28 May 2015

BATTING FOR THE OTHER TEAM: AMERICA'S PLAN TO TAKE ON WORLD CRICKET

Daniel Gallan

Baseball is America's pastime while cricket represents English culture and global influence. They are two sports that encapsulate the ideologies of two great nations. Separated by geography, culture, and attitude, the two sports share a history that spans hundreds of years. With minor league baseball players struggling to carve out a career on the diamond, Julien Fountain, an Englishman with experience in both sports, is hoping to offer an alternative on the oval. Switch Hit 20 is aiming to change the face of world cricket by building a bridge for minor league players to become big hitters in cricket. 

New York Mets first baseman Lucas Duda hits a home run during the sixth inning against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. Powerful hitting and the ability to clear the fences is a skill that is required in both baseball and T20 cricket. Image supplied by Action Images/ Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

New York Mets first baseman Lucas Duda hits a home run during the sixth inning against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. Powerful hitting and the ability to clear the fences is a skill that is required in both baseball and T20 cricket. Image supplied by Action Images/ Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, three minor league baseball players filed a class action law suit against Major League Baseball (MLB) over unfair labour practices. Aaron Senne, Michael Liberto, and Oliver Odle claimed that minor league players are underpaid and that the Uniform Player Contract that all players are made to sign unfairly takes advantage of them.

When examining the numbers, it’s hard to argue against their case. The federal minimum wage in the United States is $7.25 (R85.07) an hour. In a standard 40 hour work week, that amounts to $290 (R3 426.45) per week which is $1 160 (R13 705.81) a month. But being a professional baseball player, even in the minor leagues, is surely more lucrative than flipping burgers at a greasy fast food chain. The New York Yankees are worth $3.2 billion dollars. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw will make $31.2 million this year alone. There is clearly money in baseball. The thing is, as you would expect, that money is not distributed evenly.

The maximum monthly wage for a minor league player is $1 100; less than the federal minimum wage. Professional baseball players in the minor leagues are earning poverty level salaries and have to juggle an elite training regime with second and sometimes third jobs. A season only lasts 6 months and the players are only paid for the months they play, but are still obligated to attend training sessions and meetings throughout the year while maintaining a high level of performance and fitness.

Many athletes put up with this as the dream of making it big is too enticing to ignore. Sadly though, less than 10% of minor league players will ever play a major league game. Most young athletes eventually realise that toughing it out in the minors is simply not sustainable and have to abandon their hopes of athletic stardom. The production line of ball players ensures that another starry-eyed hopeful takes his place. Another talent wasted.

“The few players that get chosen to play in the minor leagues are one step closer to achieving their life long goal,” says Julien Fountain, a former English baseball and cricket player who is one of the rare athletes with experience in both sports. “Unfortunately, the sacrifice that the majority of players have made will be in vain and they’ll end up playing for little or no money. A large proportion quit after two or three seasons as it becomes hard to survive on such low wages. Literally thousands of highly skilled bat and ball athletes are unable to utilise their talent.”

But where one door closes, another is beginning to open. Fountain’s sporting roots are in cricket and has come up with a way of tapping into a well of talent that otherwise would be left to go dry. Switch Hit 20 is a programme that aims to turn minor league fringe players into international twenty20 (T20 – 20 overs a side) cricketers

“The major league teams can afford to neglect those who struggle and quit because there are literally thousands of young players ready to take the place of a disenchanted player,” says Fountain. “These are the guys I am targeting. They are in their early twenties, fit, strong, fast, talented, and have loads of skill and nowhere to showcase it.”

Fountain played county cricket for Somerset before switching to baseball after watching the 1987 World Series. He represented Great Britain at the U19 European Championships after only six months in the sport. He attended several try-outs with the Kansas City Royals, Chicago White Sox, and the New York Mets. Ultimately, like so many potentials, a career in the majors eluded the Englishman.

He returned home and began incorporating baseball skills into the cricket world. He became a specialist fielding coach, implementing particular throwing, catching, and body position techniques that proved revolutionary. His work with the England and Wales Cricket Board inspired Australia to hire American Mike Young as their fielding coach in 2000, a move that improved Australia’s fielding to the point where the Baggy Greens were widely regarded as the best fielding team on the planet.

Chris Gayle in action for the West Indies. Gayle's ability to clear the ropes on a regular basis has made him one of the most destructive hitters in cricket. With that ability, one wonders what kind of baseball slugger he would make. 

Chris Gayle in action for the West Indies. Gayle's ability to clear the ropes on a regular basis has made him one of the most destructive hitters in cricket. With that ability, one wonders what kind of baseball slugger he would make. 

“The two games have been kept apart by geography, culture, attitude and participation,” says Fountain. “They share a connected history going back hundreds of years and share the same core principles. With the advent of T20, cricket took a big step towards baseball in terms of skill execution, tactics, and even from a fan’s perspective. The two sports have big similarities and this is the key to the project.” Babe Ruth had private cricket lessons with Alan Fairfax in 1935, with the Australian promising to turn Ruth into “one of the world’s greatest batsmen”. Ian Botham attempted a code switch after retiring from international cricket.

Fountain has already experimented with the switch in codes. After leaving his post with Pakistan as a fielding coach in 2014, he converted a group of Korean baseball players into a national cricket team that reached the quarterfinals of the Asian Games last year, despite many of them having never played a game of cricket before. Although they were demolished by Sri Lanka in the knockout game by 117 runs, the seeds were planted for the world’s second most popular sport to grow in a foreign land.

