New York City, USA - Last November, iconic baseball stadiums in New York City, Houston and Los Angeles hosted the Cricket All-Stars series.
Sachin Tendulkar and Shane Warne captained two teams comprising cricketing legends for Twenty20 matches billed to help the sport to grow in the US.
For fans such as Anant Shukla, who grew up in Virginia and now works in New York City, it was an opportunity to finally see the cricket stars he had only ever seen on TV.
Shukla went to the series-opener at Citi Field, home to the New York Mets, with his whole family. The match was hugely entertaining, he said, before urging caution about its potential legacy.
“It’s a showcase event in terms of the greatest, but not the best talent today,” Shukla told Al Jazeera.
“So if I was a young kid going to this match to decide if cricket is something I’m interested in, I won’t see the sport in its purest form.”
Across the three venues, more than 80,000 tickets were sold. However, the series was some way from being a sellout. Some people questioned the ticket prices, which ranged from $50 to more than $300.
But the organisers told Al Jazeera they were optimistic and formulating plans to have a second series in 2016.
“While it's way too early to tell if our time in NYC, Houston and LA contributed to the growth of cricket, I'm confident that we've made some important inroads and will continue to do so,” said Raj Ramakrishan, managing director of United Sports Associates.
|Despite not being a sell-out, the All-Stars series gave a chance to all those fans who had seen their idols only on TV screens [AP]
The glitzy All-Stars series at least made dreams come true for some cricket fans. Shoaib Akhtar bowled with menace and the now-retired Kumar Sangakkara smashed the ball all over the triangular field.
But the event took place at a challenging time for cricket in the US. The International Cricket Council (ICC), cricket’s world governing body, suspended the United States of America Cricket Association (USACA) and withdrew its funding last June.
An ICC Review Group report found “significant concerns about the governance, finance, reputation and cricketing activities of USACA”. The suspension left the sport in the US at a crossroads.
But the arrival of Tendulkar and Warne provided a chance to reflect on the potential reach of cricket in the US when the governance of the game is troubled.
The ICC has long viewed the US as its next big potential market. Today, American cricket fans have easier access to live cricket. Sports broadcaster ESPN bought the Cricinfo website in 2007 and airs live Indian Premier League matches as well as the World Cup.
Cricket in the US has 15 million followers, an indication of genuine scope for growth, according to the ICC.
It is well established in pockets of the US, especially areas with a large expatriate South Asian and West Indian population. Around 200,000 people play some form of the game in the US and 30,000 play it competitively, according to ICC data.
“That’s a good number," said Ben Kavenagh, regional development manager for ICC Americas. "But they are predominantly senior men. There is not much junior cricket in a structured format. And there is next to no women’s cricket happening. These are the focus areas that need to be addressed.”
|Tendulkar, left, cricket's highest run-scorer, and Warne, the second-highest wicket-taker in Test cricket, were the brains behind the idea [AP]
The ICC recently drafted a strategic framework to make cricket the fastest-growing team sport in the US.
“If we have the necessary funding, and that is a big if. The only way you could improve cricket here is if you get into the schools,” said Rizwan Mohammed, USACA board member and representative for states in the southeast.
USACA is positive that it will retain status as the governing body this year. But in this uncertain time, the American Cricket Federation (ACF), a rival group, told Al Jazeera it was ready to take over if required.
“For cricket to grow in this country, you need to take away the word USACA,” ACF secretary John Aaron said.
According to Aaron, the ACF was founded in response to the disenfranchisement of several cricket leagues in 2012. He does not expect USACA to fulfil the ICC’s obligations by 2016. Infighting has left those involved at the grassroots at a loss.
Venu Palaparthi founded the Dream Cricket Academy, a not-for-profit organisation which runs three boys' cricket teams in New Jersey.
“The crux of it is we haven’t found a governing body that speaks for all of us,” Palaparthi told Al Jazeera.
|The All-Stars line-up comprised a list of some of the greatest names in the game [AP]
There are signs that youth cricket is growing. The United States Youth Cricket Association has distributed more than 2,000 cricket sets to children across the country, according to its founder Jamie Harrison.
But far fewer women and girls play cricket in the US today. The national team played a friendly match in November against Pakistan but has not played competitively since 2012.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” said Nadia Gruny, a member of the USA Women’s team who believes the women’s national team must play more competitive cricket.
“My concern is that they are not going to have an outlet. Without something to shoot for, that interest is going to die.”
Currently, the sport is underperforming, with too many gaps in where it is played and at what ages.
The national team competes in World Cricket League 4 alongside Malaysia and Tanzania.
“If the game is going to become a truly American sport, it needs to break through into the traditional American space as well. There is not a lot happening in that area at the moment,” said Kavenagh.
Source: Al Jazeera