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Feature

Starry-eyed after a famous T20I win, USA fans left feeling blue after ODI cancellation

The Ireland series was a historic event in the calendar but Covid-19 still ended up having the final say

Players from Young Genius Cricket Academy in Lauderhill came to show USA their support  •  Peter Della Penna

Players from Young Genius Cricket Academy in Lauderhill came to show USA their support  •  Peter Della Penna

The opening encounter for USA vs Ireland may not have been the biggest crowd to ever grace the Broward County Stadium. The venue has played host to 10,000 people for the CPL, West Indies, New Zealand and India over the years. The official tally was 328 fans for the first T20I between the host country and their Full Member counterpart. But considering just 19 people turned up to see USA play their first ever home ODI a little over two years ago, it was progress.
One of those people is Phil Mielke, a man originally from Wisconsin but now residing in Ohio. He discovered cricket while on a work trip to France in 2008 when it was being shown on one of the only English language channels available in his hotel room. He's since turned into USA's unofficial super fan, having travelled to see them play live across the country and around the world: from Morrisville, North Carolina, to Los Angeles; from Toronto to Kampala, Uganda to Dubai, where he was the lone USA fan to see them play ODIs against Scotland and UAE in December 2019 and was rewarded with a jersey straight off the back of Elmore Hutchinson. But on most of those occasions, Mielke was not just a super fan. He was literally the only fan. Not so in Florida.
"To hear people cheering for USA Cricket and to chant, 'U-S-A! U-S-A!', it's something I'm not even sure I thought I would be able to hear in my lifetime," Mielke said from the stadium ahead of the second T20I on December 23. "I felt like crying. Just being a fan for as long as I have been, you go some places and you're the only person there. So, a big change."
"I wanted to see two matches and this was the only time to do two days in a row. It just so happened that it was the first ones, which is even better. It's historic for sure and to get the win yesterday was amazing."
When the USA players walked off the field upon completing the historic 26-run victory over Ireland, they made clear that they were not taking it for granted. The entire squad walked across to the east stand where all the fans who had been chanting "U-S-A! U-S-A!" were assembled, and showered them with applause. Some of the players even shouted back, "Thank you! Thank you! Please come back tomorrow night!"
Which they did. More than twice as many people came for the second T20I as attendance for the two games eclipsed 1,000. On paper, yes, this is still not much in a venue that has had more than 10 times that number crammed in like sardines to watch India play.
But it was a sign that momentum was building, in spite of the obstacles that included a series announced with less than six weeks notice, many fans who could not come due to previously arranged holiday plans over the Christmas period, not to mention a spike in Covid cases that made the remaining available fans hesitant to travel. The publicity from USA's first win over Ireland was so good that local celebrities from other sports, former England international and current Inter Miami manager Phil Neville as well as South African golfing legend Ernie Els, were rumored to be joining the VIP hospitality suite for the final ODI on December 30.
Yet just as quickly as it was snowballing for the remaining fixtures in the tour, the momentum melted in the Florida heat. Initially it was an umpire that tested positive, causing the first ODI to be canceled out of logistical complications - they couldn't get replacements in at short notice. Then the rest of the series was scrapped after the visiting support staff and family members tested positive, though, no Irish player caught the virus and all but one USA player had been deemed fit to go.
It may make people wonder, why were these final matches canceled when a similar situation unfolding in Melbourne resulted in a Test match continuing uninterrupted? Why were the T20Is also allowed to go ahead despite five USA players being ruled out with Covid yet an entire ODI series was canceled just days later when all but one out of 30-plus players returned a negative test? The short answer is that the Irish side did not want to risk running into any quarantine complications entering Jamaica for the second leg of their international tour. If the USA had been their only destination, it is highly probable that the matches would have gone on as scheduled.
But the decision to cancel the matches over the "risk of further players testing positive if the series continued" looks even more incongruous when the USA team was immediately booked on flights home later that same day. So it's unsafe to be playing a cricket match with everyone spaced out on a massive outdoor field, but heading straight to the airport to get on jam-packed, sold-out, five-hour domestic flights is perfectly fine?
The extreme caution with which the decision was made left a sour taste in the mouths of some fans. Dave Kirby and Mick Kirby-West, a 74 and 53-year-old father and son originally from Portsmouth, England, had driven two hours on the morning of the second ODI from Mick's current home on the west coast of Florida in Cape Coral. Only after completing their 137-mile trek were they informed at the stadium office that the match was called off.
Kirby-West had not seen a match since he left England in 2015, and his father had never seen one live. They had bought tickets off the USA Cricket website at 6:43 pm on December 27 and got a standard confirmation email almost immediately. But when news of the postponement came out less than two hours later at 8:21 pm on USA Cricket's website and social media, neither saw it. Both men wondered why there was no follow-up email sent directly to ticket holders to inform them of the initial scheduling change.
"If they are seriously thinking about hosting a Cricket World Cup [sic: The ICC hosts World Cups, not the local board], I think they need to get their s**t together," Kirby-West said. "You can't organise a Cricket World Cup if you can't get a little bit more organised than what they have for these games."
Though the face value of the tickets was USD 15, the reality is that lots of people travelled from long distances to attend. The true price of admission is closer to USD 1000 when flights, hotels, local transportation and meals are included. The fans are eating that cost, and not USA Cricket.
Diane Palmquist, a Minnesota native currently living in New York City, would go to see Test matches in England almost every summer prior to the pandemic. She was at the 2019 World Cup and had also attended numerous events on US soil, including the 2015 Tendulkar vs Warne Cricket All-Stars tour. She was so desperate to see live cricket again that she booked a detour from her family Christmas trip in Minnesota to fly to Florida for the second ODI before returning to New York. Instead, she wound up going to Key Largo for the day when the match was scrapped.
"There's a lot of issues with USA Cricket," Palmquist said, "But I think we were all hopeful that they would be able to play and I'm just very sad that Covid is getting in the way of everything. I don't know if they could handle it better. I like that they tried hard to handle it and let the game go on until they couldn't. I'm pretty tired of everything getting canceled way ahead of time. So I would actually rather come down here and have them try to play and not be able to than just cancel it weeks in advance. Because everything else I have tickets for is getting canceled two months early and I'd rather try to make it happen.
"I certainly hope that there are more USA matches like this. I was very excited to have the opportunity to see USA Cricket play here. I would love to come to other matches here and see other international matches here."

Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent @PeterDellaPenna