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Is globalisation over? Cricket beamed into American homes suggests it's not

The sport's growth is more than just an idiosyncrasy of the Anglosphere

Daniel Moss | Bloomberg 

ben stokes, cricket world cup

For anyone worried about the erection of barriers between economies, people and capital, a modest living room in suburban Denver would give some relief.

Thanks in large part to the rising power of Indian commerce and the South Asian diaspora in the US, your columnist could settle into a chair at his mother-in-law's home and binge during the wee hours on World Cup last month. The means was a cable channel that began as a niche outfit catering to a prominent immigrant community and has grown into a corporate operation with ambitions to create an American taste for

The sport’s growth is more than just an idiosyncrasy of the Anglosphere. It goes beyond indulgences enabled by the digital revolution and the array of offerings on cable like curling, billiards or poker. Think of it as a salve to the myopia of trade conflict, technology wars and the idea that the world is breaking into competing camps or rival platforms.

While cricket’s ancestral roots and folk history belong to England and Australia, the financial and organisational lodestar is India. The giant nation is as close to a one-sport country as you can get. transcends language, sectarian and geographic barriers at home and unites Indians abroad. India’s rise is synonymous with the 21st century spread of cricket.

So, if deglobalisation needed a single rebuttal, Willow TV could be it. It's easy to think of globalisation as taking something from the developed world, such as Starbucks or European football, and selling into emerging economies. Beaming cricket into American homes goes a step further. It ships sport from a key emerging market to the developed world, reckons James Crabtree, who devotes part of his book “The Billionaire Raj” to the industrial qualities of Indian cricket.

At the intersection of these tectonic trends is Willow, which I first encountered in New York, where I lived for three years before moving to Singapore in January. I re-engaged with Willow, founded in 2010, last month. The channel, named for the type of wood that cricket bats were traditionally crafted from, offers an unrelenting, 24-7 diet of cricket concentrated on teams from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Much of it caters to the South Asian community in the US, much of it in the New York-New Jersey area. The advertising spans the very parochial – immigration lawyers, cash remittance services and an astrologer – to bigger plays that hint at the size of the diaspora. State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance Co. crafted spots aimed at this demographic. The Allstate Corp., another insurer, and Toyota Motor Corp. are also in on the act, according to Satyan Gajwani, vice chairman of Times Internet Ltd., which bought Willow in 2016.

Gajwani says that in a recent month the average viewer of Willow – billed as the only US channel devoted entirely to cricket – spent 26 hours watching the channel. He points to the footprint of the Asian population in the US, which Pew Research Center said in 2017 was the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group. People of Indian origin are the second-biggest component after ethnic Chinese. By 2055, Asians will become America’s largest immigrant group, making up 38 per cent of all newcomers, versus 31 per cent for Hispanics.

Willow is committed to broadening cricket’s appeal as a sport in the US Gajwani has partnered with USA Cricket to develop an American T-20 contest, betting that an abbreviated, smash-and-bash version of the game will go down well. American kids grew up playing soccer and as adults many now ardently follow Chelsea or Liverpool. Why not cricket, which has become less hidebound to the classic five-day Test match of tradition?

There's a potential flipside that may work against the melting pot. Decades ago, newcomers to the US who were keen on sports had no choice but to immerse themselves in baseball, basketball and the National Football League. Now, people can relax from a hard day and watch an Indian Premier League game between the Hyderabad Sunrisers and the Rajasthan Royals, as they would in the suburbs of Mumbai or New Delhi.

Work in America, come home to India. Given the still-overwhelming weight of American culture, it's hard to find a sinister side to this. Anything that enables us to see beyond our backyards is a plus.

First Published: Sun, August 11 2019. 09:55 IST