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San José, Costa Rica, Friday, March 27, 2015, Vol. 15, No. 61
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It's march madness with bats and ball

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

There’s another kind of March Madness going on thousands of miles away from the U.S. basketball courts. Except this one involves hundreds of millions of passionate viewers cheering on four continents across at least 14 time zones.

Cricket hits its high point Saturday when six weeks of tournament play and four years of qualifying play culminates in the final match and bragging rights to be the world’s best team.

The showdown between Australia and New Zealand at the historic Melbourne Cricket Ground will be witnessed by more than 100,000 fans. Hundreds of millions are expected to watch live on TV.

“Global viewership will be bigger than the Superbowl, but since India is not playing in the finals, viewership and interest will take a huge hit,” said Atul Huckoo, assistant vice president for advertising and sales at Willow TV, a U.S-based, 24/7 cricket channel. Still, “it will be a good story as both hosts are meeting in the finals”​

While soccer has long been the dominant global sport, in terms of participation, money, viewership, cricket is a close second with an audience that often watches with religious fervor from Harare to Wellington, London to Islamabad. The sport is a launch pad for prosperity, fame and even political careers in places like Pakistan and India.

This year’s tournament for the first time featured war-torn Afghanistan, which upset Scotland early on behind the gritty batting of Sami Shenwari.

England, considered the birthplace of the game, lost to Bangladesh in preliminary round in what many thought was a shocking defeat. And South Africa suffered heartbreak when the team lost in the semifinals to New Zealand, which went on to reach the final after six previous failures.

Among compelling personalities, South African bowler (the equivalent of a pitcher) Imran Tahir may top the list. Known for his unique style of celebrations after getting a wicket (getting a batsman out), Tahir, who was born and raised in Pakistan and later became South African by marriage, made his debut for the rainbow nation four years ago and is a large reason why the team made it so far.

Perennial powerhouse India, meanwhile, was decisively defeated in the semifinals by Australia. Team captain Michael Clark had to urge home team fans to turn up so the stadium wasn’t entirely cheering on India.

The sport’s organizing body, the International Cricket Council, said viewership grew markedly in this year’s tournament, with the council’s Web site hitting new records— more than 26 million unique visitors— and over 225 million page views.

That includes a growing audience in the United States, where cricket is gaining in notoriety, even while competing with basketball, American football and ice hockey. And baseball. Costa Rica has a cricket league, too.

Cricket shares similarities with baseball: both are played with a bat and a ball, for example, and there are batters, outs and pitches, though pitchers in cricket are known as bowler. Some historians say that baseball’s earliest pioneers honed their batting playing cricket.

But the rest of the sport is much different. Unlike baseball when a batsman hits a home run, they don’t have to go back and sit in the dugout. They continue to bat until they are out or until a set number of pitches are completed. Like baseball, whichever team scores the most runs wins.

Commonly associated with starchy dress whites and days-long matches, the sport has evolved to a one-day format. In India, a condensed version known as Twenty20, which usually lasts for about four hours, is also popular.

In a sign of the sport’s economic potential, last year ESPN acquired the rights for the 2015 World Cup along with rights to Twenty20 matches. ESPN refused to say how much it paid.




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