In a country obsessed with American sports such as baseball, American football, ice hockey and basketball, such achievements as US playing in the Champions Trophy and ProCricket were unimaginable just a few years ago. But a few brave souls defied all odds to venture into untested waters and launch cricket to US audiences. Here Amjad Khan, a former first-class cricketer, talks exclusively to Cricinfo about playing US ProCricket, the format of the game and his ideas to improve the game.
The decision to launch ProCricket in America last year was a bold and commendable move, given that US audiences already have a glut of options: there are World Series in baseball, basketball and football. To say that ProCricket was an instant success would be a bit premature but, on the other hand, it can't be written off as a total failure. These are early days.
The game has had to be modified for American audiences. Innings are 100 balls long (comprising 20 five-ball overs), which makes matches last three hours, in line with the duration for all major American sports. Matches start at 7:00pm, so it is easier to draw audiences after work. Two professionals play in each side, which certainly lifted the standard and encouraged the local players to step up to the plate.
The international players who added a lot of excitement in 2004 included six West Indies players: Wavell Hinds, Corey Collymore, Mervyn Dillon, Franklyn Rose, Ricardo Powell, Marlon Samuels. Robin Singh from India, and Colin Miller and Richard Che Que from Australia also participated. The allround capabilities of Marlon Samuels made him stand out among all players, with his hard-hitting batting, he became the first player to score a century in ProCricket.
Amongst the locals, Nadeem Younis, a former first-class cricketer from Pakistan, toyed with all bowlers and scored a century in less than 45 deliveries. He was particularly severe on the former Windies pacer, Franklyn Rose: smashing him for one of the longest straight sixes I have ever witnessed. However, it was sad to see former Indian captain Ajay Jadeja and the off-spinner Nikhil Chopra sitting on the sidelines without taking part because of the Indian Cricket Board's reluctance to grant them permission to play in ProCricket.
For me, personally, ProCricket produced both bitter and sweet memories. Bitter, because I was dropped from the USA team that played in the ICC Trophy in England, supposedly because of my participation in ProCricket. Sweet, because I had the privilege of representing and captaining one of the eight teams in the first ever ProCricket competition in America.
Under my captaincy, New York Storm did well to win two, lose two and tie one. The New York Storm failed to reach the semi-final in the Eastern Conference because of a misunderstanding between the New York Storm management and ProCricket people. As a result, New York Storm ended up conceding their last game against the Florida Thunder, a victory in which would have given us a berth in the semis.
However - more than winning - just participating in the ProCricket competition in 2004 was enough to make me look forward to another exciting and productive season in 2005. It's a tremendous experience to play in such fast-paced games where results were decided off the last ball in two of the five games I participated in. I also played in the first ever tied game in ProCricket when New York Storm ended DC Forward's challenge off the last ball; one of the most exciting games in the competition.
I invited a few of my co-workers - typical white Americans - to watch the first game between New York Storm and New Jersey Fire in the New York Yankees minor league stadium on Staten Island. They were thrilled, and one said he would come back to see it again in a heart beat. Another remarked that he 'just loved it' and that the entire experience was 'awesome'. I already have requests from several co-workers to invite them to the 2005 games.
I believe that the short, sharp 20-over format adopted by ProCricket is the best way to introduce cricket to Americans, who regularly complain about baseball lasting too long. The non-stop excitement in the 20-over format is overwhelming, since there is no consolidation period. Also, the innovative field restrictions - only two fielders can be placed outside the 30-yard circle during the last six overs - creates more opportunities for run scoring.
But, having played the game, here are some thoughts I have to make ProCricket more attractive and viable event:
Media coverage Media will need to play a very crucial role. According to ProCricket folks, a South Asian channel, American Desi will be launched in the US shortly which will carry ProCricket games live. In addition, other channels (Sony, Zee TV, PTV, Geo, BBC, etc.) will need to step up as well.
Playing Facilities One of the main complaints from the players revolved around the pitches and the grounds. Given that the games were played in minor league baseball stadiums, the pitches were definitely not up to standard, with make-shift matting wickets being placed over wooden planks or dirt. To improve standard and to encourage strokeplay, hard and true pitches are a pre-requisite.
Professional Player Assignment Some players ended up playing for different sides to bridge the shortfall after certain cricket boards were reluctant to release their players. One day Marlon Samuels would be playing for New York Storm against New Jersey Fire, the next he would turn up for New Jersey Fire against Florida Thunder. I would like to see each professional assigned to a specific team - so that there is a sense of loyalty.
Higher Incentives There was a huge disparity between the match fees paid to local players compared with the international players. Local players should receive more money to incentivise them. Handing out Man of the Match awards at the end of each game and an MVP at the end of the tournament will generate higher interest amongst the players and bring out the best in them.
Sign-off from USACA/ICC If USACA and/or the ICC embrace ProCricket, they would give a big boost to cricket in America. Not only would it lend legitimacy to the event, but it will also allow bigger stars from leading nations to take part in the competition. Everyone's goal should be to advance cricket in America and not work to individual agendas.
All Star Game Based on individual performances, an All Star US ProCricket XI should be selected to play against, for example, a West Indies `A' or England `A' team. This would give global media coverage to the games and enhance the popularity of the game.