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Looking to the future, acting in the past

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Sachin_Tendulkar_India_cricketAs I sat and watched the T20 All Stars match, I was conflicted. These are my heroes, the men I watched as I fell in love with this stupid bat and ball game. This was rightly billed as a game between absolute greats of the game. Shane Warne and Sachin Tendulkar are the biggest names the game has produced. Add in Brian Lara, Wasim Akram and Muttiah Muralitharan and you have breath-taking names from the past.

But that was always going to be the issue. They are from the past. If this game was an exercise in nostalgia for cricket-starved ex-pats living in the USA then it did its job. All of those in the over-half-full Citi Field in New York can say they saw Sehwag score a fifty, Kallis take a catch and Donald take a wicket. If I was in America I would have gone and been excited to hand over my cash.

And there is nothing wrong with that. Giving existing fans of the sport a spectacle and earning some cash in the process is all well and good. More power to this group of greats’ ageing elbows.

However, that is not what we were told by all those involved in this American adventure. We were assured that this was about “globalising cricket” and “bringing cricket to America”. To do that you need to show the sport at its best.

 

When we live in a world where we see Chris Gayle and AB de Villiers redefining batting and Mitchell Johnson and Dale Steyn bowling with real pace, a new fan to the game in Queens was exposed to a man in his fifties bowling off nine paces.

When I was confronted for criticising this spectacle, people told me that this was about looking back to their youth. How can new fans to the sport be filled with emotion by seeing something from their past if this is the first time they have seen these players?

The biggest issue is that the standard was dire. Fielding was the worst failing (a Kallis catch apart), but bowling came a close second. The spinners did better than the pace men, but only Shoaib Akhtar looked anywhere close to his best. It was an underwhelming spectacle. I hope that this wasn’t the first game of cricket that a new fan saw; the chances are they won’t be back.

Throughout the coverage, we were bombarded with messages about this game being the first cricket in the USA ignoring that the sport has a 300 year old history in America with over 200,000 active players as we speak. More than that, we were given the impression that this whole experiment was an altruistic exercise in cricketing growth. It was not that, and to suggest it was is disingenuous. As Melbourne Stars President, Eddie McGuire, put it when he was interviewed at pitch side, “Everyone here is a cricket fan.” This was not for a new audience. It gave those who already love the sport, a comparatively tiny group, the chance to see their heroes.

Perhaps the best summation of this was the fans interviewed in the crowd. “We are just here to see Sachin,” one man told the pitch side reporter. Those at the stadium were already sold on cricket, not new to it.

Ask yourself: if you were interested enough in baseball, would you pay hundreds of dollars to watch a group of people that used to be good at it, or would you want to see a Major League game with those in their prime? One of the main reasons that the NFL has continued to grow in the UK is the fact that regular season games are played at Wembley. Before that, there were several years of current teams with full strength rosters coming to play exhibitions games.

The really sad thing isn’t that this was sold “as growing the sport” when it isn’t; the true tragedy is that this group of ageing players have done more for cricket than 50 years of American administrators. The United States of America Cricket Association (USACA), suspended for the third time in recent years, have done everything in their power to destroy the sport. There is every chance that if they still existed this game would not have happened.

Awareness of the sport cannot be a bad thing, and the game is not in any way harmful to the expansionist agenda. The ICC care about growing cricket in the US and that is undoubtedly a good thing. Tim Anderson, the head of development for the ICC, is heading up growing the game in America and he has recently spoken about it being a process that will be a decade in the making. What sticks in the craw is being told that this game was bringing the sport to a new audience and driven by a motivation to do so.

Exhibition games in America are great, but they are far from being anything but a tiny part of the picture that will see the sport take off in the USA. For that, it starts at grass roots, both with those who come from families that have a cricketing heritage and with new fans of the sport. For that to happen there needs to be American cricketing success.

As the one time CEO of USACA, Darren Beazley, told me in the past – there are cricket fans in America, but not fans of American cricket. For the sport to grow, that is where efforts need to be concentrated.

I hope for all involved in the All Stars that it is a success and carries on for many years to come, but please, don’t claim it is something it is not.



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