LITTLE FALLS, N.J. — Muhammad Ali, hands clasped in front of his face, was celebrating his 52nd birthday in quiet agony, watching Pakistan lose to India in excruciating fashion.
With each crack of the bat and every slow, trickling ball headed toward the fence, the Premium Indians inched closer to overtaking the Premium Paks, the team in which Ali had invested.
Dressed in blue, the crowd along the first baseline danced on top of the dugouts, blasting music, blowing air horns and erupting in louder and louder Hindi cheers: “Jeetega India! Jeetega India! (India will win! India will win!)”
Along the third baseline, Ali and the other green-clad Pakistan fans sat stoically. This wasn’t just a game, he said: It was cricket.
“Cricket has been in the blood of this community ever since we migrated to this country,” said Ali, who came to the United States in 2010. “We have everything else — we have religion, we have freedom of speech, we have food, we have a culture. The only thing missing is sports”.
“And sports are the biggest thing that can trigger passion and motivate people.”
The Premium Indians and Premium Paks are part of the American Premiere League (APL), an upstart cricket tournament based in northern New Jersey. An estimated 1,200 fans were on hand on that cool, late September night to watch the Indians defeat the Paks by six wickets in a local version of a historic rivalry. League executives hope it will help unlock cricket’s potential in the United States.
The league is already preparing for its second season next fall, which 41-year-old APL founder and president Jay Mir believes will be an even grander showcase for the game he first grew to love in Lahore, Pakistan. He wants more teams from cricket-mad countries and another 10 cameras on the field to give viewers at home a feeling akin to watching “Monday Night Football.”
And for some of the biggest match-ups, like India versus Pakistan, he foresees holding the games in even bigger venues.
“Our vision is for this to become a yearly phenomenon,” Mir said.
Cricket is the second most-watched sport in the world, behind soccer. The International Cricket Council estimates that 2.5 billion people watch it worldwide and 1.5 million people play the game, from amateur clubs to professional leagues and international tournaments.
The rules have changed little since the game spread among British colonies in the 1700s. Eleven players on each side take turns trying to score as many runs as possible before the other side can record 10 outs, recorded in similar ways to baseball.
Newer versions of the game called “Twenty20,” put a limit of 20 “overs” — six pitches each — before the sides must switch. This has created a kind of game that has riled old-school cricket fans but caused an explosion in popularity among younger fans to quickly become the most popular version of the sport.
But no matter the ruleset, the game remains a mystery to most Americans, something that’s become a lifelong obsession for Mir.
The “magic” of this tournament, he said, is naming each team not after a local city or state, but after a country where cricket is beloved — India, Pakistan, England, Australia, Bangladesh, the West Indies and, with an eye to the future, the United States — and feeding off the fierce, international rivalries that make the game so popular across the globe.
“If we want to make cricket popular in the United States, we have to first target the cricket-loving communities that reside in the United States,” Mir said.
He doesn’t have to look very far: About 711,000 Indian Americans live in the New York metropolitan area — 42 percent of all Asian Americans in New Jersey and 22 percent of Asian Americans in New York, according to the Pew Research Center. Another 98,000 Pakistani Americans live in the area.
Sam Singh, 39, jumped at the chance to purchase the Premium Indians franchise. He recalled, through laughter, his sister’s wedding when many of her relatives missed part of the festivities because they were glued to a cricket match on television.
“Cricket is like another religion, where I’m from in India,” said Singh, a real estate developer who lives in Franklin Township, New Jersey. “But there are a lot of people here who want to see this take off.”
That hasn’t happened in the United States for a multitude of reasons, whether it be the game’s complex rules or baseball and football capturing the national interest.
Tilak Patel, 23, grew up playing cricket at local clubs in the Atlanta suburbs but because the sport wasn’t offered in high school or college, he was at a disadvantage to football and baseball players. Unlike the professional coaches and competition that comes with organized high school sports, he learned from hobbyists and played against the same kids year after year. Patel never felt like he could grow into the sport, he said.
“You have to try to offer it in high school, because you have to get the younger people involved in it,” said Patel, who traveled to New Jersey to play for the Premium Windees — representing the West Indies — in the APL.
USA Cricket, the sport’s official governing body, regards the APL as an exhibition tournament solely meant to drive interest in the sport. Major League Cricket, USA Cricket’s official professional cricket league, is due to kick off in 2023, with a Sling TV streaming deal that follows the model of other niche sports like lacrosse, which have found huge, growing audiences through expanding streaming options.
The Premier Lacrosse League reported a 33 percent increase in viewership for its 2021 season, with nearly 400,000 viewers tuned into its all-star game on Peacock, NBC’s streaming platform. The league signed a rights deal with NBC before its inaugural 2019 season.
NBC has also devoted hours of airtime and streaming resources to rugby, particularly international tournaments like the Six Nations Cup and World Cup. After the 2019 Rugby World Cup, NBC announced the tournament had 10 million unique views on NBC and NBC Sports Network, with 659,000 viewers tuned in for the tournament’s final match.
The APL was available to stream online for $4.99 but rarely had more than 100 viewers.
The tournament’s do-it-yourself nature was never far from mind, from its makeshift cricket ground to its notable production errors. Before the game, for example, the public address system stumbled through three different songs before finally settling on the correct Pakistani national anthem.
And apart from India vs. Pakistan, no more than a few dozen fans were in attendance for the other 20 games, all of which were scheduled for weekdays and many of them held during mornings or afternoons.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of marketing or advertising,” said Raj Siva, a 43-year-old Edison resident who attended every Premium Indians match in the tournament. “I have a lot of friends who didn’t really know anything about this.”
Mir accepted the myriad of issues as growing pains. He’s already planning for the 2022 season, when he hopes to introduce five more teams representing other cricket-obsessed nations — beginning with Canada, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. And he intends to bring in more than 100 new players, both overseas professionals and amateurs trying out.
“It’s a gift to the South Asian community, and they’re going to look forward to this every year,” Mir said. “This is the vision we had, and it’s going to be absolutely beautiful.”