Three years after they were kicked out, the USA have had their member status restored and a new governing body has big ideas for the progression of the game for both men and women
Was that a whiff of fatted calf we could smell this week? The USA finally returned to the cricketing fold, three years after being kicked out of the ICC for behaviour unbecoming an associate member, and the whole affair had a slight feel of the prodigal son about it.
“The International Cricket Council today welcomed USA Cricket as its 105th Member, in what is a historical milestone for the governing body established in 2017,” beamed the official press release, as champagne corks popped across the Atlantic. The use of the word historical seemed a bit rich – after all, it’s also the only milestone this one-year-old organisation has achieved. But maybe the person who wrote it was feeling nostalgic. After all, 54 years ago, in 1965, the USA had been the very first non-Commonwealth country admitted to the ICC. And the decades since haven’t exactly wreathed it in glory.
Cricket in the United States has been a confusing and confounding proposition for a long while: the Schleswig-Holstein of the modern game, with those who attempt to wrap their heads around it recklessly risking their sanity. The baffling workings of the USA Cricket Association (Usaca), formerly responsible for running the game, meant it had already been suspended three times before its final expulsion, due to governance that was characterised by paralysing politicking and financial incompetence. It was, at one stage, more than $4m in debt. Which is decent going considering there’s barely a cricket field in the country that has its own changing facilities.
Now a new governing body called USA Cricket has been formed, with the help of a team of ICC troubleshooters, to allow Uncle Sam to rejoin the rest of the associate nations with a clean slate. So it’s new-year, new-start for US cricket, and the only people taking issue with the changes are Usaca’s former president Gladstone Dainty and board member Dr Linden Dodson, who are attempting to sue the ICC for $2m in damages.
The fact that the new board is chaired by Paraag Marathe, the executive vice-president of football operations for the San Francisco 49ers, and includes an NBA executive and the managing director of the Boston Consulting Group will, it is hoped, finally give cricket some kind of a chance in a crowded and seriously competitive sports market. The ICC has made no secret of its desire to conquer America (and during Usaca’s suspension, offered so much extraordinary support that it started to look to some like special treatment). But it’s a mission that has always sounded a little ambitious – hubristic, even. Not least in a year when only 10 teams will compete in its World Cup.
After all, for all the hyperbole surrounding cricket’s potential in the US, the game still appears to inspire less enthusiasm in the average American than Ivanka Trump’s clothing line. A coaching scheme that planned to convert baseball players into Twenty20 cricketers has not yet resulted in any star batter taking to the crease. The announcement of a giddying $2.4bn investment to professionalise US cricket, by a company led by the St Lucia Stars owner, Jay Pandya, has likewise gone quiet. To be fair to Pandya, he had agreed a $70m deal with Usaca for tournament rights which, since it was suspended from the ICC, it didn’t actually own.
The US does, however, have a surprisingly vibrant grassroots game, enthusiastically sustained by communities from the Asian and Caribbean diasporas, to the tune of some 200,000 players (although that number is, like so many of the figures previously put out by Usaca, approximate and unaudited). And there has been recent success growing the game in unexpected cities, such as Raleigh, North Carolina, whose new taxpayer-funded ground played host last September to a World Cup qualifier between USA and Canada. Both the venue and the crowd – which reached roughly 2,000 – were the best either team had ever seen in north America.
USA Cricket is not going to be able to solve the country’s cricket problems overnight – a fact of which it is keenly aware. Its scheme to introduce schoolkids to the game has started small: a series of instructional videos that are being tested at a handful of venues. There’s also a tellingly polite message when you call its office number: “If this call is concerning an issue you are having trying to join USA cricket, we apologise in advance for the challenges, but greatly appreciate your interest …”
Still, there is one avenue that offers an opportunity both to grow and fund the game in the US that remains untried. Soccer’s popularity in the US has mushroomed because of the women’s game; levels of female participation owe much to the Title IX legislation that requires and guarantees equal access to federally funded sports programmes for men and women. Numerous sports – from beach volleyball to handball – have grown their membership by creating college scholarships and attracting programme funding from universities.
Women’s cricket, it seems fair to say, was not well cultivated by Usaca: in 2011, the pool of talent they drew from was so small that the women’s squad for their World Cup qualifying matches included two players in their 50s. And while there are now a handful of female leagues in the country, a recent call for try-outs for the national training camps still mustered only around 100 players.
Encouragingly, USA Cricket seems keen to tackle the deficit. There have begun conversations with the National Collegiate Athletic Association about the process of turning cricket into an intramural sport (albeit this is not a speedy process), and one of its first acts has been to advertise for a head coach for the women’s team. Perhaps it’s time for the Daughters of the American (Cricketing) Revolution to take the stage.
• This is an extract taken from the Spin, the Guardian’s weekly cricket email.