Peter Della Penna is a journalist based in New Jersey
Less than 48 hours before the first ball is bowled, the last available tickets are slowly disappearing as the West Indian diaspora eagerly awaits this weekend's two-match T20 series against New Zealand at the Central Broward Regional Park in Lauderhill, Florida.
While West Indies trained in the middle, ground staff toiled in the background in 90 degree heat on Thursday afternoon, putting the finishing touches on the ground to get it ready for the first match on Saturday afternoon at which 15,000 fans are expected to turn out.
The facility looks slightly different in appearance than during the series that took place two years ago between New Zealand and Sri Lanka. Portable bleachers (stands) have been brought in and mounted on the grass embankment on the north side of the complex to accommodate the crowds which are expected to dwarf the paltry attendance figures from the pair of Twenty20 international matches at this venue two years ago.
The increased interest is validation for people like former West Indies players Lawrence Rowe and Lance Gibbs who now live in the area and have advocated bringing big matches to Florida. On Thursday, Gibbs reminded people that it was against New Zealand that Rowe made a splash on his Test cricket debut in February of 1972 in Kingston, Jamaica. Rowe famously scored a double-century in the first innings and followed it up with 100 not out in the second. A little over 40 years later, the two men are hoping that fans will enjoy the spectacle on offer this weekend at a venue that hasn't been used much since it was opened in 2007.
"There are millions of people from cricketing nations that live in America and Florida has got the most unique type of weather that could accommodate cricket all year round," Gibbs said Thursday afternoon after observing the West Indies training session at the stadium. "This is the reason why this beautiful place we have here was built."
The plan for the stadium first came about as part of a bid package to get World Cup warm-up fixtures assigned to Florida ahead of the 2007 main event in the Caribbean. The bid fell short and Rowe says that hindered potential exposure for the stadium. This is only the second series between two Full Members since the facility opened five years ago.
"I think it's a learning experience," Rowe said. "They had missed out on the '07 World Cup, which really was the main thing and that fell through. Then they had the New Zealanders here [in 2010] and now this. Although the period is long, it's a giant step towards getting more now because if a good alliance can be built with the West Indies Cricket Board, we can almost be certain that when a series comes to the West Indies again, we could be getting a game or two every time a tour comes to the West Indies, which would really make it viable."
Another by-product of having a viable stadium would be the potential impact it would have on American players and fans. New Zealand Cricket (NZC) pushed for these games to be held in Florida and this weekend will be a litmus test to gauge the kind of interest there is in having a franchise placed in Lauderhill for the start of a domestic Twenty20 professional league they are trying to organise with the USA Cricket Association (USACA) to start next summer.
Such a league would ideally give a boost to the bank balances of NZC and USACA, but could also provide development opportunities to local players like Steven Taylor, who was raised in nearby Miramar and is the son of a Jamaican immigrant. Taylor, 18, is one of the USA's most promising talents and the lone-American born player currently in the USA senior team. This week, he has the opportunity to train with both the West Indies and New Zealand to get a sniff of the big time.
"It's fun to go against these guys because they're really challenging you when you bowl," Taylor said after working up a sweat bowling in the nets. The teenager has been trying to soak everything up and has been joined by a few other local players in the training sessions. They've been working hard but are doing what they can to keep things light and relaxed at the same time. They're real fun guys. We had a little competition of who could get hit the farthest. Pollard gave me that one. He hit me on top of the building here."
While several balls crashed into the pavilion on the south end of the field during training, sixes were few and far between two years ago when Sri Lanka and New Zealand played here. To be exact, only four were hit over the course of the two T20 games that were played. The source of the problem was a low and slow pitch in which the ball wasn't coming onto the bat. However, Rowe is optimistic this weekend could be different.
A new groundsman, Samuel Plummer, was hired shortly after the 2010 debacle. Plummer has 26 years of experience preparing first-class pitches at Chedwin Park and other venues in Jamaica prior to coming to Lauderhill. Rowe is a keen observer of local cricket and says he's seen a difference in the standard of the pitch, especially during the last year.
"It's gonna play well," Rowe said. "I have been closely involved with the groundsman here. He has done a marvellous job. I remember when the New Zealanders came here it got just a little bit above your knees. There was a lot of criticism about it, but this guy has taken it to another level. He's worked really hard on it. It's as good as you'll see a pitch. I think it's as good as quite a few of the pitches you'll see in the Caribbean."
The local players who have been playing on the pitch since the ground opened say the pitch is still slow, but not nearly as slow as it was two years ago and they've been pleased to get some extra bounce out of it. While Plummer says he thinks teams can score around 170 on the pitch this weekend, somewhere in the 140-150 range is probably more realistic.
As long as the fans get their money's worth - some have plunked down as much as $125 to be in the party stand - that's all that matters in the end. "I hope that everybody would come out and support it and it would be a big success," Rowe said. "Hopefully some of the plans that we have for the future would come true."
United States of America
New Zealand tour of United States of America and West Indies