The Florida humidity hits you the minute you get off the plane. To someone like myself, who grew up in Mumbai, it brings nostalgia, but that buzz wears off in five minutes, by when I’m already sweating from crevices you aren’t supposed to sweat from – let alone at 9pm. By the time my Uber shows up, not only am I grateful for the concept of air conditioning, I’m also hugely appreciative of cricketers who have to endure the heat while putting on a show for my entertainment.
My driver is a second-generation Puerto Rican. “Cricket?” he asks with a mix of curiosity and amusement that is indicative of the general perception of the sport in this country. Let’s just say we have a long way to go before cricket is mentioned in the same breath as even soccer, which, by the way, doesn’t make the top three either.
I’m concerned about the weather. One moment it’s balmy and a gentle Florida breeze is blowing and the next, there’s a howling gale and the street is glistening from a persistent rain. But then, just as quickly as the rain arrives, it dissipates and all is well with the world again. I sleep that night feeling optimistic.
We drive away from the coast into the South Florida hinterland. Central Broward Park, in a quiet suburb of Fort Lauderdale, hosts club cricket most of the year, but it’s certainly not a venue you’d associate with international cricket and bona fide superstars of the sort we are going to watch there.
As I walk towards the entrance to the stadium, I spot a smattering of maroon shirts in a sea of blue, roughly equivalent to the relative population of the two regions. The ground is about three-quarters full when I get in. I see a range of India jerseys on show, dating all the way from the 1999 ODI World Cup to the latest edition, with several knockoffs thrown in for good measure.
The DJ springs into action, reminding me of the NBA and MLB games I’ve watched in the US. The crowd seems to be having a great time, dancing to a mix of old and new favourites, including bhangra, the latest Bollywood dance numbers, and the good old “Chak de India”, which seems to have become a de facto anthem at Indian sporting events. Watching the cheerleaders dance to these unfamiliar tunes makes me think about how this very American phenomenon has made it to T20Is in the US via the IPL.
After a mad dash for lunch and restrooms, the crowd is stunned into silence by a strong West Indies start – until Avesh Khan snags a couple of wickets. The next bit is classic West Indies T20 batting: several big hits accompanied by a steady stream of wickets, much to the delight of the partisan crowd. That said, I find myself somewhat disappointed when Nicholas Pooran gets out. It’s incredible just how far he’s able to hit the ball for someone his size.
Towards the end, the atmosphere turns celebratory as a West Indies win becomes increasingly unlikely. The DJs, who have until now turned the music off before each delivery is bowled, play the IPL bugle even as Arshdeep runs in to bowl his special yorkers at the lower order.
On the way back to the hotel, attention turns to Sunday’s weather and it does not look good. Before coming to Florida, I’d have been satisfied watching one full match, but now I’m starting to get greedy.
The upside is that getting into the stadium is a breeze compared to the previous day, but I still can’t say I’m fully prepared for the speakers blaring bhangra at full blast at 9:30am. The crowd lets out a huge cheer when Hardik walks out for the toss. We see Ishan Kishan and Iyer getting drills from batting coach Vikram Rathour, an indication that we may be able to see both players in action.
The crowd builds up as Iyer and Deepak Hooda put on a fine partnership. Then there is a bizarre stoppage, for lightning of all things. The announcer proclaims the area to be the “lightning capital of the USA” and it certainly looks like they have protocols in place. The people in the uncovered stands are ordered to go find shady spots to stand in. After a few minutes, play resumes, India chalks up another impressive score, despite the West Indies clawing their way back somewhat towards the back end of the innings.
The match stops being a contest after Axar runs through the top order and Kuldeep Yadav traps Pooran lbw, although Shimron Hetmeyer offers some resistance. Bishnoi and Kuldeep are a treat to watch in tandem, reminding me of the heady days of KulCha.
By the time the match is done and dusted, it’s a full-fledged party in the stands. Arshdeep runs over to our section for a few selfies and autographs and a couple of official-looking types make the rounds, thanking us for being a great crowd and inform us that there will be a few matches in Florida during the 2024 T20 World Cup, which is to be hosted in the Caribbean. Dare we hope that over time, there are a few more cricketing outposts across the US? With 4.2 million people of Indian origin (that’s 80% of the entirely population of New Zealand), they are certainly deserved.
I exchange numbers with some newly minted friends and leave with my heart full. The last two days have filled a cricket-shaped hole in me, and while I wish the matches were not as one-sided as they turned out to be, I realize that’s just being nitpicky. As I lapse into fitful bouts of sleep on my red-eye flight back to California, I find myself humming “Chak de India”.
Rahul Oak is a writer based in California and the author of Medium Fast and Furious