FROM STEVE BRENNER IN NEW YORK
What a difference a week makes.
Just seven days ago, Citi Field was a cauldron of expectation as the New York Mets fought for the World Series crown, which was eventually — and dramatically — grabbed by the Kansas City Royals.
Yet on Saturday, top-level sport returns to the same arena.
This time, however, it’s the kind that will leave most locals scratching their heads with increasing confusion and bewilderment.
Yes, cricket, of the Twenty20 variety, will take a bite of the Big Apple this weekend on a mission to sell itself into one of the most over-saturated sporting marketplaces on the planet.
It’s a huge task for the grand old game. Ask most Americans the difference between a googly and a wrong’un and you may be asked if you speak English.
Shane Warne and Sachin Tendulkar, however, are trying to change that.
Saturday sees the first of three matches to be staged in the U.S. – the bandwagon rolls to baseball stadia in Houston and then Los Angeles afterwards – with the ICC-backed venture aiming to grow the game on new soil.
Drop-in pitches have been cultivated in Indianapolis. The marketing push is in overdrive.
This, however, is no gimmicky holiday for the cricketing glitterati.
All the big guns are being rolled out. Ricky Ponting, Brian Lara, Curtley Ambrose, Glenn McGrath, VVS Laxman, Wasim Akram, Jacques Kallis, Michael Vaughan, Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, Matthew Hayden, and many others will don the colours of Warne’s Warriors or Sachin’s Blasters and attempt to go where no cricketer has ever gone before.
Warne and Tendulkar have been on a furiously busy media tour in New York, popping here, there, and everywhere. Naturally, there has been some bemusement along the way.
“So is this the paddle?” enquired one slightly miffed news anchor when Warne attempted to explain the nuances of batting to the greater U.S. public.
Yet with ticket sales approaching 30,000, the city’s passionate press cores, especially from India and Pakistan, are more than excited about the prospect of seeing Little Master and his retired friends in action.
In fact, this feels anything but a wild stab in the dark by the ICC in search of new audiences, new revenues, and new fans to keep the money rolling in while extending the sport’s global reach.
Already, a deal has been signed for a similar three-game series next year, and with the matches being screened live on ESPN, the stage has been set.
Not that some need publicizing.
“People think we can walk down the street in Manhattan and not get noticed,” said
Warne. “But Sachin draws attention all the time. A group of blokes started singing to him the other day.”
In an effort to start growing a younger fan base, Warne and Tendulkar have been taking part in cricket clinics with local children in the hope of sowing the seed early enough for it to properly stick.
While there is debatably a cricket culture in New York, it’s predictably dominated by ex-pats with swathes of Indians, Sri Lankans, Nepalese, Pakistanis, West Indians, and some Englishmen thrown in for good measure, all playing regularly.
There has been shame, however, cloaking the game recently after USACA (United States Cricket Association) was suspended by the ICC after being accused of swindling money by creating non-existent competitions, a disgrace which has been a dampener for many who had worked tirelessly behind the scenes.
That negativity has , for a few die hard New York cricket lovers, seeped into the staging of these three games, with members of local clubs angry at high ticket prices (all the $50 seats were snapped up but many ranging from $100 to the ridiculously high $175 remain) and organizers’ failure to totally engage with them.
Warne tersely dismissed one dissenter at Thursday’s press conference in Times Square, though the unhappiness displayed in some quarters has failed to dampen spirits.
“We both thought of doing something like this at the same time,” said Tendulkar who believes seeing the U.S. compete courageously at the Rugby World Cup can act as a forbearer for cricket to make its own indelible mark.
“Shane called and said he wanted to come to the U.S. with all the top players. I never thought this day would come.
“I know that there was cricket in America around the year1759, and even Don Bradman was once here. It has taken time, but it’s never too late. Our idea is to globalize cricket and we must say thanks to ICC for their support.
“We are here to encourage youngsters, women, and aspiring players, and help them understand the game.
“I know Americans love sport, and this is one sport they are ready to embrace. After retirement, I aim to help globalize it. One day, I would love a U.S. team to be in the World Cup.
“The next time we come, we want to find an American kid with a cricket bat in his hand. We want to win hearts. We would want to come back and see progress.
“There are so many popular sports in America. So why not cricket?”
Big words from the Little Master.
Yet with the wham-bam nature of Twenty20, who’s to say those who love baseball won’t be similarly entranced by its distant sporting cousin somewhere along the line?
“When soccer wasn’t that big, David Beckham came over and look at it now, it’s growing,” added Warne, slightly missing the point that soccer has been played on these shores by millions for decades.
“We have 30 superstars who want to promote a sport we are so passionate about. This has been a long time in the making, and is an amazing concept. We hope plenty of Americans will come. We know how passionate they are about their sport. Remember, cricket the second-most popular sport in the world.
“Is this a gamble? Not at all. America is ready for this form of the game. This is the start of something.
“People wonder if sports fans here will understand it, but if you break it down, it’s pretty simple. Compare it in baseball terms. It’s not that difficult.”
That much is true. Yet breaking into the United States is a pipedream which could take years, even decades, to crack.
In a bid earlier this year to qualify for the Twenty20 World Cup, the Americans came up short finishing behind Ireland, Hong Kong, Namibia, and Papua New Guinea.
The biggest challenge of Warne and Tendulkar’s legendary legacies is staring them straight in the face.