Boston cricket team, 1850 © Getty Images
Boston cricket team, 1850 © Getty Images

The Beginnings of Cricket in America

The year is 1709, and significant events are about to take place, some of which would change the world, forever, and some, not so much.

- Bartolomeu de Gusmao, a Brazilian Jesuit presents a petition to King Joao V of Portugal seeking royal favour for his invention of an airship. To demonstrate the validity of his idea, he propels a ball to the roof of the court using combustion. The world’s first Hot Air Balloon successfully passes its test.

- British sailor Alexander Selkirk is rescued after being marooned on a desert island (Fernandez Island) for five years. Daniel Defoe romanticises his stay and the world literature gets one of its most unforgettable stories: Robinson Crusoe.

- Kent and Surrey play the first ever inter-county match in England.

- William Byrd of Westover, Virginia, and friends (and slaves, who ones suspects did most of the fielding) play the first recorded game of Cricket in America.

Let’s think about this again.

The first county match in England and the first cricket match in America were played in the very same year, 308 summers ago. That is a fact which one suspects would be enough to stagger even Mr Ripley while he was compiling his famous list!

It is even more astonishing when you realize that at the time the last figures were available (2014), there were 844,000 people playing cricket in England and Wales; in the United States, the corresponding number (2006 for which latest figures are available) was 30,000 (survey including people who watch cricket). To put that in context, that’s 1% of the population versus 0.01% of the population in the United States.

But it was not always so.

The first international cricket match ever played was between the United States of America and the British Empire’s Canadian Province on the grounds of the St George’s Club of New York on September 24 and 26, 1844 (bad weather prevented play on the 25th). The game was played for a $1,000 a side, but the bets on the match are said to have totalled $100,000. Given the value of the dollar 173 years ago, one assumes the game was accorded a certain importance by those involved if they bet the modern equivalent of $2 million on it.

USA won the toss and elected to field first. Canada scored 82 and USA could only make 63 in reply. In the second innings, Canada scored 64 leaving USA 84 to win the match. Unfortunately, the American batsmen could only make 58 in the second innings and Canada were worthy winners of the first international cricket match ever played.

The first international tour ever undertaken by an English cricket team was to the United States in 1859. The English team comprised William Caffyn, Tom Lockyer, HH Stephenson and Julius Caesar (all of Surrey), George Parr, James Grundy and John Jackson (Nottinghamshire), John Wisden and John Lillywhite (Sussex), Robert Carpenter, Thomas Hayward and Alfred Diver (Cambridgeshire) and Fred Lillywhite who acted as scorekeeper, historian and manager of the trip.

John Marder and Adrian Cole in Barclays World of Cricket described it:  “The little party of cricket pioneers travelled over 7,000 miles in two months to play five matches, a prodigious adventure in those mid-Victorian times. If this first tour had been followed up Test Matches between the United States and England might have followed in due course. The bitter Civil War which broke out in 1861 between the Northern and Southern States had many unforseen results, one of which was to establish baseball beyond all doubt as the national game of the United States. Before the war cricket was an established game and baseball was played more by students and children. The difficulties of getting proper cricket equipment and of marking and maintaining pitches were too great during the 4 years of war; it was easy to throw down 4 bags to mark bases and to play baseball on any ground available. Thousands of soldiers learned the game of baseball during the Civil War. When they returned to civil life the future of baseball was assured. With the ruinous war proceeding in America, the attention of English cricket tour organisers turned to Australia.”

What this tour did however was to make Philadelphia the centre of cricket in the United States. With the game’s popularity rising there, English XIs began to play there and good coaches from England arrived on American shores to train local teams. First-Class cricketers from England were attracted by the rising standards of cricket and the prospects of monetary benefit that accompanied such tours, even if not directly given the amateur status of many cricketers.

WG Grace sailed across the ocean in 1872 as a part of RA Fitzgerald’s amateur XI. His scores read:
- At New York vs XXII of St George’s Club: 68 and 11 wickets for 8 runs.
- At Philadelphia v XXII of Philadelphia: 14 and 7 and 20 wickets for 68 runs.
- At Boston v XXII of Boston: 26 and 13 wickets for 35 runs.

An American cricket manual: yes, cricket used to be that popular in 1873 © Getty Images
An American cricket manual: yes, cricket used to be that popular in 1873 © Getty Images

Cricket in the USA enters big leagues and then declines

In 1896, the Australian XI under Harry Trott played 3 matches against the Gentlemen of Philadelphia. They won the first 2 games but lost the last match by a huge margin of an innings and 99 runs. This emboldened the Philadelphians to undertake a First-Class tour of the mother country in 1897.