Cricket is played in over 100 countries globally but is only commercially attractive in a handful. Realistically only the test playing nations make money off the game, with India, Australia, England, and to a lesser extent South Africa, raking in the lion’s share of profits. Fountain says that, “Global sports commerce is very profitable in a wide range of countries that are not in this exclusive shortlist such as the USA, South Korea, Japan, and South American nations. These regions have formidable sporting pedigrees and vast commercial sporting structures that support professional sports.”

If T20 could appeal to a broader audience, there is no telling how the sport could develop. 20 years ago, football (soccer) was considered a minor sport in the US. Last year, 26.5 million Americans watched the FIFA World Cup Final on TV. International stars like David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Kaka, Steven Gerrard, and David Villa have enhanced the game of football in the US to the point that more and more viewers are tuning in and flocking to stadiums, establishing Major League Soccer (MLS) as one of the fastest growing leagues in the world.

Hoping to become a pioneer for cricket in the US is Thomas “Boomer” Collins, a minor league player currently signed with the Toronto Blue Jays. The 25 year old with all-state honours as an outfielder is fully focussed on making the step up to the major leagues but has already bought into Fountain’s dream.

“It would be great to do what soccer stars have done for their sport here in America,” says Collins. “I would love to be a pioneer in a sport and represent my country. It would be similar to what Jackie Robinson did to baseball. It’s all about the perception of a sport and it just takes a handful of people to make a difference. I figure, why sit on the side-lines when there is an opportunity to make something amazing happen?”

From schools right up to professional teams, the USA has great infrastructure in sports. Competition and athletic prowess is encouraged from a young age and many believe that the nation of 318.9 million people has the potential to become a world force in any sport it takes seriously.

The USA finished 6th in the World Rugby HSBC Sevens World Series, ahead of traditional sevens nations such as Kenya, Scotland, France, Wales and 2010 champions, Samoa. They won the final leg of the season in London and San Francisco is set to host the 2016 World Cup. It is possible to draw the conclusion that a rise in popularity in the sport is directly correlated with positive results on the field.

“Cricket was popular in the USA, particularly on the East Coast, prior to the American War of Independence but gradually eroded over time after the Civil War in an attempt to remove anything related to British culture,” explains Fountain. In Beth Hise’s Swinging Away: How Cricket and Baseball Connect, a substantial amount of historical evidence shows that the two sports grew up side by side in the USA with a shared lineage that traces back to England.

Today, the USA national teams are made up primarily of expats from Asia and the Caribbean. Many of these players have not played sport at a high level throughout their lives and have benefited from being in a country where competition for places is light. A dearth of enthusiastic young cricketers coupled with the majority of the population not relating to the sport has meant that cricket is still seen as an outsider’s game. It is understandable that those struggling in the minors would be hesitant to take the plunge.

Julien Fountain as Pakistan's fielding coach. His background in baseball has allowed him to improve the standard of fielding for elite cricketers. 

Julien Fountain as Pakistan's fielding coach. His background in baseball has allowed him to improve the standard of fielding for elite cricketers. 

“If I could help change people’s perspective about the game, it would be amazing,” says Collins. “I’ll give baseball all that I have but there is no reason why I can’t succeed in both sports. To represent my country at a World Cup would be the ultimate dream.”

T20 cricket is played all over the world and players are able to hop from one league to the next without any conflicting contracts. Chris Gayle, one of the most destructive hitters in cricket, is currently contracted with the Jamaica Tallawahs in the West Indies, the Royal Challengers Bangalore in India, the Dhaka Gladiators in Bangladesh, and the Melbourne Renegades in Australia. He is able to make a living all year long on stages that fit his high wages – a luxury that was not afforded to cricketers only a few years ago.

Since it was launched in December last year, Switch Hit 20 has had great feedback from minor league players like Collins. “The first thing we wanted to do was ascertain whether or not minor league players were interested in making the switch,” says Fountain. “They are!”

The International Cricket Council (ICC), long accused of not doing enough to promote the game globally and help minor nations, has been unwilling as of yet to get involved with the project. They say that it’s up to each individual country’s board to develop talent. However, the American Cricket Federation has been extremely enthusiastic and with members such as Michael Holding, Ian Chappell, and Arjuna Ranatunga, the signs are positive.

The project is in its infancy. Recruiting enough players to create a large enough talent pool is the primary goal. Fountain is adamant that he is not trying to take players away from baseball but is rather offering an alternative for those frustrated by a lack of options.

Trials are being scheduled and after that a camp for the selected few. A national T20 tournament is being discussed and companies are encouraged to invest in a sport that has proved to be successful and lucrative around the globe.

“We’ve had talks with a variety of corporate representatives,” says Fountain. “The scope for an investor is quite good as it covers live events, social and regular media, domestic and international audiences and it’s all going to be filmed on TV.”

When WG Grace became cricket’s first global superstar in the late 1800s, the thought of Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, becoming world champions would have been inconceivable. In 1996, they did just that by beating Australia in the final. A lot has changed in cricket while so much has stayed the same in a sport that values tradition and history, perhaps more than any other. One day, Fountain may be remembered as one of the great cricketing geniuses and Collins as one of the great sporting pioneers. Perhaps nothing will happen and the memories of the cricketing pilgrims on the East Coast will indeed be the great hoorah for the sport in the USA. Either way, for the good of the game, one hopes that Fountain has awoken a sleeping giant. 

You can learn more about Switch Hit 20 by visiting their website.

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