A sell-out crowd, clear sunshine, a belting pitch, a record run-fest for India's maiden T20 international on US soil. Everything seemed to come off as it should on Saturday at the Central Broward Regional Park in Lauderhill, in particular for the fans.
The visit was an opportunity for India's players to thank their fans among the Indian diaspora in the USA, in person, for their dedication over the years. Stories of Indians studying at universities around the USA seeking permission to set up viewing parties in empty lecture halls at 3 am to watch the World Cup in 2011 are the continuation of a tradition stretching back decades. Part of the origin story of Cricinfo was feeding those same students with text commentary over internet relay chat in the 1990s at all hours of the day.
The wealthier members of the Indian diaspora don't have to deal with such trifles. At the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, fans in the USA were some of the biggest ticket buyers traveling to the event, with expats flying from New York, Chicago, San Francisco and elsewhere to make it down to Adelaide for the showdown against Pakistan. Others shelled out USD 100 to watch the tournament pay-per-view package offered by the then-rights holder ESPN. Instead of going to such great lengths to go find the cricket, the cricket had now finally come to them.
"I'm paying not only for Kohli and Dhoni, but a good competitive game of cricket," said Agam Shah, 33, a day before the series began. Originally from Ahmedabad, Shah has lived in Fort Lauderdale for more than 10 years. "I would much rather it be a close game rather than India winning by 200 runs. I'm paying for a good competitive series. I wouldn't pay this much to see India v Sri Lanka. West Indies is the World Cup winner."
Shah's words wound up being almost prophetic with the one-run margin on Saturday. But more than the final ball, the fan atmosphere was the defining feature of the day. The DJ sparked numerous bhangra dance-offs when Saddi Gali and Chak De India were blasted to the satisfaction of the Indian contingent while the West Indian fans grooved to Dwayne Bravo's Champion. One couldn't help but smile at the bonhomie, a far cry from the combativeness that can be witnessed between fans at any NFL game.
"The Indians there were just unbelievable, cheering on, just watching them along, the excitement from them actually made the game more tense," said Lisa Ramsanahi, 27, a Guyanese-American born and raised in Queens, New York, who flew down with her husband and watched from the bleachers on the north stand - "the only two West Indian fans in our section". The pair also came down for the CPL games in Lauderhill in July, but Saturday's game was at a different level. "It was great, best game, best T20 I ever witnessed," said Ranveer Ramnauth, Lisa's husband.
As if fate was smiling on the BCCI, Saturday's game went on uninterrupted but mere moments after the teams shook hands and walked off the field, a heavy shower came down, hurrying fans toward the exits. It was one more indication that everything that could go right did go right.
"To have a nail-biting finish on the last ball, God has been kind," BCCI president Anurag Thakur told ESPNcricinfo after the game. "A thunderstorm was expected, nothing happened, we survived. I think that luck is on our side. When you put your 100%, the god also favors you."
That luck vanished on Sunday, mainly because officials decided to tempt fate by delaying the start under bright sunshine even though thunderstorms were forecast for the early afternoon. Initially fans remained patient when a 10.30 start was communicated, but when another 10 minutes were added on to the delay, boos rang out around the ground.
It was especially frustrating because of the reason for the holdup - a breakdown in satellite transmission with the host broadcaster in India - as there is a precedent for proceeding with play regardless of TV coverage available, both in cricket and baseball. A 2012 tri-series ODI in Hobart between India and Sri Lanka moved forward after power went out at the ground. It resulted in TV viewers missing the first 3.4 overs of India's chase.
More recently, Game 1 of the 2015 World Series between the New York Mets and Kansas City Royals experienced a TV broadcast failure with the host feed controlled by Fox going down in the bottom of the fourth inning. According to Richard Sandomir's chronicle of events in The New York Times, the game was briefly delayed only because Fox's feed was being used for baseball's replay challenge system. After a short discussion with umpires, both managers agreed to play on without the replay system available. TV coverage of the game continued outside the USA on an international TV feed while radio coverage went on uninterrupted. It was 38 minutes before the Fox feed was restored.