The 1897 tour was to bring American cricket to the forefront of the international game. The team beat Sussex and Warwickshire and drew with Somerset, Yorkshire, Notts and Oxford. Playing for the USA for the first time was a man named Bart King.

Bart King can justifiably be called the ‘King of Swing’ because he was arguably the first to master the art of swinging both the old and new ball at will. And with his six-feet-one height and long hands and strong shoulders, he was the perfect fast bowling specimen. It was said that he was the best-known American of his time in England. Given that in this he was competing with the Wright brothers and Buffalo Bill, that’s saying something about his fame. From 1893 to 1912 he was one of the most-feared bowlers in the world and in 1908 actually headed the First-Class English bowling averages.

Stuart Wark, writing in ESPNCricinfo, says: “The secret to Bart’s bowling success can be largely traced to his ability to swing the ball in both directions. While he was rated by his contemporaries as truly fast, his most dangerous ball was an inswinger. He referred to it as his ‘angler’ and he only used it rarely as he felt that the less batsmen saw it, the less chance there was for them to get used to it. His normal ball was an outswinger, but he commented that this merely increased the danger of his inswinger.

“It is said that Bart’s ability to swing the ball was developed as the result of his early years as a baseball pitcher. The unique component of his action was that in the final strides of his run, he held the ball above his head in both hands, much in the manner of baseball pitcher. In spite of this, there were never any claims that he threw, unlike some other fast bowlers of the day, and he was renowned for his very high and pure action.”

Plum Warner and KS Ranjitsinhji took teams to Philadelphia in 1897 and 1899 respectively, both with great success. The Philadelphia teams touring England in 1903 and 1908 played at a high level against the First-Class teams, but the popularity and standards of cricket in Philadelphia were declining. After 1908 they played no more First-Class cricket in England. An Australian XI, visiting the United States and Canada in 1913, lost to XII of Germantown CC by 2 wickets in a game which was virtually the last American First-Class match.

Bart King was undoubtedly the greatest cricketer in history of USA. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Bart King was undoubtedly the greatest cricketer in history of USA. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Induction into the ICC: Good beginning, quick decline

USA was admitted to ICC as an Associate member in 1965. USA Cricket Association (USACA) was formed the same year and became the national governing body for Cricket in the United States, with its headquarters at Miami Beach.

In 1979, there was a USA team at the first ICC Trophy. The team’s performances improved over the next 10 years or so. The reason however was more an influx of expatriate players from the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean, rather than the emergence of home grown talent.

The seminal moment of this phase of USA cricket came in 2004 when it won the Six Nations Challenge in Dubai and qualified for the Champions Trophy where it would play against 10 Test-playing nations and Kenya. These would be the first ODIs ever played by the USA. Historically speaking, given the old rivalry, the revenge was even sweeter because Canada lost all its 5 matches in the tournament.

Unfortunately, this was also the point where the United States was shown its place in the new world of cricket in no uncertain manner. One could say they were unlucky to be placed in a group with giants of the game, Australia and New Zealand. But being placed in a tough group is indeed the lot of minnows in major competitions.

In the first match at The Oval, New Zealand rattled up 347 for 5 after being put in to bat. Despite a gritty knock of 39 from 42-year-old former West Indian international Clayton Lambert, USA could only manage 137 in 42 overs.

Things would only get worse from here.

In the second match, Australia put the USA in to bat. The American innings this time would only last 24 overs and culminate with the score at 65. A third of these runs would be scored by Guyana-born Steve Massiah with 23. Michael Kasprowicz would run through the batting taking 4 for 14. Those two matches remain the first, and thus far last 2 ODIs played by the USA cricket team.

Since 2005, one controversy after another rocked the sport in the USA, with USACA being suspended from the ICC in 2005 and then again in 2015, before finally being expelled in 2017. With its governing body in a state of constant upheaval for various reasons, the sport has unsurprisingly suffered and been stuck in a dark tunnel of mediocrity.

But there is reason to believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel. It finally seems USA cricket may have turned the corner, with organised grassroots cricket on the rise, a new governing body to be put in place, and efforts on to build sustainable infrastructure including a robust coaching staff and systems, and potentially tournaments that could be a game changer.

In Part 2 we shall look at what is happening on the ground today, the efforts on to build that sustainable infrastructure and lay the strong foundations that are needed to bring USA back to the forefront of international cricket, and peer into the future of a sport in a country where success could be a potential game changer for sponsors and players alike.