When Major League Cricket’s first game gets under way today (July 13) at the Grand Prairie Stadium in Texas, it will, on paper, be a battle between the Texas Super Kings and the Los Angeles Knight Riders.
Seasoned cricket watchers will know better, though. They’ll be able to see it as a continuation of the contest between Chennai and Kolkata, two Indian cities that field similarly named franchises in the 15-year-old Indian Premier League (IPL). The Chennai Super Kings won the 2023 edition of the IPL.
Two other teams out of the six in the US league are owned by IPL franchises as well: the Seattle Orcas, an offshoot of the Delhi Capitals; and the awkwardly named Mumbai Indians New York, sprung from the Mumbai Indians. Many of the players in these teams are imports as well: globetrotting freelancers who have already plied their trade in the IPL.
To rope the wealthy US market into world cricket has been something of a dream for cricketing authorities for decades. But the sport has suffered from the reputation that its rules are byzantine and its matches epically long—the longest version of it, after all, lasts five days. A game of T20 cricket, though, of the kind seen in the IPL and the MLC, operates along simpler rules and is roughly as long as the average baseball game. If there’s any kind of cricket that will lure Americans, T20 is likely to be it.
But MLC still feels like a transplant, not least because of where its players and team owners come from. More specifically, it feels like a tentacular expansion of the IPL, the world’s most lucrative sports championship after the National Football League.
Since India’s national stars turn out in international fixtures for most of the year, the IPL only lasts two months. To keep the money rolling in, the owners of IPL teams—a Chennai-based cement giant, for example, or Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance conglomerate—started buying franchises overseas. All six teams in South Africa’s SA20 league are spinoffs of IPL teams, as are three out of the six teams in the United Arab Emirates’ International League.
The MLC still has a few distinctly American elements. It functions as the big brother to Minor League Cricket, in which 26 teams are owned by local individuals or companies. The investors in the $120 million MLC include Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft and a noted cricket nut; Ross Perot Jr.; and several people of South Asian descent who have founded companies in the US.
But with the teams themselves largely being brand extensions from the IPL, the temptation is strong to regard the MLC as a feeder league—its teams funded by the geysers of money from the Indian tournament, and run only to augment the glory of the franchises back home. Right from the coin toss in the Texas-LA game, the MLC will be a satellite to its mother ship in India—a dubious way to popularize a sport in a new market.