NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, August 23, 2023. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.
Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
PAUL BUTLER, HOST: And I’m Paul Butler.
Coming next on The World and Everything in It: the sport known as cricket. The complexity of the game was parodied in the movie Fantastic Mr. Fox. Goes kinda like this:
SKIP: Basically the center tagger lights the pine cone, chucks it over the basket and the wack batter tries to hit the cedar stick off the cross rock, then the twig runners dash back and forth until the pine cone burns out and the umpire calls hotbox.
EICHER: Lost yet?
Cricket is the second most popular sport in the world. But in the US, it lags behind football, basketball, baseball, soccer, and just about every other major sport you can think of.
But cricket does have ardent fans in the US. Most of them are immigrants, mainly from South Asian countries. And that fan base is growing.
BUTLER: Today, local leagues and a roster of brand new American franchises have cricket fans swinging for the fences.
WORLD Correspondent Bonnie Pritchett has the story.
ANNOUNCER: Look, you get through the Power Play as a Bowling side, if you restrict the opposition to somewhere around 30-35 runs you’re happy, especially if you have a couple of wickets.
BONNIE PRITCHETT, REPORTER: Power play? Bowling? Wickets? Hmm.
To the untrained eye, cricket looks straightforward. Batter hits a ball. Fielder plays it. But to the untrained ear, cricket’s vocabulary sounds foreign.
ANNOUNCER: You can see Kodali upset because Shah went straight down the leg side looking to help it over fine leg.
It’s a language Pooja Shah grew up speaking.
POOJA SHAH: I feel like cricket has always been in my heart. We would always watch it at home. We always loved watching it. It was me, my dad, my brother and my mom.
Shah is a 17-year-old high school senior. When her parents emigrated from India to the U.S., they brought with them their love of the game. Shah grew up near Houston playing a variety of sports at school—mostly basketball.
For Shah, cricket wasn’t on any roster.
SHAH: I started playing cricket in the neighborhood with my brother, some friends, like six or seven years ago. And then I got introduced in leather ball when my dad showed me like a flyer, it passed around his Indian WhatsApp group.
A leather ball is used for official matches. Street cricketers often use a tennis ball.
About 200,000 people play cricket in the U.S. That’s across local leagues, school teams, and university programs. Most of its players and fan base are first and second generation South Asian immigrants. Prospective players outside those communities don’t even know it’s an option, which makes it hard to grow the sport in the U.S.
Like other young cricket newbies, Shah’s athleticism honed in a different sport expedited her transition to the cricket pitch at age 15. She quickly earned a spot on the USA Under-19 Women’s Team that competed in the Women’s World Cup tournament in January.
AUDIO: [CHATTER FROM DUGOUT]
Earlier this month, in Pearland, Texas, Shah played on one of four USA National Women’s teams competing for the championship title.
A few faithful fans—mainly the players’ families—braved triple-digit heat to watch the games in person. The small showing isn’t necessarily indicative of cricket fans’ enthusiasm, just their limited number.
That wasn’t always the case.
George Washington played the game. Abraham Lincoln attended a match. In 1859, the U.S. hosted the world’s first international cricket match between the U.S. and England.
MUSIC: [TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALLGAME]
But the Civil War and a baseball slugger named Babe Ruth undercut cricket’s popularity. Baseball’s faster pace and hourslong – not dayslong! – games soon shut out cricket.
It took almost a century for American cricket to reclaim national and international attention. Two big factors played a role in that: How the game is played and who is playing it.
Cricketers still play 5-day matches. But demand for shorter games birthed two new versions. T20 is the most popular and lasts about as long as, well, a baseball game.
And cricket is played, mostly, by the growing population of South Asian Americans. Where cricket leagues and pitches were practically non-existent two decades ago, they now dot cities across the nation.
And this year American cricket fans have something to really cheer about.
ANNOUNCER: It’s the championship of Major League Cricket 2023. The first of its kind.
In March, a group of mostly foreign stakeholders established the first six American Major League Cricket franchises.
On July 30th, fans packed into a converted minor league baseball field in Grand Prairie, Texas, to watch the Seattle Orcas take on the Mumbai Indian New Yorkers. It was America’s first Major League Cricket Championship.
For those keeping score, the New Yorkers won.
The U.S. represents a potentially lucrative cricket market. Cricketers want to draw the attention of U.S. investors. That’s why they’re putting on high-profile events like the MLC series and co-hosting the 2024 World Cup. They’re even trying to add the sport to the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.
In addition to the top-down approach, cricketers are also working at the grassroots level. Ankit Mehta is Pooja Shah’s coach. He believes promoting cricket locally can do as much to attract new fans as a major league championship game.
ANKIT MEHTA: Start from elementary schools, middle schools and high schools. Start with the school system. And from there, you get kids involved into age group cricket, and do all these youth clubs that they have organized.
A growing population of up-and-coming youth players could incentivize colleges to add the sport and recruit incoming students like Shah.
SHAH: As of now, I haven't really found as many scholarships. Right now for me, it's, I go to college, but I still want to keep that, playing cricket, with me.
MEHTA: Yeah, that's why you call it an American dream, right? And that's what we are working towards. Everyone is—players, coaches, parents, the whole community—the whole cricket playing community is working towards that dream.
Wherever she attends college, Shah will play on—or start—a community cricket league so she can keep honing her skills. Because she has goals. Dreams.
SHAH: I think cricket will always have a pretty important role in my life, because I still have that chance to even play another World Cup. So, that's a goal, but also being able to play for the women's team. That's like the ultimate goal.
AUDIO: [Chatter from dugout] Good work! Good work!
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Bonnie Pritchett in Pearland, Texas.
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