America stumps up for launch of cricket league Stateside

Listen very carefully in the United States this summer and you may just hear the smack of leather on willow. More than two centuries after Britain relinquished its American colony, there are signs that cricket is belatedly making some inroads in the land of home runs, pitchers and designated hitters.

Listen very carefully in the United States this summer and you may just hear the smack of leather on willow. More than two centuries after Britain relinquished its American colony, there are signs that cricket is belatedly making some inroads in the land of home runs, pitchers and designated hitters.

Not that the promoters of baseball, affectionately known as the national pastime, need to quiver with fear just yet. Cricket remains an exotic mystery to the vast majority of American sports fans, for whom talk of wickets, creases and innings have about as much meaning as radio signals from Mars.

Suddenly, however, cricket has landed in the US. America, believe it or not, has a national team and it is doing rather well. Florida is competing to be host to at least some of the games in the 2007 Cricket World Cup. And now a professional cricket league is about to be born.

The league is modest but has big ambitions. It has recruited players - some of international standing - to make up eight teams based in cities across the country. The first game of the season is to be played next Friday between the "NY Storm" and the "Florida Thunder" in Homestead, southern Florida.

"This sort of concept really hasn't taken off before," said Robert Smith, assistant commissioner of the American Pro Cricket League. "The US has had modest success to date, and what this league is trying to do is bring it to mainstream America, not just in the traditional cricketing circles".

The league is reportedly in negotiation with EchoStar, a satellite television service, to broadcast some of the games. It is promising to pay team members as much as $60,000 (£33,000) for committing to a full season. And it has collared stars of the sport from as far away as the Caribbean, Kenya and Pakistan. West Indies Test players Ramnaresh Sarwan, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Jermaine Lawson have been signed up.

Some tailoring of the sport is also being imposed to appeal more to American tastes. The game will have 20-over innings and - shockingly - there will be no breaks for tea. "I think it's going to work, because it's a different format," said Ken Sukhwa, who will coach the "Thunder". "It is pretty much quick cricket".

Organisers have been encouraged by scattered evidence of growing interest in the sport. Look hard enough, for instance in the outlying parks of New York on a weekend, and you will find the game being played, usually on bumpy pitches with nothing more elaborate than two wickets and the determination of a few enthusiasts who, in the main, hail from foreign climes.

Test matches can now be found on satellite and pay-per-view television in America. The recent development of the national team - albeit made up entirely of players originally from the Commonwealth - has also helped. The US team is one of 12 national sides to have qualified to play in the International Cricket Council Champion- ships in Britain in September.

There is even the prospect of World Cup Cricket. Last week, officials from the International Cricket Council visited a dusty park outside Fort Lauderdale in Florida to assess a bid by the city to stage a few games of the 2007 World Cup, which will be hosted primarily by the West Indies. If the bid is accepted, Broward County plans to spend $60m (£3.3m) to build a 5,000-seat stadium. "I feel very optimistic," Josephus Eggelletion, the County Commissioner said after the council officials had left. "We heard members talking very favourably".

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