The US market seemed the least of India's concerns on the day, though. The matches were not shown on any TV channel in the USA, with the rights sold and packaged as an online pay-per-view option via YuppTV, a "cord-cutter" internet portal similar to Roku or Google Chromecast. Saturday's final-ball drama was missed by the mainstream American sports fan while Sunday's technical delays beaming the match back to India had no ripple effect on disrupting any USA cable or network TV channel's programming line-up since it wasn't being offered.
The decision to delay the start brought fans back to reality, that this series wasn't about the BCCI saying thank you by playing in front of them. Instead, they were an ancillary consideration to the primary vehicle of the TV audience back in India. Other issues that maybe could be forgiven now boiled to the surface.
Concession sales were cash-only, but if one was only carrying credit cards, there were no ATMs on site to take out money, leaving the earliest-arriving fans from the gate-opening time of 8 am hot and thirsty for up to six hours in 90-degree Farenheit (32 degrees Celsius) Florida heat. Ticket values - starting at USD 75 for standing room only and USD 100 for uncovered bleachers going up to USD 250 for VIP - also priced out many casual fans from being able to attend.
"Ever since I've been here, I'm a Red Sox fan and I go to as many Red Sox games as I can," said Anish deSouza, a 27-year-old from Mumbai now living in Massachusetts, who flew in for the series. "In similar seats, I sit in the bleachers there as well, you can get bleacher seats for USD 18. If they're playing the Yankees, you might pay USD 50 for bleacher seats. If the aim is trying to promote cricket in the USA, you need to think about the other sports you're competing with."
Fans who entered the north side of the stadium were given a color-coded stamp on the hand to signify each portion of the bleachers while another color stamp signified the standing-room-only area in front of the bleachers against the boundary fence. When the thunderstorm arrived, fans hurried for cover in a picnic area hut behind the bleachers that is used as a storm shelter in the event of lightning. However, most fans got soaked and the stamps were washed off. When fans then tried to return to the bleachers after the rain stopped, deSouza claims the security personnel initially refused to let people back in, on account of being unable to identify any stamps on their hands.
Most fans who had VIP tickets actually stood outside to watch the games rather than sit indoors because the view was obstructed, but when the rains arrived, everyone returned indoors. At about 1.15, with the sun shining again and a full 45 minutes before play was officially called off, the bar inside was already shut with fans denied any service, including simple requests for water, at a time when food and drink hospitality - included for free in the price of a VIP ticket - should have been at its busiest. According to Sam Desai, a hotel owner from Lake Charles, Louisiana, staff then turned hostile toward one spectator.
"He said, 'Hey, but the game is still on. Why won't you guys give me water? I don't want beer or food.' Then they called security and chucked him, around 10 or 15 cops," said Desai, whose version of events was backed up by at least a dozen other witnesses who had tickets in the VIP tent. "He just argued that, 'Hey I paid for VIP. The game is still on. I just want water.'"
The crowd waited for more than an hour with no communication from officials about what was going on. When MS Dhoni and Carlos Brathwaite shook hands at about 2 pm, fans slowly started to trudge off but minutes later another rain storm began. Many in the covered grandstand attempted to remain in their seats to wait out the passing storm rather than walk to the parking lot in the rain. However, security officials yelled at fans to leave immediately, once again showing no common-sense regard for their welfare. It brought back memories of the overly officious attitude from officials during the 2010 series between New Zealand and Sri Lanka.
As special as the fan experience was on Saturday, Sunday's events left a sour taste in the mouth. The primary motivation for coming to Florida for so many was to be a part of history and witness India's first official bilateral T20I series on USA soil, but without that carrot dangling in front of them, things must improve significantly from an operational standpoint to encourage return customers.
"As long as the service is good and everything is organized, we are happy," Desai said. Asked if he'd pay the same price for tickets to come back next year, Desai made his feelings perfectly clear. "Hell no!"