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Is the gap between baseball and cricket disintegrating?

The Sydney Thunder celebrate claiming BBL 05. (AAP Image/Mal Fairclough)
Roar Guru
5th February, 2016
28
1037 Reads

Allow me a moment of idle speculation if you will. Imagine if cricket was never surpassed by baseball as the American bat and ball sport of choice.

Imagine that early cricket authorities embraced America after they contested the first cricket international against Canada at St George’s Club Ground in Manhattan, 1844.

How would cricket look in this alternative world? Would historic ball parks such as Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium reverberate to the sounds of polite applause instead of a novelty electric organ?

Alas, it was never to be.

Cricket in America declined steadily through the 1850s, until the formation of the Imperial Cricket Conference in 1909 dealt the death blow by excluding America from future internationals, paving the way for baseball to consolidate its grip on the nation.

Fast forward to today and franchise-based Major League Baseball still dominates the United States, while international Test cricket is still key in most Commonwealth countries.

Or at least, it was.

Cricket is undergoing a seismic change. The Twenty20 revolution is eroding cricket’s traditional stoicism by transforming a sport stereotyped by begrudging progression.

The excellent documentary Death of a Gentleman, among other things, investigates how the rise of the IPL threatens the very existence of Test and international cricket, creating a club/franchise versus country dynamic previously unseen in the sport.

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As an example, West Indian stars Chris Gayle, Dwayne Bravo, Kieron Pollard, Darren Sammy, Andre Russell, Lendl Simmons and Samuel Badree all plied their trade in the Big Bash League while their international comrades toiled to a humiliatingly simple 3-0 Test series defeat against Australia.

But they aren’t the only players putting their hitting skills to good use.

Kieran Powell, former West Indian left-hander, has left cricket to pursue a Major League Baseball contract in America.

Baseball and cricket have always engaged in some crossover, nowhere more so than in Australia. Test stars such as the Chappell brothers, Neil Harvey and Norman O’Neill were all noted baseball players.

Now, in the big hitting, fast-paced world of Twenty20, the skills required in each sport are matching up closer than ever.

Some people, lead by ex-Great Britain baseball representative and former international fielding coach Julien Fountain, believe that struggling Minor League Baseball players could quickly transition to cricket, setting up a company Switch hit 20 to take baseball players and turn them into cricket stars.

But it’s not just the on-field skill sets that are amalgamating.

The differences between cricket and baseball off the field are shrinking just as fast as the skill sets exhibited by the players on them.


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Nowhere has this been more evident than in the BBL.

Throughout the summer, with blaring music between balls, pyrotechnic displays, kiss cam, and overtly enthusiastic announcers, you could be easily forgiven for thinking you were at a Major League ballpark, not an Australian cricket ground.

Cricket Australia operations manager Mike McKenna told the BBC, “We particularly looked at American sports because of the real focus on fan engagement and the game being staged for the fans.”

This Americanisation of the BBL lead the BBC to describe the Big Bash League as, “a gimmick-fest”.

But anyone who has been to a professional baseball game will be aware that gimmicks and over-commercialisation are a major part of the overall experience.

It’s a model that – with a Bollywood twist – has taken India by storm in the IPL, where the colour, glamour and razzmatazz juxtaposes cricket’s traditional temperance.

But the artificial crowd stimuli do not denigrate the exciting atmosphere created, and increased crowd participation is a huge part of what is getting people through the gates in massive numbers.

An average 29,443 attended a BBL game this season, making it the world’s seventh most regularly attended sports league, just behind the IPL (31,750) and last year’s MLB season (30,517).

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Back in December, I witnessed the similarities between the Australian Baseball League and BBL first hand, watching the Brisbane Bandits versus Sydney Blue Sox at Holloway Field, followed immediately by the Brisbane Heat versus the Hobart Hurricanes at the Gabba.

Although the ABL doesn’t quite have the same pulling power of the MLB, the fan experience is still a special one, and the game day team at the Bandits pull no punches when it comes to providing first class entertainment.

Big hitting. A close, exciting game. Incredible atmosphere. I could be referring to either game such were the similarities in the match day experience.

And why shouldn’t cricket borrow what is clearly a winning formula from its distant American cousin?

Perhaps having baseball sluggers succeed in Twenty20 cricket could help spread the gospel Stateside?

Unfortunately, if cricketing history is anything to go by, America won’t get a look in lest they somehow dilute the Twenty20 goldmine.

But in marginal markets for baseball, this crossover could be pivotal.

MLB has ambitious expansion plans to match those of the NFL, having already played a historic match in Sydney and reportedly preparing to do so in London, perhaps showing they too have a three-hour product heavy with spectator engagement and exciting hitting.

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In Australia, the ABL has been growing steadily. For this weekend’s ABL Championship Series between the Brisbane Bandits and Adelaide Bite in Brisbane, anticipation is so high additional stands have had to be provided to cope with ticket sales.

And although linking a rise in Twenty20 to increased awareness of the ABL is fanciful, fans will be surprised at what the sports are learning from one another.

The on-field crossover is growing. The off-field experience has been matched. The potential is there for baseball in Australia to capitalise on the excitement, and vice versa for cricket in the States.

I have embraced the similarities, and will take my seat at the Holloway Field this weekend wondering if this might signal the start of cricket’s new future too.

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