Artificial pitches planned for USA T20
The organisers behind a professional Twenty20 league in the USA, which is targeted to be launched next summer, are planning to stage matches on artificial wickets.
Currently the only ICC-approved ODI standard natural turf wicket in the United States is the Central Broward Regional Park in Lauderhill, Florida. According to Cricket Holdings America chief executive Neil Maxwell, using artificial pitches will open the door to play matches in a number of cities and markets beyond south Florida.
"I think one of the fundamental areas that has held people back historically is the concept of playing cricket on turf pitches," Maxwell told ESPNcricinfo. "I think from our perspective, we've got far greater flexibility because we're going to play on artificial surfaces predominantly for the Twenty20 game and that gives us a broader spectrum of potential venues and sites that we can use."
With the lack of cricketing infrastructure in the United States, spending money to construct new turf wicket stadiums would require significant investment in an unproven market. The league's first season is tentatively set to take place over three to four weeks in June and July of 2013 and the cost to maintain a turf facility if left unused for 11 months could also prove to be expensive and inefficient. Maxwell says artificial pitches are a better option to get the league underway.
"The biggest hurdle to try and stage major cricket matches is the cost and ongoing maintenance of turf pitches," Maxwell said. "For the Twenty20 product where really you're coming to see the ball struck to the boundary as often as possible, the bowlers are given some encouragement, but the main thing is going to be regular bounce and give them player safety and we think that's going to be the best solution for it. The advancement in technology of these things is phenomenal, even in the last five years."
In June, West Indies made their highest score in Twenty20 Internationals when they posted 209 for 2 against New Zealand on a placid wicket in Florida. The innings featured explosive shot-making from Chris Gayle and Kieron Pollard, the kind that may be appealing to the casual American sports fan as well as the hardcore cricket fan. However, there are still lingering memories in Lauderhill of the dreadful pitch produced in 2010 which resulted in first innings totals of 120 for 7 and 81 all out when Sri Lanka took on New Zealand. Maxwell says it isn't worth the risk to invest in turf pitches because if they aren't prepared and maintained properly, it could have a dramatically negative effect on the on-field product.
"I think cricket needs to have a look at itself," Maxwell said. "We've got a 200-year-old product that's based around something 200 years ago. A lot of major sports have moved to artificial surfaces. I think the beauty of the United States is that we're starting with a blank canvas pretty much in respect to cricket history and tradition. Yes, we acknowledge the first internationals in 1844, but when you're looking at a contemporary product of Twenty20 cricket we're starting with a blank canvas. We have a reasonably well-educated core market, but it's a small market. What we want to do is broaden this game to mainstream America as quickly as possible.
"We can either approach that from a traditionalist's point of view and invest millions of dollars into turf pitches and then try and guarantee that they're going to be at the appropriate level for every game. Or we can go with a product that will allow the game to expand and develop within the country quickly because you'll be able to provide pitches at a fraction of the cost to the market that might want to choose to play cricket. I think artificial pitches will become the norm for Twenty20 cricket in 10-15 years."
Reports have suggested that Cricket Holdings America is looking to have at least two of the league's original six franchises to be based in New York and San Francisco. With sizeable South Asian and West Indian immigrant populations to tap into, those communities will be key to having good attendance figures at matches but Maxwell hopes to draw in other spectators by creating a vibrant atmosphere inside the stadium beyond the action out in the middle.
"This is very much about entertainment," Maxwell said. "This is about finding a way to appeal to mainstream America which might not be specifically through the game of cricket but through an entertainment product that will be exciting to a broad market segment."
Peter Della Penna is a journalist based in New Jersey