A few days ago, I opened up the Chicago Tribune to see this nice story about games of cricket taking place in the Chicago suburbs, which is not a rare occurrence in most South Asian communities. Yet, as I did some research, I found that cricket has an interesting history in the United States that extends far back before the South Asian diaspora. After all the United States was a British colony as well. A disclaimer here: I am proud to say I have a reasonable knowledge of cricket and am a devoted Cricinfo reader, but I can't say I know cricket as well as, say, the NBA, and thus, I'm sure many of you will know more about cricket in America than I do - please do contribute your knowledge on the subject. Cricket in the United States extends back as far as the 18th century. This great Smithsonian article speaks of some of the earliest recorded history of cricket in the states:
In a diary he kept between 1709 and 1712, William Byrd, owner of the Virginia plantation Westover, noted, "I rose at 6 o'clock and read a chapter in Hebrew. About 10 o'clock Dr. Blair, and Major and Captain Harrison came to see us. After I had given them a glass of sack we played cricket. I ate boiled beef for my dinner. Then we played at shooting with arrows...and went to cricket again till dark."Evidently, spending large portions of the day playing and following cricket is a practice as old as the British Empire itself. Not only that, but the Smithsonian has uncovered some Revolutionary Hero interest in cricket:
The rules of the game on this side of the Atlantic were formalized in 1754, when Benjamin Franklin brought back from England a copy of the 1744 Laws, cricket’s official rule book. There is anecdotal evidence that George Washington's troops played what they called "wickets" at Valley Forge in the summer of 1778. After the Revolution, a 1786 advertisement for cricket equipment appeared in the New York Independent Journal, and newspaper reports of that time frequently mention "young gentlemen" and "men of fashion" taking up the sport. Indeed, the game came up in the debate over what to call the new nation's head of state: John Adams noted disapprovingly—and futilely—that "there are presidents of fire companies and cricket clubs."Disregarding John Adams' chronic moodiness, cricket continued to have a strong presence in the U.S. throughout the 19th century. The first ever international cricket match was held in the U.S., a match between the U.S. and Canada in 1844, in Bloomingdale, New York. The considerable national interest in this game was evident, as 20,000 spectators attended and the equivalent of 1.5 million 2007 dollars were wagered on the match. The United States set a telling precedent in the match, however, losing by 23 runs. As the 19th century neared its end, baseball began to take precedence, and with that, the primacy of cricket in America's sporting interests neared its end. One place, however, where cricket was still going strong was in the city of Philadelphia. The Philadelphian Cricket Team carried the mantle as the last remaining bastion of professional cricketing in the U.S., and frequently toured England and Australia, playing against some of the best cricketers in the world. A sign of the declining influence of the sport in America was that the American team consisted of "gentleman" players that had sources of wealth that allowed them to play cricket at no salary. The team had on it the best American cricket player in our national history, Bart King. King was quite the guy:
King was a skilled batsman, but proved his worth as a bowler. During his career, he set numerous records in North America and led the first-class bowling averages in England in 1908. He successfully competed against the best cricketers from England and Australia. King was the dominant bowler on his team when it toured England in 1897, 1903, and 1908. He dismissed batsmen with his unique delivery, which he called the "angler," and helped develop the art of swing bowling in the sport. Many of the great bowlers of today still use the strategies and techniques that he developed. Sir Pelham Warner described Bart King as one of the finest bowlers of all time, and Donald Bradman called him "America's greatest cricketing son."
Bart King and his generation of extraordinary American cricketers could not live forever, though, and baseball only continued to gain in popularity throughout the country. As the 1910's came to a close, the Philadelphian cricket team played its last game. Cricket in the U.S. became increasingly harder to sustain when the Imperial Cricket Conference was created, excluding non-British Empire members.
5 decades later, the Imperial Cricket Conference became the International Cricket Council (Conference), as we currently know it. The U.S. was admitted to the ICC as an associate member, and the wave of South Asian and West Indian immigrants throughout the 1970's and 1980's contributed to a resurgence in the game throughout the states. According to the Smithsonian, 30,000 people now currently play or watch cricket in the U.S. each year.
Despite an influx of cricket-loving immigrants and acceptance as an associate member to the ICC, the United States has had a rough time creating a cricket infrastructure and competing on an international stage. The U.S. team has never qualified for the World Cup, though it has done reasonably well in the ICC America's Competition, winning once in 2002. The one time it seemed to be doing quite well in international competition against respectable foes, in the 1994 ICC Trophy competition, the U.S. flew home early because they thought they would lose, and thus could never have known how far they would have advanced.
This loss is symbolic of the troubles organized cricket in the U.S. has faced in modern times. The United States Cricket Association (USACA) recently faced a constitutional crisis that showcased "considerable strain" between cricketers from the West Indies and those from South Asia. This oft-mismanaged organization has at times fiercely opposed programs such as Major League Cricket (MLC). Ambitious ventures to introduce professional cricket to the United States, including Pro Cricket and the MLC, have unceremoniously disappeared.
There are more than a few bright spots, however, in the modern American cricket universe. The American youth teams, filled with desi players, have been very successful as of late, and help in developing youth cricket throughout the U.S. has come from some unlikely sources. The New York City Public Schools and the New York Police Department have both recently created popular and well-run initiatives that have increased cricket's visibility in NYC and across the country. Haverford College in Philadelphia, has continued playing cricket from the glory days of Philadelphia cricket up to this day. (They currently have the only varsity cricket team in the U.S.) The C.C. Morris Cricket Library at Haverford is said to be largest collection of cricket-related literature and materials in the Western Hemisphere.
For all its highs and lows, an interesting question to consider is whether cricket is destined to be a sport forever played in the United States by those from the British Colonial diaspora, or one with wide-reaching national appeal. Personally, as an enthusiastic cricket fan, I've often tried to share the joys of cricket with my many non-desi friends and have met with limited success. The long pace of cricket (and the inevitable comparison to that fast-paced game of instant gratification, baseball), do not hold the same tantalizing appeal for youth who have not grown up in a culture in which cricket is the preeminent sport. The shorter format of twenty20 could possibly change these circumstances, as might the eventual rise to international prominence of our current impressive youth teams. What do you feel the future potential for cricket is in the United States? Seeing just about everyone in the country (including this blog) gripped with Olympics fever, I know that Cricket as an Olympic Sport in a future Olympics, possibly this one, could certainly help with the sport's rise in America.