Cricket Player

T20 Cricket World Cup and Cricket Diplomacy

Asia India

This June, for the first time ever, the United States hosted and participated in the T20 Cricket World Cup and seized a ground-breaking victory for Team USA against Team Pakistan. Even before the media boost from the win, cricket has been slowly but surely gaining popularity in the United States and consequently, has sparked the beginnings of a new form of sports diplomacy with the Commonwealth and the Indo-Pacific.

On June 1st, the 2024 T20 Cricket World Cup officially began, kicking off a month-long contest that will see the best teams compete for world cricket supremacy. As the world's second most popular sport, international cricket events have always drawn significant global attention. Additionally, this year’s World Cup holds special significance for the American public and government. The public now have their first opportunity to witness their country host and compete on cricket’s biggest international stage, and the government now has a new frontier of cricket diplomacy.

From basketball to cricket, American sport diplomacy has been at play in conjunction with international events throughout its history. Key US examples include Ping Pong Diplomacy in 1971 when the American ping pong team visited the Chinese team, driving the opening of relations between the two countries, and the ‘NAFTA’ World Cup in 2026 which will work to solidify the relationship between the US, Mexico, and Canada. Currently, sports diplomacy is managed through the US Department of State’s Sports Diplomacy Division and the State Department have organized events like “Bouncers to Boundaries” – the largest dedicated event for cricket in the United States.

An Unlikely Success Story

Ranked 19th out of 20 participating nations, initial expectations for the American cricket world cup team were low. However, the US National Team has emerged as a true force in the tournament – a development that has shocked cricket experts and media personalities around the world. After defeating Canada in their opening match, Team USA stunned the cricket community by beating Pakistan. As the World Cup champion in 2007, and the runners-up in 2009 and 2022, Pakistan is a perennial cricket powerhouse that was expected to dominate a less experienced American squad. The US victory is especially remarkable considering the unique makeup of the American team. In contrast to the full-time professional players against which they compete, many American players only play cricket part time and work regular day jobs. Indeed, bowler Saurabh Netravalkar – the team’s breakout star – works full time as a software engineer at Oracle and reportedly brings his laptop to the stadium. The ethnic background of Team USA has also generated significant interest and comedic content. 11 of the team’s 15 players were born overseas, with many coming from India, Pakistan, South Africa, and New Zealand.

Already considered one of the greatest upsets in Cricket World Cup history, Team USA’s win over Pakistan generated a domestic media buzz that the sport has rarely, if ever, achieved in the US. American media giants like ESPN, Bleacher Report, CNN, NBC, and NPR, all led significant coverage of the match. Cricket also trended across social media platforms in the immediate aftermath of the victory despite the ongoing NBA and NHL finals.

America’s Growing Professional Cricket Scene

While Team USA’s success deserves significant credit for boosting cricket’s profile in America, enthusiasm for the sport in the United States has steadily increased in recent years, culminating in the launch of Major League Cricket (MLC). The MLC is not America’s first attempt at professional cricket, however, it is certainly the most successful. Launched in 2023, the MLC’s 18 day tournament style season drew more than 72,000 fans and produced $8 million in revenues, exceeding the $5 million goal set for its inaugural season. The MLC tournament was also broadcast in 87 countries, with some matches being shown on America’s CBS Sports Network.

The MLC’s success stems from its experienced leadership. Most MLC franchises are owned by investors that also own teams in the Indian Premier League – the most prestigious cricket league in the world. This helped investors to raise a collective $100 million to fund MLC player contracts, allowing the league to attract top international talent and starpower.

Following the conclusion of the Cricket World Cup, the MLC plans to begin its second official season this coming summer. In the future, the league hopes to begin the development of home stadiums for each franchise, enabling MLC teams to develop stronger connections to their local communities. Such connections will bolster participation and interest in American cricket, opening the door for public and private sector US actors to use the sport as a tool for commercial and diplomatic engagement with the rest of the world.

Embracing Cricket in the US

Cricket, even without US involvement, already has a significant diplomatic history. Tensions between India and Pakistan have always been visible during cricket matches, but through their mutual love of cricket, the matches have led to diplomatic endeavors such as in 2011 when then Indian Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh met his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani for the World Cup semifinal.

By stepping into this history and engaging with cricket’s diverse fanbase, the US stands to gain stronger ties with the countries involved as well as its own South Asian population – the fastest growing group of Asian Americans in the US. To this end, the US has made significant efforts to embrace cricket. As mentioned, the US hosted its first Cricket World Cup and has now advanced into the second round of the tournament. To commemorate this, Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Richard Verma held the aforementioned reception event on June 12th, where he played cricket and met with players such as the former Sri Lankan captain Arjuna Ranatunga – a meeting that was later quoted as an action of sports diplomacy by the US Embassy in Sri Lanka.

For the future of US cricket diplomacy, we can look to the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Since its disappearance from the games in 1900, cricket is back on the program for 2028. This in in large part to the US Ambassador to India and former Mayor of Los Angeles Eric Garcetti who has stated that this inclusion will “ignite a new generation of cricket players and cricket fans” and has promoted cricket during and after his tenure as mayor. As the premiere stage for sports diplomacy, no matter how the US team does in 2028, it is sure to be a significant step in the name of cricket diplomacy for US relations with South Asia and its own diasporas.

As for the 2024 T20 Cricket World Cup, the US cricket team has made history again by breaking into the second round. We still have a little more than a week left until the World Cup final on June 29th, and the world – especially the US South Asian diaspora – sits on the edge of their seats for this historic season. Team USA’s success means it has automatically qualified for the 2026 T20 World Cup in India and Sri Lanka, so American cricket is sure to stay in the news for years to come. For the next four years, from the 2024 World Cup final this month to the 2028 Olympics, cricket and sports diplomacy experts will be sure to keep an eye on the US.

Jiwon Lim is a Summer 2024 Young Professional at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a rising first year at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies pursuing an MA in International Relations with a functional focus in Security, Strategy, and Statecraft and a regional focus in Asia.

Jack Borrow is a participant in the Summer 2024 Young Professionals Program at the East West Center in Washington. He is a recent graduate of Boston College, where he obtained a B.A. in Political Science and Asian Studies.