Tuesday, April 22, 2008

I DON’T LIKE CRICKET … I LOVE IT!

CAN YOU name the world’s second most popular sport behind soccer? You might be surprised to learn that it’s not baseball, basketball or American Football. It is, in fact, cricket.

The International Cricket Council (ICC) recognizes more than 120 cricket-playing nations. In many countries, including India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Australia and the West Indies, cricket is the No. 1 sport.

Although not quite as popular throughout Europe as it is in Southern Asia, it’s a major sport in England and is also played widely in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

An international fixture, known as a Test Match, is played over five days, an idea most Americans find mind-boggling.

But cricket is undergoing a dramatic change. The advent of a format known as Twenty20 – a shorter, faster version of the game aimed at the younger spectator – has revitalized the sport.

Both teams have just one innings (yes, innings rather than inning) and bat for a maximum of 20 overs (120 balls). The game, which is subject to time restrictions, is completed in around three hours.

Such is the demand for Twenty20 from the TV companies and the general public that it is changing the world cricketing calendar.

Originally introduced in the United Kingdom in 2003, a match between Australia and India in Melbourne last year was an 84,000 sell-out. 

New league costs broadcasters $1 billion

A consortium consisting of India’s Sony Television network and the Singapore-based World Sport Group recently agreed to pay 1.026 billion US dollars to purchase the global broadcasting rights for the newly formed Indian Premier League (IPL).

The winning bidders for the eight franchises spent a total of US$723 million and the world’s best cricketers were then “auctioned off” for sums going as high as US$1.5 million.

It’s not all been smooth sailing. The Board of Control for Cricket in India has found itself in conflict with many of the sport’s governing bodies around the world as a result of the IPL.

They want their players available for international tours, and in the case of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), the inaugural IPL season clashes with the start of the domestic season.

While the IPL has managed to attract 70 of the world’s top 80 ranked players, only one Englishman, Dimitri Mascarenhas, has signed up so far. And he’s not contracted to the ECB.

But it seems only a matter of time before the lure of the dollar will come before national pride. These cricketers are professionals and the IPL are prepared to pay plenty more than their current employers.

The $64,000 question, however, is whether cricket and Twenty20 will ever make it across the Atlantic to the USA.

Fastest-growing sport in Brooklyn

There are a number of clubs scattered around the New York area. You can find no fewer than 12 “pitches” at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx and, apparently, cricket is the fastest-growing sport in Brooklyn. 

With so many ex-pats, particularly from the Caribbean and Asia, it’s not surprising cricket has a cult following. But will it ever catch on with natural-born Americans, raised on a diet of baseball?

Well, I can tell you from personal experience that Twenty20 generates a lot more excitement than the average baseball game. If you favor hitting over pitching, then you’re in for treat, as the white ball is smashed to all parts of the field.

What cricket, the subject of the occasional article in The New York Times, really needs is exposure on ESPN or one of the major television networks.

The rules of cricket are even more complicated than baseball but the basics of Twenty20 are simple … hit the ball, and hit it hard.

As an Englishman brought up on three-day and five-day matches, sometimes watched by three men and a dog, I was not an immediate believer in Twenty20.

I enjoyed those sleepy afternoons in England’s green and pleasant land, supping a pint and nibbling on a Scotch egg. 

But I’ve become a convert to this all-action version because, in the words of 10cc, an English pop band from the seventies, I don’t like cricket. Oh no, I love it.




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