Major League Cricket: will a $120m moonshot find success in America?
It was an obvious place to launch a sporting moonshot – a cricket league that can survive and thrive in America.
Last week, Space Center Houston hosted a reveal of next-generation spacesuits for a lunar mission. A few days later its main hall was crowded with cricketers wearing gaudy baseball caps in the colours of their new teams as the latest attempt to bring professional cricket to the US held its domestic player draft.
With the first overall pick, the Seattle Orcas of Major League Cricket (MLC) selected an all-rounder: 30-year-old Harmeet Singh, captain of the minor-league Seattle Thunderbolts and a member of the India squad that won the 2012 under-19 World Cup.
Four years after taking three wickets for England in their World Cup final win over New Zealand, Liam Plunkett will bowl for the San Francisco Unicorns. A domestic player because he lives in the Philadelphia area with his American wife, the 37-year-old was chosen in the second round.
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Beaming in a suit jacket, white trainers and an orange Unicorns cap, Plunkett posed for the cameras next to the Mission Mars exhibit, a bulbous silvery spacecraft dangling from the ceiling above his head as pop music and a variegated array of glowing lights lent the event a novel atmosphere: sports meets disco meets STEM.
Not quite the Long Room at Lord’s. But the inaugural MLC season will boast international talent worthy of the sport’s most hallowed venues. Among Plunkett’s fellow Unicorns are the former New Zealand all-rounder, Corey Anderson, the former Australia limited overs captain, Aaron Finch, and his 2021 Men’s T20 World Cup-winning teammate, Marcus Stoinis.
Another Australian, the in-form Mitch Marsh, will play for Seattle, as will the 30-year-old former South Africa captain, Quinton de Kock. Wanindu Hasaranga, a 25-year-old Sri Lankan international, and the South African fast bowler, Anrich Nortje, have signed for the Washington Freedom. More well-known overseas names are set to be announced in the coming days to line up alongside the 54 US-based players drafted on Sunday.
Sheila Jackson Lee, a boosterish Houston congresswoman, opened the ceremony. “Are we ready for cricket?” she inquired. “Are we ready?”
It’s an open question. American cricket has long been tramelled by turbulent governance and earlier attempts at professional leagues struggled to get off the launch pad. But there are strong reasons for optimism, not least the wealth and experience of the MLC investors.
An initial $120m is funding the project, which has some influential backers from the technology and media sectors and India, including Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, who is part of the Seattle ownership group. Owners of Indian Premier League (IPL) clubs have stakes in four of the six MLC teams.
The season will take the T20 format and will be played from 13-30 July – helpful timing to attract stars during the southern hemisphere offseason, though problematic for players in England. Joining the Orcas, Freedom and Unicorns are the Los Angeles Knight Riders, MI New York and the Texas Super Kings. The locations are strategic: cities with large South Asian communities that offer ready-made fanbases, with organisers recognising that it will take years to attract significant numbers of spectators who have never played or watched cricket.
“We’re trying to build infrastructure, a minor league, a major league, get the national team competitive all at the same time. There’s an awful lot going on and it’s going to take time, but I think our growth trajectory can be quick once … people see, hey this is a great product, this is going to work. I think we’ll then get a second influx of momentum,” said Justin Geale, the MLC tournament director.
MLC has spent years building a developmental framework to nourish domestic players and improved grounds and training facilities are springing up. The pre-draft combine took place at a six-field complex near Houston that opened in 2019.
Plunkett is convinced there is latent talent in the US. “I [visited] maybe 13 years ago and I always thought to myself I had one of the better arms in cricket in England, and I just went to the local park in Philadelphia with a few of my friends at college or who worked in Home Depot, and I think all four of them had a better arm than me,” he grinned.
The US will host the 2024 Men’s T20 World Cup, jointly with the West Indies, though Plunkett denied he is chasing a spot on the American roster next year. “I’m happy finishing international cricket with England at the World Cup,” he said.
MLC has the financial heft to offer salaries comparable with competitions such as Australia’s Big Bash, England’s and Wales’s The Hundred and the ILT20 in the United Arab Emirates – the salary cap per team is understood to be slightly above $1.1m. “We can get the best players in the world,” said Geale, a former IPL director of operations. “We can put out a world-class product from day one.”
Rusty Theron, a former South Africa international who played for Sussex in 2012, moved to the US in 2015. The 37-year-old was drafted by the new Texas team after playing minor league cricket in the San Francisco Bay area. “We’ve got a pathway set up where if you’re a good player we’ve got eyeballs on you, somewhere you can actually make a living as a cricketer, and something to aspire to,” he said. “As far as professionals go there’s no shortage of people that are interested. After all, it’s the USA and that in itself is a brand, something that sells itself quite easily.”
San Francisco have joined forces with Cricket Victoria while Washington have partnered with Cricket New South Wales, tapping into the Australian association’s expertise in coaching and operations while giving it a foothold in America. “We’re moving with the cricket landscape, really,” said Michael Klinger, head of male elite cricket at Cricket NSW. “Cricket’s changing around the world, the T20 franchise leagues are popping up and this is one that could be very big in this market and we want to be part of it.”
However, all the matches are expected to be staged in North Carolina and the Dallas area, where MLC has spent $19m refashioning the erstwhile abode of the defunct Texas AirHogs minor league baseball team into a 7,200-capacity cricket ground. That points to perhaps the league’s biggest challenge: the dearth of suitable venues.
“We need to get to a home and away model, so they need somewhere to play in their home cities,” Geale said. “In two to three years we’d like to see some serious traction and have a lot of those facilities in place.” That is a tall order given the difficulties of building new stadiums in crowded and expensive cities. Intriguingly, the Freedom and George Mason University are shaping plans for a hybrid cricket/baseball field on the outskirts of Washington.
Still, as John F Kennedy once said at a football stadium in Houston: We do these things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Plunkett is hopeful. “I’ve been here for 15 months now,” he said. “It’s just got more professional and has built momentum. It feels like I’m actually playing professional cricket.”