American expedition: Cricket's first massive step in the big apple

With the United States set to co-host the T20 World Cup, a look at how far the sport has come in the country, what lies ahead and more...
USA players with former stars at an ICC event in the New York Stadium
USA players with former stars at an ICC event in the New York Stadium| ICC

On Saturday night, just as India was getting in the mood for the IPL final between Kolkata Knight Riders and Sunrisers Hyderabad, halfway across the world, something peculiar was happening at the Prairie View Cricket Complex in Houston. It was the third T20I between the United States of America and Bangladesh.

In the final match, Mustafizur Rahman decided to do his magic. He took 6/10, ensuring that the visitors did not face a clean sweep. Now, what was peculiar about the match and the six wickets? Each of Rahman's six wickets were of batters who were born in different countries. A former Pakistan U-19 player, a former Canadian, a former Black Caps international, a domestic cricketer from South Africa, one USA-born Punjabi and an Indian-born American.

In many ways, it was testament to the 'nation of immigrants' image the country has and the dream it offers. It's also a perfect example as to how cricket stands as a sport in the United States. "I think if you see in the last four years, a lot of players have qualified to play for the US," Harmeet Singh, who did not feature in the third T20I but had a crucial role in the series win, tells this daily from Houston.

"There are guys from South Africa, New Zealand, West Indies, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka... a lot of guys have made their move and there were guys already from these countries from before. So, the USA being the land of immigrants, it's very welcoming. On top of that, guys who are already in the team before us are also highly motivated to perform better because of the competition. Before, it used to be one guy for a spot in the XI. Now there are like four or five guys for one spot and then everybody's pushing everybody's fighting for their sport," he adds.

USA team after beating Bangladesh in the three match T20I series
USA team after beating Bangladesh in the three match T20I series | USA Cricket

Born in Mumbai, Harmeet featured in two U-19 World Cups for India, including in the title-winning 2012 side. However, over the next seven years, things didn't go his way. When the opportunity came knocking to play in the Major League Cricket (domestic tournament in the USA), he took it with both hands. For him, it was a chance to chase his dream of playing at the highest level. Not just Harmeet; behind almost every USA cricketer, there is a similar story. Cricket, by and large, is a minority sport in comparison to Baseball, Football (the American version) and basketball.

Understandably, it is the subcontinental immigrants who are in the majority cricket-playing population in the country. However, when you are chasing a dream in a land that is not familiar to you, it is not easy. Even more so for an associate nation; most of the country is not familiar with the sport. Neither do they have the conditions and facilities are not there to pursue it. The US, despite featuring in the first ever international match 220 years ago (1844) against Canada, have barely played any international cricket against the top teams in the past century.

Once the Imperial Cricket Conference was renamed as International Cricket Council in 1965, USA were inducted as an associate nation. Since 1979, they have featured in qualifying tournaments (did not feature in two editions). They even made it to the Champions Trophy in 2004. Yet, their growth stagnated for various reasons including the fact that cricket was not warming up enough to become a global sport. It was only after the advent of T20, things started to change rapidly. Six years after ICC gave international status to all T20s between nations, the biggest international event in the format — T20 World Cup — is coming to the shores of the United States.

Among the many who have seen the development of the sport in the country over the past six years from close quarters is former Karnataka cricketer and coach, J Arunkumar. After being an experienced coach in the domestic circuit, Arunkumar applied to become the USA head coach in 2020. While the Covid pandemic made things difficult for him and USA cricket, Arunkumar was with the team for over two years before leaving in late 2022. In this period, USA recorded their first-ever T20I win over a full-member nation, beating Ireland in 2021 (they also beat Scotland in the ODI format).

For Arunkumar, the experience was a learning curve where he had to work towards building a cricketing culture. "There's no USA culture as its own (in cricket). So how to get a cricketing culture, a team culture to win? How everybody could buy into that and then play for the team, although they're from different races? So, that was a good challenge and we did well," says Arunkumar.

"The facilities and funding (were the biggest challenge). US cricket had very little funding. So having a camp was very difficult. To give an example, we went to Oman directly to play in an international event and we didn't even have a camp. We had seven or eight run-outs because the players didn't know each other. It cost us a few games. Understanding those little things because we didn't practice much... everybody's coming directly from work without much practice behind them to play a big series.

"Even the boys had to take leave, take off from their official work. Be on loss of pay and then play for the country. That was a big challenge because they didn't have central contracts at that time. I think they got about $250 for a match in the country. That's not good enough money. So they're leaving their jobs which paid them much more. They could have earned much more playing even local cricket. It was a very big struggle for us because we had to look after that in the development of USA cricket also. So we have the U-19. The girls are doing really well in the US. The junior and the senior girls team and pathway cricket, for example, we needed to get the U-16 and U-19 teams running because they were solid. So if you see the funding for everyone to have a camp, it was very difficult," Arunkumar explains.

If funding was one part, the facilities were another. With cricket not being a mainstream sport in schools and colleges, there are not enough grounds to conduct coaching camps. Arunkumar recalls a time where they went to schools to give demonstrations and explain how famous the sport is in other parts of the world. However, things seem to be changing for the better over the past few years.

With the Minor and Major League Cricket coming into fray, and the IPL franchises getting involved, there is more buzz about cricket. More importantly, there is an incentive to take up the sport at a young age. "I think right now what it needs is the schools and colleges to take up. If the schools and colleges take up cricket and if you see the infrastructure they have for sports, you will see the best athletes coming out of the US because their infrastructure is top of the line," says Harmeet.

Arunkumar believes that it is already happening, especially with the inclusion of cricket in the Los Angeles Olympics 2028. "There's a very positive sign from everybody and a lot of schools that started getting cricket in the curriculum now as the main sport, from basketball and baseball. Let's be honest, in the end, it's a very sporting nation. Whichever sport USA take up, they take it to a really big level. And money was not big in cricket. When the facilities are not good or you're playing for the country and not making any money, people can't choose this as a career. They put in a lot of time and effort to work on the skills. It's their livelihood. Once the money is good, everyone will pick up the sport. They know if they pick up basketball and even represent college, they're making a decent amount of money to get good contracts. If the same thing happens in cricket, I think it'll be a fantastic turn around.

"The Olympics, the World Cup, which is happening here is fantastic. It will be a huge turnaround and people would want to play the sport because you can see it on TV. It will probably encourage the locals also to take up this game and understand what it is. Once they know it's fun and they can make a living out of it, a lot of locals will start picking up the game. I think in the next five years, it will be known as an accepted sport in the USA. The way it's going, I feel in the next five years it will be pretty famous."

USA players with head coach Stuart Law during a training session in the lead up to the T20 World Cup
USA players with head coach Stuart Law during a training session in the lead up to the T20 World Cup | USA Cricket

One has to wait and see how the future pans out. For now, the USA, who are set to make their T20 World Cup debut, are all about making dreams come true. Especially for many players like Harmeet who let go of the past in the pursuit of the proverbial American dream. Ask him how he feels about playing against India and he has a simple answer. “I've grown a lot, playing professional cricket for different franchises, different state teams and all that. If you just understand the meaning of professionalism... It is just doing your job for the team.

"Also, I owe it to America because they have given me this opportunity and made my dream come true. It's like an American dream, right? So, whatever opportunities I was craving for in India, I got it here. I think my feelings have only gotten better and stronger for this country. That whatever I was not getting (in the past), I'm getting it now. For this country, for this team.”

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