Kumble spreads the word in New York
Throughout the 1990s, if someone shouted out "Jumbo!" in New York on a Sunday afternoon, it could only have been meant for John Elliott. The burly 6-foot 7-inch, 300-pound offensive lineman plied his trade plowing over defensive fronts for the NFL's Giants and Jets for 14 years, winning a Super Bowl with the Giants in the 1990 season.
On this day though, the streets of Madison Avenue are screaming "Jumbo!" for a different man, one who was a super bowler in his own right, burrowing through the defences of batsmen an Indian record 619 times in Test cricket. The chief guest at New York City's India Day Parade is Anil Kumble and the parade route is swarming with people waving Indian flags to celebrate India's independence and pay tribute to their hero.
"It's been fantastic," Kumble says of his visit to the city where he showed off the ICC World Twenty20 trophy to more than 100,000 people lining the sidewalks of the parade route. "It really goes to show the prominence of the Indian community in the United States and also the appreciation and affection that cricketers have in this country, more so because of the Indian population and the support the Indian community has in all businesses. In economy and knowledge, I think India has contributed a lot to the United States."
Two days earlier, Kumble was in Times Square to ring the closing bell at NASDAQ, the second time in recent months that cricket was making headlines in the US financial sector. In June, MS Dhoni landed at number 31 in Forbes Magazine's annual list of the highest paid athletes in the world with $26.5 million, the first time a cricketer has appeared in the top 50. Kumble says that in order for cricketers to continue to rise and sit alongside some of the names whose global popularity and sponsorships consistently place them in the top 10 like Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Kobe Bryant and David Beckham, cricket needs to break into the US market in a big way.
"I think the easiest and the quickest way is if the United States takes up cricket," Kumble said. "That's the quickest way of seeing cricketers in the top 10. If cricket really flourishes in the United States, you don't have a better country to market a sport than is done here. I just recently went to a baseball game, the Yankees, and every second step you had to pay something or you would get attracted to something. I don't mind picking up that stuff. That's the way it's being marketed and I guess this is the right place for cricket. I'm sure it will happen.
"The first match happened between the United States and Canada so cricket started here. But then I guess the other sports have taken over in terms of prominence, television, sponsorship, marketing and everything else. It's only left to the expats. From whatever I gather from talking to various people, cricket is very fragmented in the United States. It needs to come under one umbrella and have a proper structure like other sports. T20 is probably the right format to start with. Once it comes under that umbrella and people start playing the sport in a competitive way across the nation then I think there will be a lot of interest. The only way you can develop any sport is if the local population picks up that sport and that's the challenge."
Kumble, who was elected president of the Karnataka State Cricket Association in 2010, says he entered Yankee Stadium to take in the experience more from an administrative mindset, taking notes on how things are done in New York with the goal in mind to help improve the stadium and fan experience at cricket grounds in India.
"Just from what I saw at the Yankees game, the entire spectator experience is what we need to take back in terms of the comfort level and the hospitality. The marketing part like I just mentioned, every step you take there is something new they'd like to sell the fans. There's a lot of merchandise and memorabilia for the fans which probably is something I'm sure will pick up in India as well in the cricketing scene because that's not there at the moment. It's not there in India in such a way where any store you walk in you can pick up whatever you want of your favorite player.
"I think you have some great stadiums in India as well. The new stadiums, especially the one in Pune is a beautiful stadium, the recently built Wankhede Stadium in Bombay, in Chennai they have remodeled the old stadium. All these new stadiums are really good. The challenge for us, yes we are now putting in permanent cushioned seats for the important prized tickets and there's hospitality in Bangalore. So that's something which we'll certainly do and you'll see a completely permanent seated facility in Bangalore very soon so the spectator will have a seat at any given point in time, a reserved seat. Here what was very prominent was that there was no obstruction. There were no pillars. It's an open stadium so you get the feel that you're actually very close to the action."
However, Kumble says the overall energy and excitment at cricket grounds in India, especially during Twenty20 matches, is second to none.
"Of course a cricket game is immense. If you come to an IPL game or a T20 or an international match in India, it's extremely noisy in India and I didn't see that noise level up other than maybe a couple of home runs and then suddenly everybody goes up. Otherwise in India for every four in a Twenty20, you get about five home runs in an over and if Chris Gayle is batting six home runs. There was no comparison in terms of the noise level inside the stadium but I certainly loved the stadium atmosphere at Yankee Stadium."
The ICC World Twenty20 is less than a month away and although this will be just the fourth edition since its inception in 2007, it has quickly turned into one of the premier events on the cricket calendar. Kumble doesn't think that fans should be worried about Twenty20 swallowing up Tests and ODIs, but believes that changes need to be made to keep all three formats healthy for the future.
"I strongly feel all three formats will be unique. Yes there will be certain modifications and a little bit of tweaking in all three formats because after a while even Twenty20 will get boring. I don't think it will throw Test cricket off the pedestal but Test cricket certainly needs to adapt and I feel going forward that day-night Test cricket is certainly on the cards and I'm sure it will happen in the next six to eight months, if not earlier. I'm sure it will happen.
"I can't really predict in 10 years what's going to happen because 10 years ago nobody thought that Twenty20 cricket would take over the world. Nobody predicted that there would be a threat from Twenty20 cricket to the other forms of cricket. I don't see it as a threat because the 50-over format is quite challenging as well. There is a chance for a bowler to make a mark and there is an opportunity for a batsman to build an innings as well in a 50-over format. In a Twenty20 it's not there but in Tests it's much longer. I think all three formats will survive."
Peter Della Penna is a journalist based in New Jersey