Meet a baseball guy making cricket fun in the US ahead of the T20 World Cup

Jimmy O’Brien has become the refreshing new voice of US cricket as the nation prepares to co-host the global T20 event.

Jimmy O'Brien broadcasts from his Manhatten studio complex [Courtesy: Jomboy Media]
Jimmy O'Brien will take his analytical skills from the baseball podcast in his Manhattan studio to television broadcast at the ICC Men's T20 World Cup 2024 [Courtesy: Jomboy Media]

New Jersey, United States – On a cold March day in Jersey City, the warehouse looks unremarkable from the outside. Surrounded by a mesh fence under a noisy flyover bridge, there is little of note in the bleakly industrial area apart from the cannabis shop next door. But inside is the world of a sports-loving child’s fantasies: a cavernous room transformed into a field of play.

On the menu is Ball in Play, a meld of cricket and baseball, where players wear bucket hats and bubblegum-coloured kits. The walls are adorned with team banners bearing preposterous names: The Woogas, Love Yas, McFlurry Power and Forgotten Rotten.

It is here that 35-year-old Jimmy O’Brien, aka Jomboy, is enjoying the realisation of his dream.

The founder of Jomboy Media has overseen the booming expansion of his empire from a two-man podcast to an organisation employing more than 60 people in an office and studio complex near the Empire State Building in New York City and the New Jersey warehouse.

Jomboy’s success has been built on podcasts and videos analysing baseball and other American sports but, almost by chance, O’Brien discovered a late love for cricket. He could not possibly have imagined it leading him to one of cricket’s most coveted broadcasting roles.

O’Brien, an American who has never played cricket, will join a commentary team of the game’s former star players and elite broadcasters at the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup 2024.

Jimmy O'Brien 'bowling' for Team Baggage in Ball in Play, held in a New Jersey warehouse [Courtesy: Jomboy Media]
Jimmy O’Brien ‘bowling’ for Team Baggage in Ball in Play, a tournament for a mash-up sport held in a New Jersey warehouse in March 2024 [Courtesy: Jomboy Media]

An accidental cricket fan

O’Brien first encountered cricket as a six-year-old in Australia.

His family spent two years living in the Sydney suburb of Lindfield, and O’Brien has vague memories of schoolyard games during recess at the Holy Family Primary School.

“I didn’t actually play it when we lived there, just in the schoolyard,” O’Brien tells Al Jazeera.

“My friend played so I remember going to his practice every now and then. But I never saw a match.

“I watched more rugby and Aussie rules on TV. But my dad had a company outing where they played cricket and I was with all the other kids, playing. I didn’t know the rules. I knew that you run back and forth to score runs.”

Back in the US, O’Brien pursued a career in sports media, initially as a videographer.

In 2017, he started a podcast on his beloved New York Yankees as a hobby with his best friend Jake Storiale.

“I was just like, I’m going to build a Twitter account and make content about the Yankees because I have no one to talk about them with and I’m bored. And then they had a good season out of nowhere. They went to the playoffs so our podcasts grew. We thought it was big. Maybe 1,000 people listened.

“But it was growing. I got a small investment of 25 grand to quit and try to do it full-time for a year. Jake got fired and was searching for a new job and I was like, wanna split half of this nothing with me?”

O’Brien combined an uncanny talent for lip-reading with forensic video research to analyse everything from strategy to alleged cheating in Major League Baseball. In 2019 several videos went viral and Jomboy’s following skyrocketed.

Jimmy O'Brien and Jake Storiale co-founders of Jomboy media [Courtesy: Jomboy Media]
Jimmy O’Brien and Jake Storiale, co-founders of Jomboy Media [Courtesy: Jomboy Media]

‘Not a cricket snob yet’

A combination of fatherhood and the COVID-19 pandemic reconnected O’Brien to cricket. His son, James, was born in November 2021, during the Men’s T20 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates.

O’Brien spent the next five days shuttling between the hospital and a hotel room which did not have access to the internet or cable television.

“I had watched [Australian documentary] The Test on Amazon because I really like Australian media and I don’t want to forget about that part of my life. So I watched The Test, season one, and that kind of got it back on the brain.

