninitiated US fan interested. Until cricket in the US is professional the standard will never be enough for the US fan to watch and root for USA. Lockerbie applies the MLS theory to building cricket's reputation; soccer in the States has started to take hold not via the domestic league so much but rather when soccer fans get to see the best teams in the world play - when the likes of Manchester United and Barcelona visit. Lockerbie believes the same principle can be used for cricket.
The USA side that were all out for 178 in reply to Jamaica's 305 for 4 on Friday were not the top team. Many of the players could not get time off work after using vacation to play in the UAE and Nepal recently. They will travel to Bermuda next week for the ICC Americas Division I tournament. The bulk of the squad are expats, learning the skills and nuances of the game in their home countries. Cricket in the US struggles at grassroots level, with a lack of facilities - a ground in California is under threat with city planners wanting to turn it into a dump - and money.
In a country where there is a huge reliance on getting funding for college by playing sport, cricket does not become an attractive option to those over 15. The West Indies with its close proximity has long been looked at as a possible nursery for young American players. New Zealand is keen to host promising youngsters in their systems. Lockerbie has aspirations to tap into the baseball market, where players who have failed to make it professionally could look to cricket instead.
This idea, however, has been met with scepticism. Would a 21 or 22-year-old really be able to be retrained in the art of cricket? Would the investment be worth it? Professionalism is just a major sponsor away says Lockerbie, but sources suggest it is at least one if not two years from reality.
There are plenty of obstacles still in the way for the US but is this not the country where dreams can come true?
Jenni Rutherford works in production for ESPN.