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Texas Brings the Vibe and Welcomes Franchise Cricket to America

The sun began to set behind the luxury suites on the west side of the Grand Prairie Stadium on Thursday night, to the sound of 2000 yellow whistles handed out to fans coming through the gates. Members of the Grand Prairie fire and police departments began to take the south side of the field, opposite the Texas Super Kings (TSK) and LA Knight Riders (LAKR) squads lined up on the north.

Moments later, a Texas-sized American flag was unfurled by Grand Prairie’s first responders ahead of a rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, as the sound of cricket married the sights of American sporting pageantry. The first night of Major League Cricket (MLC) was here.

“The American flag, I think was massive. It was half the field,” said TSK’s David Miller in the post-match press conference, when asked what he’ll remember most on a night where he was named Player of the Match for a 42-ball 61 in his team’s 69-run win over LAKR. “We’ll look back on this day one day and there was a lot to it. Just taking in everything and being really welcomed and really loved. Probably the win was to top it off.”

As the first responders and colour guard left the field before the first ball, there was still a bit of uncertainty as to how the night would unfold. In terms of on-the-field historic firsts, USA star and Texas local Ali Khan had the distinction of bowling the MLC’s first ball. It was something that team-mate Andre Russell said afterward was a conscious decision by a team leadership cognizant of the historical significance of the moment.

But as Ali charged in from the southern end, the stadium was half empty. On a night billed as a sellout for the last week, there was a slightly peculiar vibe. That got slightly more awkward when the very partisan Texas crowd saw their captain and birthday boy Faf du Plessis caught driving the first ball of the second over from Lockie Ferguson straight to extra cover, a moment that silenced most of the whistles temporarily.

“Oh, my God! Faf got out first ball?!” shouted Ruhaan Oberoi, a 12-year-old from Dallas who is part of the MLC-affiliated Mustangs Academy. Oberoi was there with his sister Alisha, 15, as well as mom Jess and dad Ankit. He was decked out in a new TSK “Whistle for Texas” t-shirt, one among a number of promo giveaways on the night, along with yellow flags as well as TSK bucket hats emblazoned with “GO. BIG. TEXAS.”

“Some guy I’ve never heard of is coming in,” Oberoi said of Texas No. 3 Lahiru Milantha, who was one of the highest domestic scorers in the 2022 Minor League Cricket tournament, the local feeder competition for MLC. “So… that’s good… I’m supporting CSK today.” A few seconds later, someone nearby reminded him that it was TSK on the field, not CSK. Most of the fans interviewed at the final training day in Grand Prairie who came for a glimpse of du Plessis and Dwayne Bravo identified themselves as fans of the Chennai parent franchise. Autograph and selfie seekers of the local American players were in far less demand.

It was fitting that Ali Khan, a USA star and Texas local, bowled the first ball in MLC history
It was fitting that Ali Khan, a USA star and Texas local, bowled the first ball in MLC history•Sportzpics

Soon after du Plessis got out, Milantha gave Oberoi and others a reason to follow him a bit more closely as he flicked the first six of the tournament into the stands. The moment popped literally and figuratively as fireworks burst into the sky behind the Race Track End, as fans continued to steadily trickle in.

At this stage, a few thousand were still stuck in a bottleneck at the lone entrance gate on the west side of the ground. It wasn’t just that fans were desperate to get in to watch the cricket; the temperatures near the entrance gate, with the sun bouncing off the concrete, touched 103F (39.45 degree Celcius) and felt like 115F (46.1 degree Celcius). MLC organisers and Grand Prairie Fire and Police collaborated and made the call to stop scanning ticket barcodes and let everyone inside.

“Today’s experience on match day is probably the most intense, draining and fulfilling but certainly full-on day I’ve had in nearly 100 matches I’ve done,” MLC Tournament Director Justin Geale told ESPNcricinfo at the end of the night. Geale arrived in the USA three years ago, hired by MLC with a track record of operations experience at the IPL from his eight years at IMG. “We were out here until 4am last night. We had an emergency alarm drill at 5:30am. The stadium was just in time delivery and we were still bolting down seats at 3:30 in the morning.”

