By Zaheer E. Clarke
Published November 16, 2015
Republished November 19, 2015
THE negative energy currently suffusing three of my favourite sports — athletics, football, and cricket — is too much, and my imaginary couch therapist has instructed me to find the joyous other side of sports.
Therefore, over the past two weeks, I resisted the itch to write articles on IAAF’s emerging corruption scandal involving their former President Lamine Diack. Neither did I feel pressed to further peruse Sepp Blatter’s incriminating comments on FIFA’s fixing of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups hosts before the 2010 bidding votes. Similarly, I baulked at adding my voice, for now, to the ‘gabfest’ involving Caricom’s West Indies cricket review, and the suggested dissolution of the West Indies Cricket Board. To be honest, another scuttlebutt or commentary on West Indies cricket would have drowned in the ocean of dissenters, comprising fans, past players, journalists, and even prime ministers, who have had enough of West Indies cricket.
Thankfully, the Cricket All-Stars Series, made up of a collection of 30 modern cricket legends touring the United States, was the perfect egress from these electronegative emotions. Man, it was like a captivating video game, on steroids.
In 2007, I recalled buying the Microsoft Windows version of the video game EA Sports Cricket 07, and the joy it brought me controlling the various legends of the game on my PC. Scores of 200 runs in 10 over-a-side matches brought fist pumps and the high five of emotions throughout my body. Furthermore, hearing legendary commentators such as Richie Benaud and Mark Nicholas say my name, “Zaheer”, while describing my mesmerising deliveries that often bowled legends like Sachin Tendulkar, or my breathtaking shots for six off spin masters like Shane Warne to cricket’s cow corner, was euphoric and overwhelming.
Having all my favourite players on the same team in that video game was never a possibility. Nevertheless, the unspeakable emotions of joy were reincarnated last Saturday when 30 legends of cricket shared the dressing room at the Citi Field baseball ground in Flushing Meadows, New York, the home of the New York Mets baseball team. Unfortunately, we could only be blessed with 22 of the 30 stars playing in the match at a time — only 11 players are allowed per team.
Immigrants, children of immigrants from cricket-loving countries, and casual fans converged at the baseball ground to a mass of 36,000 in the 42,000-capacity stadium. Their best-loved legends — who have all retired as recently as three months ago to as far back as 15 years ago — provided them with thrilling entertainment in the form of Twenty20 cricket.
The start to the match was perfect. Virender Sehwag, one of cricket’s most dangerous willow-wielding legends, delivered an enthralling onslaught before the first wicket fell. The first wicket of the match involved the three finalists for ESPNCricinfo’s cricketer of a generation award, which was presented last year. Sachin Tendulkar, who receives god-like worship from Indian fans, lost his wicket to a ball bowled by Shane Warne and caught by Jacques Kallis. These three stars are not only cricketers of their generation, but easily occupy top-5 all-time spots in their respective genres of cricket: batting, bowling, and all-round abilities. And to believe 27 other legends were on the field, or in the dugouts, is simply stupendous: Brian Lara, Sir Curtly Ambrose, Ricky Ponting, Kumar Sangakkara, Glen McGrath, Muttiah Muralitharan, Wasim Akram, Saqlain Mushtaq, and others.
Cricket’s legends playing in the US is not a recent phenomenon. John Wisden, the founder of Wisden Almanack (Cricket’s Bible) and the only bowler in a first-class match to take all 10 wickets in an innings clean bowled, visited the US in 1859. W G Grace, another early star of cricket, caressed US shores in 1872. Likewise, Sir Donald Bradman, cricket’s biggest star, toured Canada and the US in 1932, shortly after breaking the Test and first-class batting records in 1930. These records are now held by another legend and West Indian great, Brian Lara. Bradman and his all-conquering Australian team, in 1932, played 51 matches in various cities, including stops in Toronto, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Similarly, this 2015 Cricket All-Star Series tour will include stops in New York, Houston and Los Angeles. The Chicago stop was cancelled.
This conglomerate of cricket greats on US soil reminds me of Pele and the New York Cosmos in the 1970s. A move of this nature can do nothing negative for the popularity of cricket in the US. I see only positives here. The genesis and lasting effects of Pele’s ‘Coming to America’, and later Beckham and others, is resonant today in filled stadiums hosting MLS games all over the US and Canada. For sure, cricket’s popularity will catch on, and hopefully replace baseball, which had replaced cricket in popularity in the US, after the US Civil War.
Before the US Civil War, in 1860, it’s estimated that about 400-500 cricket clubs were in existence with over 10,000 combined registered cricketers. In recent months, my friends and unbeknownst mentors have echoed the “death” of cricket, including West Indies cricket. However, the crowd of 36,000 in the New York Mets home stadium is not far off from the 42,000 baseball fans I shared seats with at a baseball game in August of this year at the New York Yankees Stadium. Cricket is not dead, well not in the US just yet. With the legion of expats from cricket-mad countries residing in the US, as well as Twenty20’s brevity, appeal, and similarities to baseball, the Cricket All-Star Series might be the saviour or phoenix of cricket in the US.
Regrettably, the US Cricket Association (USACA) was this year suspended by cricket’s international governing body, the ICC. Unfortunately, this is not the first time and might not be the last. In 2005 and in 2007 they were suspended. This time, according to the ICC Chairman N Srinivasan, it is because of “significant concerns about the governance, finance, reputation, and cricketing activities of USACA”. According to him, “The country has tremendous potential but… the opportunity to grow the game is not being properly nurtured.” In my view, USACA needs to get their bit together, and quickly.
Fortunately, as Warne recounted, “Myself and Sachin had an idea, why not take cricket to America and be the Harlem Globetrotters, go around and do free exhibitions at schools… help grow the game of cricket.”
Tendulkar also remarked, “Youngsters need heroes to get inspired. To believe that, yes, I want to be like Wasim (Akram), Brian Lara or Jacques Kallis. That is, how that journey starts. We all should dream and then we have to chase our dreams.”
Warne and Tendulkar are letter-perfect. Then the thought came to me, “Who are the modern heroes to inspire our West Indian youths to chase their cricketing dreams? Where has the recurring plethora of heroes gone in West Indies cricket?”
Pointedly, my imaginary couch therapist quickly said, “Let’s stick to positive thoughts, Zaheer.” Let me take her advice and watch the rest of these breathtaking All-Star matches.
Until next time…
© Zaheer Clarke
From the “Lies & Statistics” column in the Western Mirror (Published November 16, 2015)