Money, mafiosos, and overpaid celebrities: Americans should be loving cricket

Don’t look away: The coolest things in cricket actually happen on the field.
Don’t look away: The coolest things in cricket actually happen on the field.
Image: Getty Images/Gallo Images
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One of the great ironies of the sporting universe is that the self-proclaimed “land of the free and home of the brave” has little to no interest in the great sport of cricket. Indeed, more Indians participate in the Winter Olympics—namely, one—than there are famous American cricket players.

This is ironic because “free and brave” are exactly the kind of qualities you need to shine in cricket. Only with great freedom do you get the time required to play an entire five-day test match. And only with great bravery do you participate in a sport that involves dense balls of leather-covered cork being walloped at people wearing nothing more protective than a pair of sunglasses.

And, of course, you need a lot of land to play cricket properly.

Land. Free. Brave. Boom.

Yet Americans don’t care for cricket at all. Last year, President Barack Obama admitted as much. This was during British Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to the US. Mr. Obama took Cameron along for a Mississippi Valley State vs. Western Kentucky college basketball game. In return, the president told a reporter, “He’s going to teach me cricket because I don’t understand what’s going on with that.”

Note how Obama refers to cricket as some sort of unfathomably bizarre oddity like Def Leppard lyrics.

The hottest thing going on with cricket right now is the Indian Premier League, or the IPL. Odds are that the IPL is perhaps the most glamorous sporting event in the world—that a lot of the world has never heard of. So here is everything you need to know about the IPL in particular, and cricket in general. Delivered in delicious nuggets you can dole out at that forthcoming cocktail party at the Sri Lankan embassy:

Q: So Americans have never played cricket you say?

A: Not quite. In fact some of the first American cricket clubs aren’t much younger than the earliest English cricket clubs. Indeed, the sport had some popularity in the US, and produced some outstanding players in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One historian suggests that cricket may have been the most popular sport in the US up till the Civil War. (The more I hear about this war, the less I like it.) However by World War I, baseball had eclipsed it entirely.

Incidentally the first international test match ever contested is believed to have been held in Staten Island, New York. In September 1844, the USA and Canada faced off in a low-scoring affair that the Canadians won by 23 runs.

That’s right: North Americans used to play cricket.

Q: But what do you mean by “test match?” Are there other types of cricket?

A: Very much so. Cricket is particularly fecund when it comes to inventing exciting new ways of playing it. Currently, the three most popular formats of cricket are tests, one-day internationals (ODI) and Twenty20 matches (T20).

Tests, the oldest and arguably most pure form of cricket, involve teams playing each other over five days. ODIs take place over a single day, and usually last between six to eight hours. T20 matches, the most recently invented format, take only half as much time as ODIs and thus make for more exciting matches, busier tournaments and excellent television.

Q: Five days? Really? FIVE DAYS? You could conduct an entire National Hockey League season complete with a player’s strike in five days.

A: Yup. Five days. And the funny thing is that tests can very often lumber along for five days before ending in draws. This tends to put off many people who are used to more conclusive sporting events such as tennis or Ultimate Fighting Championships.

But on the other hand five-day matches can often become tense, strategic affairs fought as much in the mind as on the field. Delicious.


A: Golf.

Q: Good point. So where does this IPL thing come in?

A: The Indian Premier League is the “mostest” professional cricket league in the world. It has the richest teams, most prize money, biggest audience and most inexplicable business plan of any cricketing league in the world. (Seriously, nobody knows how the teams actually make any money after all the salaries involved.)

The 2013 season, the sixth, takes place between April 3 and May 26, and will involve a series of T20 matches between nine T20 teams based all over India. Each privately owned team is staffed with a mix of Indian and international players. Players from every major cricketing country in the world participate in the IPL—except Pakistan. Because India and Pakistan hate each other very much.

In other words, the IPL is kind of like an entire season’s worth of NFL, NHL, NBA or English football packed into two months of mayhem.

Q: Richest teams? Most money? How much are we talking here?

A: In 2010, the rights to own the Pune Warriors team was auctioned at $370 million. (Just. To. Own. The. Rights. To. A. Team.) In the 2011 season, the Pune Warriors paid player Robin Uthappa a salary of $2.1 million. Not bad at all for playing 14 matches in two months. Presumably many players also make more money from endorsement deals. IPL teams and players hawk everything from soft drinks to cement and even hair-transplant services.

Ka, as it were, ching.

Q: God! Everyone must love the IPL.

A: Oh, you ignorant little neo-conservative financial imperialist! Things are never that simple when it comes to cricket. Fans of the T20 format like it for the entertainment, the showmanship, the scandals, the moments of sublime cricketing and the rare chance to see cricketers from different countries playing together. (Unlike football or basketball, the annual cricketing season almost entirely features matches between nations. Mingling across borders is rare.)

Detractors firmly believe that T20 is a vampire squid sucking the soul out of cricket. They think that the money, the schedule and the commercial commitments distract the senior players, stunt younger ones and distort incentives.

This writer feels that the fault isn’t as much the format’s as it is of the people who run cricket globally. Cricket is run by a criminal mafia, as someone once told me. Not me, the writer said, in a legally disclaiming way.

Q: Too much money! Criminal mafia! Distorted incentives! Overpaid celebrities! HOW CAN AMERICANS NOT WANT TO WATCH THE IPL EVERY MOMENT OF EVERY DAY!

A: Exactly my point. Start with the rules of cricket, here.