GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas —The promise of cricket in America could be seen and felt in the most unlikely of circumstances. Awash in Friday night lights after a scorching Texas sun, the trim green cricket oval invited fanatics and families alike to watch the Seattle Orcas chase the Washington D.C. Freedom’s 144 runs.
“Deep in the Heart of Texas” played cheerfully from the loudspeakers during a brief break in the action, and local law enforcement — sporting straw cowboy hats and boots — looked on in bewilderment. Major League Cricket debuted last week, the cricketing world’s American Dream, a new field of dreams.
Unlike the seesaw, to-and-fro of baseball innings, the format of cricket known as T-20 is played politely with one team batting until 20 overs (120 balls) are thrown – around the same number thrown by a baseball team in nine innings. During a cricket game’s overs, the batting squad attempts to score as many runs as possible while the bowling team, the defense, attempts to take the batting team’s wickets. Batting ends when 10 wickets are taken or 20 overs are completed, whichever comes first.
In the opening innings, DC had scored 144 runs and lost 7 wickets. Now it was up to Seattle’s assortment of Indian, Pakistani, South African, Sri Lankan, West Indies, and US players to beat that score. Seattle displayed an offense not unlike past Mariners teams – slow but steady small ball.
After 8 overs, Seattle still needed 101 runs. With 2 overs remaining, they needed 17. Imad Wasim of Pakistan and Shimron Hetmyer from the West Indies formed a partnership that produced a pair of 6s (baseball’s equivalent of a homerun), and Shubham Ranjane came up with the winning hit for 4 (something like a ground rule double) after Hetmyer was dismissed.
The Seattle Orcas won their inaugural match Friday night with 148 runs and 5 lost wickets. They followed their thrilling victory with another win Saturday night over the San Francisco Unicorns, this time in a more decisive manner, 177 runs and 4 wickets. The Orcas took all 10 San Francisco wickets after the Unicorns put up just 142 runs. Orcas batsman Heinrich Klaasen of South Africa scored the franchise’s first “half-century,” putting up 53 runs.
In 2015, I wrote an article posing a question: Could cricket in the U.S. be a worthwhile investment? I flew to New York City to watch a tour of the world’s cricketing all-stars because, having fallen in love with the sport thanks to business travel to India and England, I was curious about its viability in America.
Not long ago, the idea that Major League Soccer franchises would pop up in cities across America, each competing for international talent. Soccer was a dream to some, and a joke to others. But cricket? It’s too complicated. Don’t matches stretch on for days? It will never work. Or might the MLC and the Indian diaspora attract a legend at the end of his career, such as MLS and its “soccer is life” Latino population attracted Messi to Miami?
The night before Seattle’s match, the Texas Super Kings played the LA Knight Riders to
commence tournament play. Ross Perot Jr’s Super Kings beat the Knight Riders by a score of 181 runs and the loss of 6 wickets to 112 runs with the loss of all 10 wickets. (Thanks to an agreement with the Indian Premier League (IPL), several of the American teams share IPL mascots. Chenai and Texas are the Super Kings, Mumbai and New York are the Indians, Kolkata and Los Angeles are the Knight Riders.)
All six teams — Texas, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. — began this week’s tournament in Texas, to be continued in North Carolina, and then return to Texas for the playoffs on July 27. The scene in Grand Prairie Major League Cricket debuted to a sellout crowd of around 7,000 fans with the kind of diversity the NFL, the NBA, and MLB can only dream about. Television networks from around the world, including America’s Willow cable channel, broadcast the game live to hundreds of millions in cricket-mad places like India, Australia and New Zealand, the UK, and South Africa. International news outlets have run coverage almost hourly through the weekend.
MLC took over an abandoned independent league baseball stadium (the Airhogs) in the Dallas suburb of Grand Prairie, and invested heavily in a world class cricket oval. There, fans in Dallas Cowboys gear and Bass Pro Shop hats mixed with the national team jerseys from every cricket nation. Country and Western, Bollywood, and hip-hop blasted overhead. Fans munched on chickpeas and rice seasoned with Tex-Mex Chipotle hot sauce.