“When I was in the hospital, the T20 World Cup was the only thing live. And then I watched a tonne [of cricket] when I was on paternity leave.”

The T20 franchise leagues in New Zealand and Australia would air during late-night hours on the US East Coast, providing plenty of cricket viewing opportunities to the new dad.

“I like the intricacies of strategy. I also like bat-to-ball sports. But, unlike baseball, cricket is a good watch even with less athletic players. Baseball is pretty brutal to watch when it’s amateurs but cricket, I could put on any league and I could enjoy the action. But that might be just because I’m not a snob yet.”

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(Al Jazeera)

‘Doing wonders for the sport in the US’

Perhaps it is his lack of cricket snobbery that has endeared him to other novices of the game like himself.

In a breakdown of West Indies’ stunning Test win over Australia in January, O’Brien distilled the historical context and significance; Steve Smith’s strategy in trying to shepherd Australia home with tail-ender Josh Hazlewood and Shamar Joseph’s tactics into a 10-minute masterclass of introduction to Test cricket.

His explanation of why Smith must keep the strike and protect Hazlewood is comically honest: “[Hazlewood is] a very good bowler. He does not bat well.”

There’s no shortage of baseball references, either.

When Smith plays a late cut, O’Brien points out that it’s not “an excuse-me-foul-ball” as in baseball, but a well-executed cricket shot.

And when Joseph finally gets Hazlewood by knocking the top of his off-stump – O’Brien is not sure if the correct terminology is “top of off” or “off of top” – he gives it a baseball equivalent: “He dotted the corner. You’d say high and outside, dot, and that’s exactly what he did.”

In another clip of cricket “breakdown” commentary that went viral, O’Brien explains the intricacies of a bowler setting up a batsman for a wicket. He walks the fan through cricket terms such as inswinger, outswinger and wobble seam in an uncomplicated manner.

Some sports fans have credited “Jomboy” with getting them closer to understanding the game than they had ever been, while others feel he is “doing wonders” for the sport in the US.

From baseball podcast to cricket broadcast

The ICC hopes O’Brien will help them crack the US market by breaking down barriers when he joins their broadcast team during the matches held in New York.

“We are delighted that Jomboy will be joining the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup 2024 commentator’s panel,” ICC TV Executive Producer Ajesh Ramachandran told Al Jazeera.

“With his unique blend of insightful analysis and entertaining storytelling, Jomboy will bring a fresh and exciting perspective to cricket, making it more accessible and enjoyable for our growing US audience. His passion for the game and ability to connect with fans will undoubtedly enhance the World Cup experience for viewers.”

For O’Brien, it is a chance to take his analytical skills from the podcast to broadcast and add the perspective of “someone that did not grow up with the game”.

“I’m thrilled to get the opportunity. I’m also so nervous because it’s something I haven’t done before and I know how much the viewers love the product.”

O’Brien believes cricket has the potential to make inroads in the coveted US market, but it will take time.

“If cricket was to get to the level in the US that baseball has gone to Australia I think that would be decently successful. I think it takes 20 years for a sport to really get into the populace. You need to get the youth playing it.”

Back at the warehouse in March, ex-professional baseballers “bowl” to current professional cricketers wielding a baseball bat flattened out on one side, another hybrid. The teams for Ball in Play include social media content creators, employees and amateurs with a mean swing. There are “wickets” instead of “outs”, fours and sixes, and batters who run between the wickets. It is the marriage of O’Brien’s two sporting loves.

Two players, Aaron Jones and Shayan Jahangir, have been selected in the USA squad for the World Cup. Jahangir is on O’Brien’s team, Team Baggage. Neither of them realise O’Brien could soon be commentating on them to a worldwide audience of hundreds of millions when the T20 World Cup finally lands in the US.

Jimmy O'Brien and Shayan Jahangir Jomboy
Team Baggage teammates Jimmy O’Brien (front, right) and Shayan Jahangir (front, left) will feature at the ICC T20 World Cup, one as a commentator and the other as a member of the USA squad [Courtesy: Jomboy Media]
Source: Al Jazeera