As the Indian cricket team arrived in South Florida, a hurricane threatened. And that's not an analogy about intense media interest or fan frenzy that cricket's global superstars inspire wherever they go; an actual storm with potential to become a hurricane is now bearing down on the region.
By Friday evening, half a day before India and West Indies were to face each other in a historic T20 match here, the storm was waning slightly. A tropical disturbance that, earlier in the week had looked like possibly turning into a hurricane and hitting South Florida by Sunday, had instead turned into a storm that, in the words of AccuWeather, came with the "risk of flooding downpours and gusty thunderstorms…spread toward southern Florida".
So maybe no hurricane, but still the sort of weather conditions that aren't exactly conducive to cricket.
It made for a potentially wet, worrisome situation, and raised questions about the best way to pursue international cricket in the US. Likewise, the stadium where the matches will be held — a place meant to attract big-time cricket to the US, but has instead been little used for the sport in nearly a decade since it was built — has also been subject of questions that will undoubtedly be looked at with renewed scrutiny now that big international matches are starting to come.
This weekend's matches take place at Central Broward Stadium in Lauderhill, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale, a midsized coastal Florida city 30 miles north of Miami. The stadium is currently the only ICC-certified ODI cricket stadium in the United States. Plans have been mooted for international-level cricket stadiums in other parts of the US, but for now, if you want to play international cricket in the US, you're coming to South Florida.
That brings up questions, namely about what kind of stadium you're coming to and when you ought to come.
South Florida has a sub-tropical climate, meaning there are two seasons — wet and dry; summer being the wet season. When the local Major League baseball team, the Miami Marlins, moved into a new stadium in 2012, the stadium's most notable feature was a retractable roof. That was seen as essential in a place prone to quick, violently pounding thunderstorms throughout the summer.
While most of the US is better suited to summer sports, the one place an international cricket stadium exists ironically has weather more conducive to winter matches.
Then there's the ground itself. The wicket has improved greatly since its 2010 international T20 debut, when on a slow and low pitch, Sri Lanka and New Zealand split a two-game series that saw the Kiwis' winning 120 the only triple-digit score.
Usman Shuja knows all about that wicket. The former United States bowler, who retired from international competition in 2015 as the Americans' leading wicket-taker in one-dayers, remembers a ground where wickets were hard to come by. "The wicket at Lauderhill stadium had very low bounce a few years ago and was not suited for professional cricket," he said. "There were times when the ball would not go higher than ankle height."
Fast forward six years and, after a pitch consultant was brought in from New Zealand, the wicket drew better marks — and higher scores — during the CPL. "Over the last few years, it has played well, which was also evident during the CPL games," Shuja said. "Now the bounce is true." That was less than a month ago, but it remains to be seen if the stadium's local grounds crew can maintain the standard.
The other criticism lobbed at the stadium involves overhead lighting, which has been an issue since the ground opened, and while some fixes were implemented in 2013, questions remain. While it won't be a problem this weekend — making the matches compatible with prime time television viewing in India meant a 10 am local time start — but more regular cricket will inevitably mean night matches, something where the stadium's history is decidedly mixed.
When the stadium first opened, its large concrete lighting towers were positioned closer to the pitch and in front of seating areas. In addition to blocking spectators' vision, the towers were judged to be hazardous for nighttime play, as they would create difficult shadows. As a result, international T20s in 2010 and 2012 were scheduled for the day.
The lighting towers were moved back in 2013, and in July this year, the Caribbean Premier League scheduled two of its six Lauderhill matches at night and two for late afternoon. However, the CPL still deemed it necessary to bring in temporary lighting fixtures to help.
These are, of course, problems that can be fixed if more high-level cricket is on the horizon. However, since the stadium was built almost a decade ago, four T20 internationals and last month's CPL have been the only high-level cricket played here.
That's less to do with weather, more to do with dysfunction in US cricket leadership. The United States of America Cricket Association, US cricket's governing body, is currently suspended by the ICC, a move that is seen as helping pave the way for more top-flight cricket. It couldn't come at a better time for a stadium that has over the years been drifting away from the game.
Faced with a lack of high-level cricket at what was meant to be a high-level cricket stadium, local leaders turned to other sports, namely football. Various camps and matches have been held at the stadium; in 2013, the wicket was dug up and moved to make it more accommodating for football. Earlier this summer, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, a team in the second-division North American Soccer League, made the stadium their new home.
But India coming to town? That's the sort of thing that makes local leaders sit up and listen.
Lauderhill mayor Richard Kaplan is a cricket convert and advocate, but over the years he's grown frustrated by the lack of cricket in his city. Earlier this month, however, he spoke to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel of his excitement. "If over 100 million people watched the West Indies-New Zealand games on television, you can only imagine how many people will watch India taking on West Indies," he said. "This is going to have a multi-million dollar impact on tourism in South Florida."
And in the end, that may help more matches follow these. The star power of India — and spending power of its fans — could convince leaders that stadium kinks are worth improving. Concerns will remain, about both a quirky stadium and less-than- ideal weather during some of the most sought-after times on the international cricket calendar. But one legacy of India's trip to Florida could be minds focused on doing what can be done to bring superstar cricket back again.
Former US bowler Shuja says that while other cities may eventually challenge Lauderhill's primacy, the country's first international stadium can continue to play a role in US cricket. "The stadium is a solid facility and a good base to host international games," he said. "While the dressing rooms, training facilities and flood lights, parking etc meet international standards, there is room for improvement. The important thing is that we have a cricket-only facility that can allow professional games to be played in the US and provide an enjoyable experience for the crowd."
"Lauderhill has been the home of US cricket and has played a pivotal role in developing cricket in America. There are upcoming international quality fields in Houston and Indianapolis that might start challenging Lauderhill fairly soon. However, given the status Lauderhill has enjoyed thus far in the US, it will continue to be an important venue in the near future (provided the authorities manage it well)," he added.