Reasons to be cheerful for US cricket
Just a few years ago, most cricket clubs in the USA were reluctant to release their best players for any regional tournaments, preferring to stick to winning on their own turf. The few scheduled inter-league fixtures were usually end-of season affairs, often after most local seasons had been completed. Costs of travel, loss of wages caused by absence from work, the absence of any tangible rewards from out-of league performances, and a general lack of interest in playing cricket away from home were cited as the main reasons for the shortfall.
One area where these problems do not exist to anything like the same degree was the New York region, where the cricket leagues play within hailing distance of each other, and even share the same grounds and facilities; indeed, New York's regional administration has sometimes been at loggerheads with the USACA Executive - once it even sent its own team to a Caribbean youth tournament in a direct challenge to the official team chosen by USACA. No wonder Gladstone Dainty and his associates see New York as their bastion behind which they can retreat to avoid scrutiny by critics and outsiders.
Outside the New York region, cricket leagues in the USA are further apart -- the nearest league could be a half-day or more's drive away, and others would require even more time to reach. The amazing spread of US cricket across the USA has come with an unexpected cost. As more localities start up their own teams, their interests become more parochial, and there is less interest in what is going on elsewhere.
All this fitted nicely into the predilections of the US cricketers of yesteryear. As recently as 2007, the typical league player was in his thirties, with a full-time job and a family, taking off on weekends to play cricket with his peers -- in short, a club cricketer rather than a motivated full-time player. Today's top league player is likely to be ten years younger, usually single, or childless if he happens to be married. Far from being averse to playing away from home and family, he welcomes the opportunity to play against teams from other states or cities, and he has an eye towards being selected for field trials for regional and national teams in 2008 and beyond.
Two factors could be contributing to this change in the demographics of US cricket. First, youngsters already in the USA who put US cricket on the map, by excellent international performances at the very time that their elders were doing so abysmally on the world cricket arena, are now graduating into premier league teams and showing up on senior team rosters. They are also looking for, and finding, opportunities to play competitive cricket with their peers. Second, the latest immigrants from South Asia, the Caribbean and other cricket-playing nations are children or relatives of recent immigrants, entering the USA as family members after completing high school or early college in their home countries. In other words, the pool of promising young cricketers in the USA has been growing three to four times as fast as the numbers of immigrant populations as a whole, and this is beginning to have a measurable impact on the quality of US cricket.
Whether this growth rate can be sustained over time remains something of an open question. If, for instance, outsourcing of high-level technical work continues to grow, this might dry up the supply of young cricketers who would no longer need to come to the USA to pursue their chosen avocations. Informal polls suggest that many, if not most, such players could elect to exercise a stay-at-home rather than move to the USA.
Similarly, young Caribbean cricketers might prefer to stay in their home countries with families and friends to lean on for inspiration and support, if they could play for pay at home in inter-island tournaments like the Stanford 20/20. Indeed, that is precisely what Allen Stanford has said he wants to achieve in his home island of Antigua; he wants the world of 20/20 cricket to beat a path to his doorstep, and contribute to the economic development of Antigua by their participation in his favourite sport.
Perhaps fortunately, there are others who are more than willing to step into the breach caused by the possible defection of young South Asian and Caribbean cricketers. From the US cricket scene, CricketAmerica, a professional organization headquartered in Florida, announced that it will set up eight franchised locations around the USA, with local investors to match the initial investments made as starter funds.
And the MCC has announced its intention to enter the US cricket market, with programs geared to US cricketers and their organizations. MCC's actual plans are still taking shape, but it is fair to assume that its strategy has been tacitly approved by the ECB and there will be few objections from them and, by default, from the ICC. And Major League Cricket, which pioneered in developing an independent cricket program against heavy opposition from the USACA Executive, is reporting to Cricinfo that it is on the way to resurrecting its programs, and hopes to have something in place by late 2008 or early 2009.
All this points to a cornucopia of high-class cricket being presented in the USA in 2008. There are programs, events and festivals to satisfy even the most voracious cricket appetites, and video broadcasts for most events can be accessed with a click of one's mouse through the internet. So, if you are a player in, or supporter of, cricket in the USA, get that broadband connection for your desktop or laptop computer, update your search engines, and sit back and enjoy. You will have entered the brave new world of 21st-century cricket, and the bad old days when no-one seemed to know what was happening will become a distant memory.
Deb K Das is Cricinfo's correspondent in the USA