Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Perspective: First ICC T20WC match in New York was a triumph for the sport

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The world’s first ever international cricket match was played in New York in 1844.

On June 3, New York hosted its first of eight matches in 2024’s highest profile international cricket competition as Sri Lanka took on South Africa. 

In the intervening two centuries, New York has grown into the financial, cultural and sporting center of the world’s most powerful country, and cricket has grown into the world’s second most popular sport. But they have also grown widely apart. 

Thus, Monday’s reunion was a massive milestone for cricket.

While there was plenty of post-match chatter about the pitch, the field, the crowd size – perhaps fair, perhaps not – none of this should obscure the significance of the moment.  

For those watching carefully, there were signs about the future of the sport in America. And those signs were strong and positive. 

The Fans

12,562 fans were in attendance at the 34,000 capacity Nassau County International Cricket Stadium. 

Some perspective: this was on a Monday morning at 10:30AM.

Even more perspective: by official measures, there are fewer than 6,000 Sri Lankans and 5,000 South Africans living in New York City. 

By comparison, there are almost 1 million Indians and Pakistanis in the area, many gearing up to support their teams in Sunday’s heavyweight clash. 

As the math would indicate, in speaking to fans in attendance we observed that many were neutrals passionate about the sport who were just thrilled to be there and watch world class cricket on this stage for the first time in their lives. 

That said, as the match got underway, the crowd was definitely alive. It was more partisan for Sri Lanka but cheering heavily for both sides, and was extremely loud at moments. During wickets and boundaries we definitely felt the stadium shake (in a good way).  

The Stadium

As has been well documented, the New York stadium is nothing short of a modern sporting miracle, emerging out of nothing in just a few months

This is what happens when ICC prioritization meets America’s sports infrastructure. 

It is also worth noting that every component of the stadium was previously used in another sporting facility and will be reused in the future elsewhere after this tournament – which is truly remarkable and also environmentally responsible. 

Obviously it does not make sense to invest in certain extras for a temporary stadium, but the venue overall felt like a full-fledged legitimate facility. 

And beyond the venue itself, the ICC’s job of organization was on point. Despite heightened security in response to terrorist threats, everyone we spoke to got in and out of the venue without any issue or inconvenience. 

The Pitch and the Match

We do not wish to enter the debate about the stadium’s bowler-friendly pitch and the slow outfield, as that has been heavily hashed out online by pundits and fans. We understand their concerns about upcoming matches that likely need to be addressed. 

Naturally, these conditions influenced the nature of the match and resulted in a low-scoring affair, with Sri Lanka bowled out for 77 and South Africa winning by six wickets with 22 balls remaining.  

Understandably, coming off the back of IPL 17, which set another record for number of sixes, this was a shock to the system of avid cricket fans conditioned to expect massive runfests. Indeed, those are fun to watch. 

We will just make three points about this subject and why we are not as concerned by it:

First: International T20Is are lower-scoring affairs than franchise tournaments. Plus, both the 2021 and 2022 editions of the Men’s T20 World Cup took place in October and November, several months after the IPL, allowing for some distance, while this one is happening immediately after. Combined 400+ run totals are fresh in our collective minds. Even though Monday’s match was on the other extreme, we should all recalibrate scoring expectations. 

Second: there are two sides to this game. Cricket is not just about batting. For the poor bowlers who have become used to being smacked around for 15 to 20 runs per over in the late stages of a T20 franchise match innings, this is a welcome reversal (pun intended). And some of the most exciting moments in the history of cricket have come from magical bowling. 

Finally: we do take exception to some of the likely well intentioned but arguably slightly condescending comments about low scoring games not being able to attract new fans to the sport, especially Americans. Such as this one from Harsha Bhogle: 

Americans can handle low-scoring sports, let alone the occasional low scoring match in a high-scoring sport. Football/soccer fandom has exploded in the US in recent decades, and the average number of goals per game is between two and three. 

(Also Harsha, what are you calling a ‘new land’? The first organized cricket tournament in New York took place in 1751…)

Man of the Match

South Africa’s Anrich Nortje set a T20 World Cup bowling record with his 4 for 7 spell and was awarded Man of the Match.  

Nortje express similar sentiments in his post-match press conference: 

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the wickets. It’s nice for bowlers as well – we’re also allowed to get some sort of assistance. It’s different to what guys have been used to for the last few months or years, there’s a little bit more in the wicket for the bowlers and I don’t see anything wrong with that… 

“It doesn’t always mean there needs to be 20 sixers in a game to make it entertaining — there’s still a lot of strategy that goes into the game, there’s a lot of skill that goes into the game whether it’s sixers or bowlers or spinners…. 

“So I thought… it was a brilliant game. It was still a close game… another wicket or two and things might have been different. We might have been in a little bit more trouble… 

“It’s great to be in New York, it’s great to be playing cricket in the US and we’re excited for what’s to come.”

Man of the Hour

Anrich Nortje’s historic bowling performance was truly laudable. 

But there was another gentleman we spotted entering the stadium before the match with a purposeful look on his face, who embodied the moment even more: Anurag Dahiya, the ICC’s Chief Commercial Officer. 

The Future

In many ways, this T20 World Cup is reminiscent of the 1994 FIFA World Cup hosted by the US. 

The MLS was founded a year before, and took a slow, controlled, steady approach to growth, keen to avoid the mistakes of its predecessor, the NASL. 

Some of us were football/soccer fans in the US during the 1990s and the 2000s. We remember the sport’s slow trajectory. We remember the naysayers. We remember those wondering if the sport would ever be embraced by a wider audience and hold a candle to more popular American sports. 

And there were hints of that long journey ahead on Monday: most notably the stadium announcer with an American accent explaining the basic rules of cricket as the match progressed. 

Yet in the case of football/soccer, while it took a couple of decades of building on a well-laid foundation after it was catalyzed in 1994, it ultimately got there. Professional soccer is massive in the US now, with large fanbases for both the MLS as well as international leagues, eclipsing those of hockey and arguably at least rivaling baseball. 

For cricket, the foundation is there: with over 200,000 registered players of the sport in the US, up from 20,000 a couple of decades ago – not to speak of the number of fans. 

Cricket will also be an Olympic Sport in the Los Angeles 2028 games, a huge achievement for the ICC and another important catalyst.

What’s also working in cricket’s favor that is different to football/soccer a couple of decades ago is technology: including broader and easier access to both local and international content. 

All that said, the sport’s leaders need to go into this with eyes wide open, with the right expectations, and the understanding that it will be a very long, slow build in the US. We all need to think in decades, not just years. Case in point: MLS’s New York Football Club’s dedicated stadium will only open in 2027. 

Similarly, New York has a team in Major League Cricket (which launched last year) that has not yet played a local match, despite being the inaugural champions. MLC is currently holding all matches in 2024’s second season in two cities (Dallas and Raleigh). But one day MI NY will play with world class players in front of local fans – we just don’t know exactly when. This is a sign of both the long road ahead, and the upside potential cricket has in the US. 

That potential was very much on display on Monday – however long it takes to fully achieve.

In the city that is the home of many of the largest sports leagues in the world (including the NFL and NBA), the ICC has arrived. 

And there’s room enough for all of them. 

 

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