The United States now has its very own IPL-style tournament—which kicks off today. But can the lineup of global stars, IPL clout and Silicon Valley paisa make Americans fall in love with a very un-American game?
First, some background
The IPL effect: Over the past year, the Indian Premier League has been spawning clones around the world. The three new T20 tournaments are in South Africa, UAE and the United States. Most of the clubs in these new leagues are owned by IPL franchises who already own teams in the Caribbean Premier League—which has been around since 2013. IPL honchos do not have any stake, however, in the Australian Big Bash League—whose eight teams are owned by governing body Cricket Australia and run by state associations. We profiled all of them in this Big Story on the IPL effect.
Point to note: We now have six IPL-style T20 leagues—all of them vying for players and calendar space. But neither is a problem for the IPL since active Indian players are banned from playing in foreign leagues. So don’t expect to see Virat Kohli swinging his bat in San Francisco any time soon.
A bit of history: You may be surprised to know that America’s connection to cricket goes back to the eighteenth century—and pre-dates the birth of the country:
- Newspapers in 1751 reported a match played between New Yorkers and Englishmen.
- During the American Revolution, George Washington reportedly “played a game at ‘wicket’ with a number of Gent of the Arty.”
- In 1844, the US played the very first international cricket match—with national squads rather than club teams—against Canada and lost by 23 runs. Btw, the match preceded the first international football game by nearly 30 years.
- By 1850, there were around 20 clubs across the country—stretching from Baltimore to Savannah, Chicago, Milwaukee and even San Francisco.
- The most famous US team belonged to the Philadelphia Cricket Club—which toured England a number of times.
- Its star player John Barton King decimated the opposition—and was described by English commentators as “one of the finest bowlers of all time.”
The decline of American cricket: The gentleman’s sport was eventually eclipsed by baseball because it remained just that—an amateur sport for the country club set. Professional baseball offered money and mass appeal. The first recognized professional baseball team—the Cincinnati Red Stockings—recruited a young bowler Harry Wright to both play and manage the team. He was also responsible for making baseball an all-American sport:
Wright brought all the skills, tactics, and techniques he’d learned as a cricketer to his new team. Playing centerfield, Wright led the 1869 Red Stockings to the only perfect season in baseball history; going 65-0, they were the first team to play on both the East and West Coasts. That team essentially nationalised the sport of baseball, in effect, turning it into “the national pastime.”
The other nail in the coffin: The Imperial Cricket Conference—set up in 1909 as the governing body for world cricket—simply froze the US out of world cricket. And that spelled the end of the golden age of cricket in America. The big Q: can Major League Cricket bring those glory days back?
Major League Cricket: The deets
The owners: The league is operated by American Cricket Enterprises (ACE)—which is owned by Willow TV (a US cricket broadcasting company) and the Times Group. Investors in Major League Cricket include Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Adobe chairman Shantanu Narayen.
The teams: There are six teams: Los Angeles Knight Riders, MI New York, San Francisco Unicorns, Seattle Orcas, Texas Super Kings and Washington Freedom. Four are owned by IPL franchises—hence, geographically khichdi names like Mumbai Indians New York. In fact, the GMR group—which runs Delhi Capitals—owns two teams: Texas and Seattle. Two Aussie organisations—Cricket Victoria and Cricket New South Wales—manage San Francisco and Washington. Both are in partnership with Indian-American financiers.
The rules: are similar to the IPL. Each team can have a maximum of 19 and minimum of 16 players—combining international and home-grown players. A franchise must have 10 local players—of which one has to be a member of the USA Under-23 team. The playing XI can include a maximum of six overseas players. The limit in IPL is four.
The format: This is a 19-game tournament with a straight-forward format: “The six teams will play each other once, and the top four sides will contest three qualification and elimination games before the final is held on July 30.”
The big stars: The line-ups include a number of impressive names. For example, MI Indians is captained by Kieron Pollard—and has Robin Peterson as head coach and Lasith Malinga as bowling coach. Its fast bowlers include Trent Boult from New Zealand and Kagiso Rabada from South Africa. Faf Du Plessis is now captain of three franchise teams—Texas Super Kings, Joburg Super Kings and, ofc, RCB. According to The Guardian:
The teams for the inaugural season seem genuinely competitive and evenly matched, with the possible exception of the Seattle Orcas, who are likely to depend very heavily on the fluctuating powers of Quinton de Kock.
You can check out a longer list of star players here.
Point to note: The teams also include players who have retired from Indian cricket. These include India U-19 World Cup-winning captain Unmukt Chand and his teammates Smit Patel and Harmeet Singh. FYI: Ambati Rayudu signed up with Texas Super Kings but pulled out of the tournament due to personal reasons.
The arenas: Most of the games will be played at the Grand Prairie Stadium near Dallas—apart from seven matches in Church Street Park Stadium in Morrisville, North Carolina. Grand Prairie is tiny by international standards—and only has 7,200 seats. Church Street Park has a maximum capacity of 5,000. Here’s a fun local TV report on the stadium:
Wanna watch? The tournament will air on Sports18 and stream on Jio Cinema. If you’re in the US, look for it on Willow TV. ESPNCricInfo has schedules and India timings. You get a taste of the uniforms and the teams in the JioCinema promo below:
MLC: The big picture
All-American cricket: The most interesting bit about this league is that it isn’t aimed at the Indian diaspora. Its organisers insist that “the league is not a play to win Indian viewership but a direct gamble on the sport’s potential appeal to Americans.” The schedule, for example, is tailored to US time zones and not fans in India. MLC’s organisers are confident the gamble will work:
Americans don’t like to be lectured about a sport that’s being played elsewhere. But if the sport’s being played in their country right next to them, they are absolute sports fanatics, and they will sample anything and everything. Our view is that T20 is an amazing sport for US consumption and for US audiences. It fits in with what Americans like to consume: it’s three hours long, there’s lots of action.
Point to note: This is why all the clubs have committed to building a stadium at home—and the league has invested heavily in developing home-grown talent: “Building talent here domestically is one of our big pillars for sustainability.” The end game is to build a US team that can compete in the international arena.
But, but, but: For all the optimism, it’s good to remember that all previous attempts to revive cricket in America have failed. Be it the ProCricket league that folded after a single season in 2004—or the original Major League Cricket launched by West Indian greats Clive Lloyd and Desmond Haynes. Even exhibition matches starring Sachin Tendulkar have failed to impress anyone other than immigrants.
The bottomline: Some see the MLC as the “next big flex” of a wealthy and increasingly visible Indian American community. There is no bigger cultural win than turning cricket into a national sport—like baseball or NFL football. Will it work? Maybe. But the other question is this:
Does cricket, growing impressively in its core markets and wildly popular among the two billion people of South Asia, really need America? It seems like the collective motivation here involves something more than just money, something to do with the abiding need for the rest of the world to feel validated by finding success in America.
Is that true? Do Indians living in India need that validation? It’s a good question to ponder as you consider staying up all night to catch a game over the weekend:)
Associated Press offers an overview. ESPNCricInfo offers a crisp guide to the tournament and the schedule. Scroll looks at the attempt to turn cricket into an American sport. For the best and very witty analysis, read Aaron Timms in The Guardian. We did an excellent Big Story on the IPL-ification of global cricket—and its ramifications.