“I think from a broadcast perspective, everyone is relatively happy. It is really hot here. Logistically, we probably need to look at our entry. The lines to get in today were a bit too long and we acknowledge that. I will say the local police have been fantastic here in Grand Prairie. We can adjust. Ultimately, a good problem to have is too many people. But we don’t want too many people having a bad experience. I think overall, the feedback I’ve had has been fantastic. I think it’s a fantastic base. I pinch myself a little that we’re sitting in a ground here in Texas, in a baseball stadium, watching cricket. We’ve dressed it like you would anywhere else in the world.”

Fans line up to enter the Grand Prairie Stadium
Fans line up to enter the Grand Prairie Stadium•Sportzpics

Once all of the fans in the 7200-capacity venue jammed in, the noise was immense. And not just from the yellow whistles. The fans were jumping out of their seats early and often at the boundaries coming off the bats of Miller, Devon Conway and Mitchell Santner. A pair of sixes were flicked high over cow corner that landed within 20 feet of each other in the same section. A mad scramble for the ball from fans ensued, including first-time cricket watcher Jason Adams from Thibodeaux, Louisiana, a small town of 15000 people located 500 miles southeast of Grand Prairie.

“I’m gettin’ that ball!” Adams replied in a thick Cajun accent when asked what was going through his mind as the first six in the sequence in the 17th over came screaming toward him off Miller’s bat. “It’s exciting for the amount of fans that they have. It reminds me of… what we used to is college football.”

Adams is a season ticket-holder for LSU college football, who play at 102,000 capacity Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge and won the CFP National Championship in 2019. Like most fans to his left and right, Adams was enjoying a few beers with the action, and the only thing that could make the night better in his eyes would be Mike the Tiger, a real-life Bengal that lives in a habitat on the LSU campus as their official mascot, and of course, “we need some cheerleaders. That’s what we need!”

“I’m Indian-American and I never thought I’d see a Major League Cricket match in my lifetime here,” said Ashish Cheerath, from Houston, Texas, who was sitting next to Adams along with a group of friends who flew in from southern California. “It’s awesome to see the Commonwealth community in the USA – the UK community, Indians, Brits, Aussies, all together here. It reminds me of the same kind of crowd feeling of the Houston Rodeo. Everyone’s happy to be here. Everyone’s excited.”

MLC Tournament Director Justin Geale (middle) mingles with some new fans in Texas
MLC Tournament Director Justin Geale (middle) mingles with some new fans in Texas•Peter Della Penna

That excitement in the first innings was capped off by a six from Dwayne Bravo, a moment which might have been almost too on the nose for any scriptwriter. It sent the fans into the biggest frenzy of the night. While the night was a special occasion for all fans, it took on special significance for coaches and players who are embedded in American cricket culture. Numerous former USA players were in attendance, such as Houston resident and former USA captain Sushil Nadkarni as well as Amer Afzaluddin and Abhimanyu Rajp, who flew in from Michigan and Los Angeles respectively, to take in the festivities.

Out of all of them though, former USA captain and current USA men’s national team selector Orlando Baker, a longtime resident of Fort Worth – the sister city of Dallas in the metroplex – had a bigger grin than usual. A former Jamaica player before migrating to the USA in the early 2000s, Baker’s appreciation for everything unfolding in front of him took on greater value, knowing the struggles that players like himself have had to deal with in the USA cricket ecosystem, whether playing in front of a handful of fans or struggling to get support from the home board to fund tours. There was deep inspiration to be drawn from the way Baker, and several other USA players and local officials, continuously talked about the occasion.

“Everything is big in Texas and it’s a big thing happening tonight,” Baker said. “This opens doors for a lot of kids. Kids who are in the academies, they could see where they can play at the highest level without going outside of America. I’m really happy to see something new. I just want people to come out and enjoy it and I want kids to come out and take a look and see what it’s like to play at a high level.”

Source : ESPNCricinfo