There’s another kind of March Madness going on thousands of miles away from the U.S. basketball courts. Except this one involves hundreds of millions of passionate viewers cheering on four continents across at least 14 time zones.
Cricket hits its high point on Saturday when six weeks of tournament play and four years of qualifying play culminates in the final match and bragging rights to be the world’s best team.
The showdown between Australia and New Zealand at the historic Melbourne Cricket Ground will be witnessed by more than 100,000 fans. Hundreds of millions are expected to watch live on TV.
“Global viewership will be bigger than the Superbowl but since India is not playing in the finals, viewership and interest will take a huge hit,” said Atul Huckoo, assistant vice president for advertising and sales at Willow TV, a U.S-based, 24/7 cricket channel. Still, “it will be a good story as both hosts [Australia and New Zealand] are meeting in the finals”
While soccer has long been the dominant global sport, in terms of participation, money, viewership, cricket is a close second with an audience that often watches with religious fervor from Harare to Wellington, London to Islamabad. The sport is a launch pad for prosperity, fame and even political careers in places like Pakistan and India.
This year’s tournament for the first time featured war-torn Afghanistan, which upset Scotland early on behind the gritty batting of Sami Shenwari.
England, considered the birthplace of the game, lost to Bangladesh in preliminary round in what many thought was a shocking defeat. And South Africa suffered heartbreak when they lost in the semifinals to New Zealand, which went on to reach the final after six previous failures.
Among compelling personalities, South African bowler (the equivalent of a pitcher) Imran Tahir may top the list. Known for his unique style of celebrations after getting a wicket (getting a batsman out), Tahir, who was born and raised in Pakistan and later became South African by marriage, made his debut for the rainbow nation four years ago and is a large reason why the team made it so far.
Perennial powerhouse India, meanwhile, was decisively defeated in the semifinals by Australia. Team captain Michael Clark had to urge home team fans to turn up so the stadium wasn’t entirely cheering on India.
The sport’s organizing body, the International Cricket Council, said viewership grew markedly in this year’s tournament, with the council’s Web site hitting new records— more than 26 million unique visitors— and over 225 million page views.
That includes a growing audience here in the United States, where cricket is gaining in notoriety, even while competing with basketball, American football and ice hockey. And baseball.
“I almost stopped watching cricket after I moved to America from India, but thanks to the Internet I am able to reconnect and watch cricket again,” said Nagesh Kanwinde, an IT professional from the Washington area.
So Cricket's Like Baseball, Right?
Cricket shares similarities with baseball: both are played with a bat and a ball, for example, and there are batters, outs and pitches, though pitchers in cricket are known as bowler. Some historians say that baseball’s earliest pioneers honed their batting playing cricket.
But the rest of the sport is much different. Unlike baseball when a batsman hits a home run, they don’t have to go back and sit in the dugout; they continue to bat until they are out or until a set number of pitches are completed. Like baseball, whichever team scores the most runs wins.
Commonly associated with starchy dress whites and days-long matches, the sport has evolved to a one-day format. In India, a condensed version known as Twenty20, which usually lasts for about four hours, is also popular.
In a sign of the sport’s economic potential, last year ESPN acquired the rights for the 2015 World Cup along with rights to Twenty20 matches. ESPN refused to say how much they paid.
Huckoo, of Willow TV, said it was an indication of popularity, but he lamented that since ESPN didn’t show the matches on its main channels, Americans missed out.
“American sport lovers would have had the opportunity to witness some of the most exciting games if they were on mainstream channels. It would have been a great advertisement for the game of cricket and fans would have viewed the best of the best in the world,” Huckoo said.
Jamie Harrison, an American who is now head of the American Cricket Federation and US Youth Cricket Chief, said due to ESPN’s subscription-only viewing option, this year’s tournament cup was only viewed by diehard fans.
The ICC is also trying to reduce the number of nations playing in the World Cup, which he said would actually hinder efforts to build interest in North America.
“Outside of the existing fan base, it will pass almost unnoticed, leaving nothing of value in its wake. The truth is, and has always been, the path to the hearts of American fans is through American cricket, not matches played by other countries,” he said.
For new and old immigrants to the United States, the sport retains a powerful hold.
“It is an integral part of our culture, it connects us to our homeland and it’s an added excitement, along with other American sports such as basketball or football, you feel great when your team wins,” said Shantanu Kibe, of the Washington suburb of Sterling.
Ahmad Khan, a cricket enthusiast from New York, said watching cricket in the United States was unique, since rival nationalities or ethnic groups might all sit down together to watch a crucial match: for example, India vs. Pakistan.
“It has a kind of flavor that only America offers. People from India-Pakistan can’t watch it together back home or even in Dubai for that matter,” he said. “People get together in restaurants to view games together. There’s food and it’s a community affair, fans form opposing nations would watch it together.”