Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Sporting life: What my recent trip to the US taught me about cricket

There are hopes that the sport will breakthrough to an American audience 
June 5, 2024

I’m just back from a month-long trip to the US, a stop-starting journey through the Deep South states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Arriving in New Orleans at the start of May, I found it humming with activity. The streets were full of folk enjoying the annual JazzFest, wearing fancy dresses for the Kentucky Derby and celebrating Cinco de Mayo. 

“New Orleanians don’t let a week go by without a party,” my taxi driver, Solomon, told me. With their Mardi Gras parades  and packed schedule of music events,  and it’s a wonder that anyone has time to keep up with the sporting calendar. But the city’s NFL and NBA teams still enjoy a mammoth following, as evidenced by the city’s massive stadiums—the “Smoothie King Center”, which hosts the basketball players, and the famous Superdome, home to its footballing Saints. 

With his Senegalese background, Solomon had been far less absorbed by basketball’s March Madness than the climax of the English Premier League. We chatted about Liverpool’s upended hopes for the title before I admitted that I actually preferred cricket. “I’m sorry?” said Solomon. “I never heard of that before.” I told him it was baseball where you pitch the ball into the ground with a straight arm, hit it on the bounce, and run up and down a strip instead of around the bases. It is my ready-prepared explanation for Americans, and he seemed perfectly satisfied with it.

You can understand why the US market is so appealing to cricket administrators.

After that, I asked almost everyone I met whether they knew of cricket. A few identified it as “that English game”, but most thought I was talking about the insect, or a mobile phone brand that sells cheap tariffs. Clearly the launch last year of Major League Cricket—the three-week-long T20 tournament whose franchise teams mimic those of the Indian Premier League—has not yet made an impact on the American sporting consciousness. 

The International Cricket Council, which runs the international game, has been trying to break into the American market for decades, in search of the dollars that have begun to rain down on its soccer counterpart. This year, as part of its attempt to raise the sport’s profile, it is hosting a showpiece tournament, the T20 World Cup, in Texas, New York and Florida, and have purpose-built new stadiums for the event. 

In June, reigning champions England will travel to the US under the captaincy of Jos Buttler, hoping to do better at retaining this trophy than they did at defending their one-day title a few months ago. (The supposed best white-ball cricket side in the world crashed out of the World Cup in India before the knockout stages. It was a difficult time, let’s not talk about it.)

For the tournament organisers, the most important outcome isn’t who wins but who watches. Cricket’s leaders have made no secret of the fact that a US audience for the game is a key pillar of their growth strategy. There was great rejoicing when the sport was included in the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

You can understand why the US market is so appealing to cricket administrators. A growing South Asian diaspora is already bringing the game to the nation’s towns and cities—playing on plastic pitches in scrubby parkland, following live feeds from India on VPNs. Only a tiny percentage of America’s residents need engage with the game for cricket to secure a considerable new market.

Given that I spend most of my time outside the UK in the US, I have a vested interest in it adopting the game. And yet I struggle to get on board with the proselytising agenda. Baseball relates easily to cricket; it is also so utterly different that I have never comprehended it. Just like cricket, it is in decline as a mainstream sport. Is it empathy that makes me wish for the US to find a renewed love for its own homegrown bat-and-ball game before it embraces a new one? 

Maybe it’s because the American sporting universe is already so crammed with hype and “content” that I feel ambivalent about my own great love competing so cravenly for attention. Then I think back to my arrival in the US, and the New Orleanians’ ability to accommodate so many kinds of celebration. Perhaps I just need to be a bit more, well, American about it.