The Cricket World Cup begins this weekend in Australia, and the rest of the globe will be paying attention as India defends its title in what should be the biggest sporting event of 2015. Domestically? We can expect, well, crickets.
Americans don't give a rip about cricket. The U.S. didn't make the 14-team World Cup field, and never has. We formed a national team in 2010 to attempt to qualify for this year's event; a report on the effort noted that the squad had an average age of 37 and didn't have a single player born in this country, hence the nickname "the United Nations Pensioners XI." The only telecasts available through U.S. networks are pay-per-view.
That's not to say we haven't tried to influence the game, though. One of the biggest brouhahas in the sport in recent years was started by an army of young Yanks who in 2008 went on a mission to India to spread a wholly American pastime: cheerleading.
Cricket in India is a big-time sport—big as the NFL, NBA, and MLB combined. But a group of Indian businessman wanted to make it bigger time. So Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, who has long kept up a sideline in cheerleader promotion, helped out by sending a team of cultural ambassadors to introduce Indian cricket to the art of dressing in scanty clothing to dance alongside sporting events..
The New World choreography and risque (by local standards) outfits caused a full-on clash of cultures and generations. While high-rolling cricket magnates were inspired to decorate their sidelines with copycat crews of imported dancers, editorials derided the Redskins women and their cheering IPL peers as "firangi," a term that for centuries has been applied to unwelcome white foreigners. Government officials lumped the visiting cheerleaders in with "bar girls," which throughout Asia is tantamount to "hooker."
And the battle keeps roiling.
"Indians are still trying to figure out if it's an invasion, or an exploitation of their culture," says Mahanth Joishy, the India-reared, New York-based editor of United-States-India Monitor, and an entertained observer of the cheerleader wars.
It's as if Bollywood adapted the "Footloose" script and flipped the setting from a backwater town to the second biggest country on the planet.
The peppy Americans were invited as part of an effort to bring an aged game into the 21st century. Cricket, which finishes behind only soccer in pretty much every poll of world's favorite sports, dates at least as far back as medieval England and was spread through centuries of imperialist aggression. There are now three main playing formats, all of which a lay American might nutshell as: baseball played by 11-man sides on an oval with only two bases and no gloves.
The difference is in how long they take. The cheerleading initiative was the work of the Indian Premier League, which plays the newest and shortest format, Twenty20, or T20. To stick with the imperfect baseball analogies, the traditional format, Test cricket, has two-inning matches with unlimited at-bats per inning. Players wear all-white uniforms and still take tea breaks, as the matches can last five days.
In the 1970s, a faster version called One Day gained popularity. By restricting the number of at-bats per inning, One Day aims to get games finished in eight or nine hours. In 1975, it became the format of choice for the World Cup, and this year's event will be played under One Day rules. Despite the name and restrictions, though, One Day matches still can take two days. That works for a competition held every four years, but isn't feasible for continuous league play.
So about a decade ago, the T20 format cut the game down to the equivalent of a single inning, with 20 outs per team. Traditionalists dismissed it as "cricket on crack," but the IPL thrived, and league officials regard it as the best way to spread the gospel of the sport.
"Test is a marathon, T20 is a sprint. Young people like sprints," says Gladstone Dainty, the Guyana-born longtime president of the USA Cricket Association, the game's primary, if beleaguered, sanctioning body in this country. "T20 and the IPL will open doors, and be helpful in whetting people's appetite for the game." (One sign of the current state of cricket in the United States: Dainty, the game's highest-ranking official here, will not be able to attend the World Cup because of obligations to his day job as an accountant in Hyattsville, Md.)
Right away, the IPL set out to be something big. The inaugural franchises were owned by Bollywood moguls—Shah Rukh Khan, the top box office draw, owned the Kolkata Knight Riders—and top Indian industrialists. The holder of the Bangalore franchise, Vijay Mallya, was chairman of the family-owned United Breweries Group, the second-biggest liquor distributor in the world, with Kingfisher beer its best-known beverage. In true Snyderesque fashion, Mallya showed he liked the big-splash signing: Before the first season, he outbid fellow IPL owners to land Jacques Kallis, a South African legend who had been named Leading Cricketer in the World for 2007.
The league clearly intended to offer more than cricket. India is an old society filled with young people: Its population numbers about one and a quarter billion people, and their average age is just 29. More than 600 million Indians, or around twice as many folks as the entire population of the United States, are under 25 years old, and the new league didn't want to risk losing that demographic. Sideline entertainment was going to be part of the package.
"These are people who are aware of what's going on in the rest of the world," says Joishy, whose family is from Udupi, like Bangalore a city in the Indian state of Karnataka. "They are buying blue jeans and grew up listening to western music and watching western movies. I'd even say there's a sexual revolution going on in India, and more women are making money and making decisions."
Cheerleading isn't quite as old as cricket, but it's been around. According to The Official Cheerleaders Handbook, the pastime grew out of organized yelling by all-male cliques at Princeton University football games in the 1880s. (The first recognized cheer: "Tiger! Tiger!/Sis! Sis! Sis!/Boom! Boom! Boom!/Aaah!/Princeton! Princeton! Princeton!") It's come a long way since, as cheerleading has done away with most of the males and most of the clothing through the years. While the NCAA and the federal courts have spent years debating how to classify cheerleading, the American Medical Association declared last year that it's a sport "because of its rigors and risks."