The Dallas metroplex made for a surprising backdrop. Looming over the new cricket stadium is Lone Star Park, a hulking horseracing venue. Soaring above the racetrack’s spire, commercial jets take off and land from nearby DFW Airport.
Inside the arena, an English gentleman from Birmingham, more recently residing in Jacksonville, stayed over in Dallas when he learned he could catch the first-ever Major League Cricket game. Tim Miller, 54, and his son Iain, 18, live locally in the Dallas metroplex and were standing near the field an hour before the action began. Iain began playing with friends, mostly Indian, in a nearby park as the pandemic began. He fell in love with the game and has now tried out for an Under-19 team. He and his father watch cricket on Willow.
Mark Roberts and his kids, 10 and 13, drove 12 hours from Fort Collins, Colo., to see the launch. Dad took an interest in 2018 when he stumbled across the sport on Willow. He wanted to introduce his kids to cricket because “it’s a better alternative to baseball.” Why? The action. Like a winter league baseball game in the Caribbean, fans blew whistles and anticipated, and then reacted to, every play of the game.
By all accounts, the cricket grounds and the quality of play were top-notch. Likewise, the league clearly invested in slick, professional video and merchandise. Orcas cricket is backed by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella; Madrona Venture Group Managing Director S. Soma Somasegar; Icertis co-founder and CEO Samir Bodas; GreatPoint Ventures managing partner Ashok Krishnamurthi; and former Microsoft and Avalara executive Sanjay Parthasarathy.
Soma and his family attended both Orcas games over the weekend. “We have love and passion for the sport we grew up with,” he said. “We wanted to give back to the community, to create an exciting space for kids and families. Seattle was not a day one city for the league, but we have an important base to build upon.”
He pointed out that the US and Seattle should be part of the world’s second most popular sport. “Sports bring people from different perspectives together,” he said. “ We want to unify.” Tech hubs like Seattle and Silicon Valley in California have long attracted software programmers from India. The Asian Indian population in the US has grown steadily, rising from 2 million in 2000 to more than 5 million today.
In the Seattle area, Microsoft is incorporating a recreational cricket pitch on its new campus in Redmond. King County’s Marymoor Park, where Seattle’s amateur league has played for decades, envisions its own professionally-run stadium.
What’s next for MLC? Seattle will play three more matches in Morristown, N.C., over the weekend. The teams return to Texas for the championship round. Beyond that, it’s a little uncertain. MLC franchises expect to have their grounds in order by the 2025 season. Tom Dunmore, who heads MLC marketing, said the hope is that 2025 will be the first regular season.
Next year, the United States and the West Indies (Jamaica, Bahamas, Antigua) will co-host cricket’s World Cup. The International Cricket Committee (ICC), the equivalent of soccer’s FIFA, is currently working to identify host cities. New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland are possibilities. With the Oakland Athletics heading to Las Vegas, that could open up a suitable stadium. The Oakland Coliseum is known for its generous foul territory, which would enable a proper cricket oval.
Dunmore says MLC will wait to see what the ICC comes up with, and perhaps next year’s MLC tournament could be played on a World Cup pitch. “Not to be cliché, but if you build it people will come,” Dunmore said.
A little more Cricket 101 on how the game is played More than 10 years ago on a trip to New Delhi, I downloaded Cricket for Dummies in order to be conversant on the subject since the Australian national team was touring India. The test match, this one played over weeks, was all anyone wanted to talk about.
Still puzzled? Here’s a short lesson that might be helpful. As in baseball, a batsman (batter) stands before a bowler (pitcher) and swings at pace balls (fastballs) and spin or swing balls (curves and sliders) attempting score runs. The batsman can score 1-3 runs with hits inside the boundary (fence) or 4 runs at once if a fielder fails to stop the ball from exiting the boundary. If the batsman clears the boundary in the air, it’s 6 runs.
And what are wickets? Wickets are taken by the defense. The defense can take a wicket by catching the ball in the air, smacking the stumps behind the batsman or hitting the batsman’s leg pads without contact with the bat. A batsman can stand at the crease (like baseball’s plate) all day if the defense cannot take the wicket.