T20 Cricket World Cup: 1.5 billion watching, just not in the United States

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

It will be the world's most-watched sporting event of 2012 – aside from that little summer shindig in London – yet the chances are you have never heard of it.

The T20 Cricket World Cup began this week and over the course of the next 16 days will be watched by an estimated 1.5 billion people, or around a quarter of the global population.

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The tournament will captivate the top 12 nations in cricket, of which the United States is not one, perhaps the primary reason why the sport and its showpiece competitions float by without registering so much as a blip on the American radar.

It was not always thus; trace back a couple of centuries and the U.S. was a powerhouse of cricket, even taking part in (and losing) the first ever international match against Canada in 1844.

Nowadays, cricket in the U.S. is mainly played by expats, although there is a smart new stadium in Lauderhill, Fla., where 16,000 watched an international game between New Zealand and the West Indies – representing several small Caribbean islands – a few months back.

Given the diverse cultural topography of this country, the market for cricket (immigrants hailing from India, Pakistan, Australia and the United Kingdom) is still solid, strong enough for ESPN to broadcast every match of the T20 World Cup on its digital platform.

And while cricket may come laced with tales of bamboozling rules and customs, there is actually plenty to like about T20 – the most action-packed and exciting version of a game thought to have begun more than 300 years ago.

As times have moved on, so has cricket been forced to evolve. Even if you have never seen a bowler hurl down a googly or a leg-spinner, you have probably heard of one of cricket's most bizarre quirks: the fact that it takes an extraordinary amount of time to play.

Test cricket, the most prestigious version of the game, involves matches lasting up to five days, with often seven hours of play per day. And at the end of it all, there is no guarantee there will be a winner, if the weather or the nature of the match slows proceedings. Yep, that's 35 hours of playing time with the possibility of no result. That's more than a boxer might spend in the ring in his entire career or twice as much as most NFL players will spend on the field in a season.

Such elongated affairs were all very well when the game was played by the genteel classes in Victorian England, but they aren't so conducive to the modern world. Hence, in the late 1960s, a reduced version of cricket that spanned a single day was invented. This also sparked such innovations as colored clothing instead of the traditional all-white uniforms, an easily visible ball (white instead of red) and music instead of polite applause paired with tea and scones.

The 21st century, though, is the era of the ever-dwindling attention span, and it became clear even a full day was too long for the younger generation. As attendances dropped, cricket's organizers responded and a special task force borrowed heavily from Major League Baseball to come up with T20 – short for Twenty20 – a version of cricket that can be completed in around three hours.

The "20" comes from the amount of batting time each team is given. In all forms of cricket, six balls (or pitches) constitute an over. At the end of each over a different bowler (or pitcher) takes "the mound," which in cricket is a playing strip situated in the middle of the field.

T20 gives each team just 20 overs to score as many runs as possible, as opposed to an unlimited amount of time in Test cricket or 50 overs in regular one-day matches. The reduced time frame forces batsmen to take greater risks and attack freely rather than adopt defensive measures aimed at trying not to get out.

At first T20 was a domestic competition, beginning in England, then spreading around the cricket-playing world. Authorities soon realized it was a huge money spinner and quickly packed the schedule with T20 games. In 2008, the Indian Premier League formed as a strictly T20 league. Today, the IPL attracts the best players in the world with two-month contracts worth over $1 million to play for club teams in various Indian cities.

"Whether you like it or not T20 has revolutionized cricket," respected Indian broadcaster Harsha Bhogle told Yahoo! Sports recently. "It means big business, big money and big audiences."

The current World Cup is a collection of the best national teams in the world. England is the defending champion, having won two years ago, while Australia, South Africa, Pakistan and the West Indies are all highly fancied.

Host nation Sri Lanka has little pedigree in other sports, having won just two Olympic medals in its history, but is utterly obsessed with cricket, and bumper crowds are expected to cheer on its world-class team.

The shortened nature of T20 means it can sometimes be a bit of a lottery and it is not to the liking of some of the traditionalists who prefer batters to score with deft placement rather than hefty swipes of brute force.

"T20 has evolved a lot, though," said legendary Australian bowler Shane Warne. "The game has changed over the past few years and there is a lot more intricacy to it now. Before it was just about trying to smash it over the fence, but now there are a lot of different tactics and you can never stop thinking."

Cricket in the U.S. continues to be largely a non-entity, although the national team has shown some signs of promise in recent times, having gained promotion to division three of the World Cricket League – two steps below the top international standard.

So while large sections of the world, especially the Indian sub-continent, will revel in all the World Cup action over the next two weeks, the American market will be largely oblivious as one of the biggest sporting events of the year drifts by making barely a murmur.

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