'T20 has added a lot to the game'
Late in the afternoon on a warm Sunday in New York, a car pulls up outside a shop in the Jackson Heights section of Queens. It's not too far removed from where Eddie Murphy arrived inconspicuously from the fictional land of Zamunda in a classic comedy from the 1980s. Today, a fitting and princely welcome awaits a legend coming to America to greet his adoring fans, with a troupe of bhangra dancers stomping to the beat of the dhol as he steps out of the car.
"That bhangra dance, it was really energetic. It was fantastic, very lively," Sunil Gavaskar said of the raucous reception. "If I wasn't restrained, I might have actually joined them." There were other crowds just like it in Dallas, Toronto, New York and New Jersey, where fans had the opportunity to meet Gavaskar, on a promotional tour. Visiting the United States brought back memories of his playing days, and occasional exhibition matches in the country.
"We actually played a few games of cricket here, way back in the '80s," Gavaskar said. "That was a time when there was no money in the game, so we all came in here and stayed with families. Because the economics didn't quite work out always for everybody, we would be maybe a party of eight people coming in from India and there would be three other guys playing from the local team and 11 of the club team. If the club had, say, 14 or 15 players, then three of their players would be part of the team that we were in. That's how we played a fair bit of cricket. We played in Dallas, Houston, New Jersey, New York."
The influx of South Asian immigrants into America over recent decades, and the West Indians who came before them, is one reason why the USA now generates more internet traffic on cricket websites than every country except India. But long before the internet, Gavaskar said, the interest was strong.
"Whenever these sort of teams travelled to the USA, like the teams that we brought in, there used to be massive crowds," he said. "We had India v Pakistan matches here. Obviously we couldn't call it India v Pakistan because our cricket boards would have objected. So it was an Indian XI v a Pakistani XI or an Imran Khan XI v a Gavaskar XI.
"The first time I ever played cricket in the USA was at Shea Stadium. It was the American All-Stars v the Rest of the World. That Rest of the World team was a pretty good team. Tony Greig was the captain, and we had Barry Richards, Alan Knott, John Snow, Majid Khan, Bishan Singh Bedi, and I think Farokh Engineer, so it was a very good team. "I would say there would have been about 14,000 people - that sort of gave you an idea of the interest.
"Now they are getting to see cricket. There is live streaming. There is a TV channel that is exclusively for cricket. Such TV channels wouldn't be feasible if there weren't enough people subscribing, so the interest level certainly is there, no question about it."
The sizeable crowds for those exhibitions were generated by fans raised on Test and one-day cricket. As T20 continues to spread its wings, many administrators hope that the format will become palatable to Americans outside the expatriate community. However, for any standard of cricket to prosper in the USA, Gavaskar believes that infrastructure is the key stumbling block.
"I think the most important thing for emerging countries like USA and China is to be able to get good pitches. I think pitches are so important because the pitches will give the club-level players the opportunity to play on surfaces which they don't have to worry about. The T20 game is about batting. For the spectators, the T20 game is all about watching the ball sail over the boundary into the stands, where some of them try to catch it. That can happen if you have good pitches. I think one of the reasons why cricket has not quite taken off is that a lot of the emerging countries don't have turf pitches.
"If you have good pitches, I would think 75% of the battle is won. To be able to build on that is what these countries need to do. There is an interest level there. I have seen it in the USA, and in Canada as well. The interest is quite massive and the cricket that they play on Saturdays and Sundays is quite intense."
Aside from the rise in popularity among fans around the USA, who might gravitate toward cricket because it can be condensed into three hours, corporate sponsors and media in the United States are also taking a greater interest. This year's World Twenty20, will be broadcast for free on ESPN3 in the USA. In turn, cricketers are getting increasingly better known in the country, which Gavaskar says is due to T20.
"For a sport that is not as internationally known as, say, soccer or tennis or even golf, I think cricket is getting the prominence that it is has got because of the T20 format. That's the one that has excited spectators, has gotten brands to come forward to get mileage for themselves through cricketers and through sponsoring events. I think T20 has certainly played a big role in making cricket, which earlier wasn't a career option, a very, very good career option now.
"It doesn't necessarily have to be playing the IPL or playing any of the other T20 leagues. I speak as an Indian. Even if you play in the domestic Ranji Trophy, with the kind of funds that the IPL has generated and which have now come into Indian cricket, a guy who doesn't play in the IPL but just plays Ranji Trophy is able to make a very good living. He earns a lot more than he would if he was working for a bank, an airline or the railways, which were the kind of jobs we did in the 1970s and '80s."
New on-field strategies have helped make the game more dynamic and helped make it grow more popular in the USA and elsewhere. As a regular fixture in the television commentary box, Gavaskar has gained an appreciation for the way all forms of cricket have transformed as a result of T20 cricket.
"The innovation that the batsmen have in playing some shots, the innovations that the bowlers have to resort to, to try and stop the batsmen from smashing them out of the ground, the back-of-the-hand bowling, the slower bouncers, the slower deliveries, the change of pace - these are all innovations that have added so much to the game.
"I just like to see the athleticism in the field. The fielding over the years has been outstanding. Also, the kind of physical training that they do. They are a much fitter and much stronger generation. So they hit the ball a fair distance more, they are able to last a little bit more. I love to watch that."
"I think I would have loved to have played T20. But on the other hand I'm very happy to have played in the time that I played in. Being in the commentary box gives me the opportunity to see the modern heroes, how the game is changing, how the approach and the attitude toward the game is changing. I can't thank the good Lord enough for having given me this opportunity to be able to travel around the world, meet different people and see the game that I love so much."
Sunil Gavaskar was interviewed in connection with MoneyGram's Ultimate Cricket Fan promotion, in which two people will be chosen to travel to the ICC World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka. More info here
Peter Della Penna is a journalist based in New Jersey