For the few Americans who've heard of it, cricket conjures up images of fastidious Englishmen in white outfits who scarcely break a sweat during "test" matches that stretch over five days--with regular breaks for tea! But the newest format of the game, known as Twenty20, is shorter than a Major League Baseball game, as fiercely contested as a National Hockey League match and between teams dressed more colorfully than the Los Angeles Lakers. For the spectators, there is rousing music between plays ... and cheerleaders!
The only way the sport could be more American is if a big Texas tycoon were bankrolling it. Oh, have you met Allen Stanford? The wealth-management billionaire from Mexia, Texas, is forking out $20 million in prize money for a single winner-take-all game in his adopted home of Antigua on Nov. 1. It is far and away the largest purse for any team sport, and Stanford, 58, is betting the match will attract a TV audience of 700 million. His primary motivation is to revive cricket's fading fortunes in the Caribbean, but he's also hoping it will stir up interest in the final frontier: the U.S. His countrymen, Stanford says, "are going to see a form of cricket they can completely identify with."
See if you can identify with this. Twenty20 features two 11-man teams, and each has 20 "overs"--comprising six "balls," or pitches--in which to score runs. Batters are encouraged to swing for the fences. Hit one out--and on a cricket oval, you can hit in any direction--and it's worth six runs. The team with the most runs wins. O.K., it's more complicated than that, but not by much. Purists sniff that it is dumbed-down cricket, but it is easily digested by neophytes. Last January, Stanford spent $3.5 million to test-market the sport in Fort Collins, Colo., using billboards and bus-stop ads to persuade the town's 130,000 residents to watch a telecast of a Twenty20 tournament in the Caribbean. On the basis of that experiment, Stanford believes an American viewer can "understand Twenty20 in as little as 20 minutes."
Stanford, who fell in love with cricket when he moved to Antigua in the 1980s, radiates the enthusiasm of a convert. His eyes light up and his hands flail as he re-enacts a favorite moment from a recent game--even though he lapses into baseball lingo (line drives and home runs) to describe the play. He lovingly describes the new cricket stadium he has built in Antigua, complete with an American-style hall of fame. He revels in dropping the names of Caribbean cricket stars he now counts as his friends. But his spending on Twenty20 is not just a rich fan's self-indulgence: he says the sport is the perfect vehicle for the Stanford brand name, allowing him to expand his business to new markets.
He isn't alone in believing Twenty20 can greatly extend cricket's reach. "It's a format that gives us the potential for the game to become a genuinely global sport," says Peter Young, general manager of public affairs at Cricket Australia. But not everybody agrees that Stanford's plan--he aims to host an annual big-money game for the next five years--is the smartest way to promote the sport. The big spending, say critics, makes for good publicity but not necessarily good business.
The two teams squaring off on Nov. 1--England and a team of Caribbean All-Stars--are hardly big draws. The sport's heaviest hitters are in India and Pakistan, which have giant home markets and powerful teams. Outside of the Indian subcontinent, cricket's strongest franchise is Australia, which dominates test cricket and other forms of the sport. With no Indians, Pakistanis or Australians on display in Antigua, it will be a bit like having the Minnesota Twins and the Pittsburgh Pirates play for baseball's largest purse: great for their fans, but who else would bother to watch?
Stanford is betting that the absence of stars will be offset by the sheer curiosity generated by the oversize prize and by new audiences, like Americans and Chinese, who won't miss the stars. And ultimately, he's counting on Twenty20's purest qualities. "People are going to fall in love with this game--you'll see," he says. "In 10 years, this could be the world's biggest sport, bigger than soccer." So he's prone to a little hyperbole. But what's more American than overkill?
Know the Score For more photos of Twenty20 cricket, go to time.com/cricket