Cricket needs America to stride to the wicket, rather than step up to the plate

If cricket is to survive as a major sport, let alone expand, it needs new regions and fresh voices.

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“Let’s play cricket!” my son insisted in the midst of a New York heatwave. We settled in the south-eastern corner of Central Park and began swinging a bat (or “paddle”, as some Americans describe cricket’s flat-fronted implement). It’s difficult to feel eccentric in a city that has made extreme behaviour the norm – unless, that is, you’re playing cricket.

Our impromptu net session, however, had deep historical roots. When Central Park’s landscape architects laid out the green spaces in the 1850s, they named the area set aside for ball games “the cricket ground” – much to the despair of baseball’s early advocates. The grass on which we were playing in 2015 was intended for cricket all along.

It was America and Canada, not England and Australia, that played the first international match in 1844. Cricket remained the favourite team sport of the US deep into the 19th century. It was only after the civil war that it was bullied out of the US mainstream. Baseball, skilfully positioned and marketed as manly and patriotic in contrast to cricket’s effete Anglophilia, won the PR war. The central figure in baseball’s triumph was the sporting goods entrepreneur A G Spalding. His sales pitch – play baseball and be a real American – made him rich and baseball popular.

Today, the Los Angeles sports agent and entrepreneur J B Bernstein is attempting the reverse play: to convert baseball talent into cricketers. Million Dollar Bat is a talent show offering $1m to the American baseball hitter who can master slogging a cricket ball. The plan is to export him to play professional cricket in the wildly lucrative Indian Premier League (IPL). If that sounds quixotic, Bernstein has already done the opposite. His televised Million Dollar Arm competition (since turned into a Hollywood film) discovered two hard-throwing cricketers in India and turned them into baseball pitchers good enough to be snapped up by a professional team in the US. The whole journey took a year.

Can Bernstein triumph where the establishment has failed? Cricket has a huge following in the US – 15 million fans and 200,000 active players – but the sport has been ineptly managed. The rival American leagues and committees seemed to hate each other so much that David Richardson, the head of the International Cricket Council (ICC), had to call a town hall meeting in Chicago this August to bang heads together.

If Bernstein succeeds in harnessing US cricket talent – and a lifetime in sport makes me reluctant to bet against millionaire agents – it will represent a striking challenge to mainstream thinking about how to grow the sport. Cricket’s pace of change is glacial but the glacier is gradually reversing up the mountain. The 2019 World Cup will feature only ten teams, four fewer than this year’s event. Cricket is shrinking.

Blame the administrators? The new film Death of a Gentleman, directed by Johnny Blank, Sam Collins and Jarrod Kimber, accuses the ICC, in effect, of wilfully diminishing the game. The film alleges that the “big three” of India, England and Australia want to retain a lockdown on influence – by limiting the number of teams at the World Cups, avoiding Olympic status and controlling revenue and its redistribution – while hoovering up the bounty.

The ICC, in truth, doesn’t run cricket in quite the way that one imagines. The sport muddles along with a triangular and opaque governance structure – the laws are set by the MCC, the major tournaments are hosted by the ICC, and bilateral matches (Tests and most one-day internationals) are organised separately by the national boards. There is also a more central problem that works against getting things done in cricket. Even if we all agreed that the sport should try to expand, how would that be best achieved? Can some kind of paternalism keep the old “gentleman” alive? Or is finding and benefiting from new markets cricket’s only chance of continuing as a major sport?

Back when England and Australia ran things, the two countries claimed to make decisions on behalf of the entire game. It was explicitly undemocratic but allegedly paternalistic. Then the IPL blew that structure away by tapping in to market forces. Cricket was left flailing around without the tools to influence or moderate the free market’s “waves of creative destruction”. The established order found itself ill-equipped to negotiate with India.

Are administrators, however, sport’s central figures? Football – perhaps the world’s most ubiquitous pastime – is appallingly administered, especially at international level. How can football be so good when Fifa is so bad? It was entrepreneurs rather than administrators who made the sport a worldwide phenomenon. The Champions League, set up to make money, is the definitive example. London, Paris, Milan, and the others, provide the airports, hotels, stadiums and rule of law. The whole world supplies the talent pool.

In contrast, cricket is preoccupied with what it knows, blind to what it might become. If it is to survive as a major sport, let alone expand, it cannot rely exclusively on Indian rupees or squeezing yet more life out of the tired Ashes format. It needs new regions and fresh voices. Sri Lanka, awarded Test status in 1982, is the most recent nation successfully to join cricket’s top table. In the 33 years since, cricket hasn’t developed a single cricketing power capable of competing consistently at international level. That is pathetic. In the same period, there has been the almost total transfer of power to India. The explanation is simple economics: India has a billion cricket fans, more than the rest of the cricketing world combined.

A Byzantine structure of committees, councils and meetings has performed abjectly at growing cricket. Whatever you think of talent shows and Californian sports agents, they can’t do any worse.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article appears in the 17 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn's Civil War