Unlikely World Cup Victories Raise Cricket’s Profile in U.S.


When Harmeet Singh left India in 2020, he was looking for a fresh start. His career as a cricket player had stagnated, and his dream of making the Indian national team — and playing in the World Cup, the sport’s biggest stage — was fading.

His destination was the United States, where cricket had long struggled to gain any kind of mainstream visibility, and professional opportunities were typically sparse. Arriving during the pandemic on a special visa given to individuals with extraordinary abilities, Mr. Singh made around $60,000 a year by playing for the U.S. men’s national cricket team and in small leagues, and coaching on the side as part of his contract.

This month, his decision is paying off in a big way. Mr. Singh and the U.S. team defeated Pakistan during a Men’s T20 Cricket World Cup match on June 6, shocking the sport. On Friday, the team advanced to the second stage of the tournament, the first to be held in part in America, which is sharing hosting duties with several Caribbean nations. The United States next plays on Wednesday against South Africa in Antigua, the first of three matches in the second stage.

The team’s success has been the latest event to help boost cricket’s profile in the United States, where the sport has seen a surge in investment in recent years. Cricket still faces notable obstacles in trying to attain more widespread popularity, some of which have been highlighted by the tournament. But the most passionate backers are bullish on the sport’s trajectory.

“I could never have seen cricket growing as much as it has,” Mr. Singh said in an interview.

The majority of players on the American team were born outside the country, making the squad by fulfilling a residency requirement. The team had never appeared at any World Cup and qualified this year only because it was a co-host for the T20 event. Its star player, Saurabh Netravalkar, works as a software engineer at Oracle.

The T20 World Cup’s first stage was hosted in Texas, Florida and New York State, the first World Cup played in America. The tournament’s games last around three hours, much shorter than the one-day game format that the traditional Cricket World Cup follows. More than 34,000 people watched India play Pakistan last week, a record for a cricket match in the United States.

Media companies have increasingly found value in broadcasting cricket to audiences in the United States, particularly to the Indian diaspora. Investors have spent more than $1 billion on developing the game domestically, including a league, Major League Cricket, that will have its second season this summer. The sport will be featured at the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.

However, the physical infrastructure needed to play cricket remains nascent in America. Last summer, the first season of Major League Cricket was played at two stadiums in Texas and North Carolina. Most teams — including Mr. Singh’s, the Seattle Orcas — do not yet have a dedicated stadium. (There are plans to build stadiums in Seattle, and in Southern and Northern California.)

“The infrastructure to play cricket at this level doesn’t really exist at scale across the country,” said Vijay Srinivasan, the founder and chief executive of Major League Cricket. “Our challenge has been getting home venues developed and convincing cities cricket is worth developing.”

The T20 event’s New York State games were played on Long Island at a temporary stadium, which is already being dismantled as the tournament’s next stage is happening in the Caribbean. Long Island’s pitch — the strip of grass where the ball is bowled to a batsman — was grown in both Florida and Australia and flown to New York. Several players and commentators have said that the pitch was uneven and that tall outfield grass also contributed to lower-scoring games. (A ball that travels farther in the grass typically scores more runs.)

Another potential hurdle is the organization that manages cricket in the United States. The previous federation that oversaw the sport in the country was expelled from the International Cricket Council, the sport’s global governing body, in 2017 amid funding and governance issues. The institution that replaced it, USA Cricket, has been around for only five years.

Satyan Gajwani, the vice chairman of the digital arm of The Times of India Group, said that along with infrastructure, the sport needed to do a better job of finding and marketing American stars. He pointed to Mr. Netravalkar, whose job at Oracle and musical talent became a point of fascination for many on social media after his team’s win over Pakistan.

Mr. Gajwani emphasized the importance of a financially viable domestic league. That, he said, could help change the perception that cricket is a foreign invention, which has long limited its popularity.

“Until there’s domestic cricket on the ground, it’s always going to be an imported thing from afar,” Mr. Gajwani said.

For Mr. Singh, playing in the United States has given him a chance at redemption. His career in India was derailed in part because of off-field incidents, including one in 2013 in which he was investigated by the Indian cricket board for match fixing in the Indian Premier League. (Mr. Singh denies any wrongdoing.) He grew up admiring star players on the Indian team and said he personally knew most of the current team.

He lives in Houston, where his team practices, with his wife and two children. He makes around $200,000 a year from cricket. While playing in America wasn’t something he envisioned while growing up in Mumbai, he said the United States had given him “opportunities that I was craving for back home.”

“It makes me feel I owe it to this country,” Mr. Singh said.

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