History of cricket in the USA: The empire’s favourite sport was once in its biggest colony

Since it predates baseball, cricket was once the national game of the United States of America.

History of cricket in the USA: The empire’s favourite sport was once in its biggest colony
Updated: August 15, 2019 11:21 AM IST | Edited By: Jamie Alter

The late Robin Williams, the star of Mrs. Doubtfire and Jumanji, was a renowned entertainer with a sharp sense of wit about him. There was one off the cuff remark he made that caught my eye: "cricket is basically baseball on Valium."

You don't need to know Valium or its side-effects to understand that it was no compliment to the sport.

In fact, it is how most Americans see cricket as an archaic distant cousin of its beloved all-American sport baseball.

They see cricket as an aberration of bat to ball sports, one that is stuck in time in gentlemanly whites, played by the same haggard individuals who age, but age slowly just as the game does age its way across five days with no end in sight. For the American eye, that stereotypes all cricket to the test cricket of the early 20th century, they perceive the sport to be lacking the panache, the pyrotechnics and the pulsating action of the NBA, the NFL and to an extent the MLB.

The game is steeped in British antiquity of breaking for tea and yet one that is very confusing to the untrained eye to be learned as you watch along. Ergo, it has been an exercise in futility to get more Americans into the sport and see the USA excel from the abyss of Associates status to the elite upper echelons of the sport.

The minority of cricket watchers and participants remain largely restricted to South Asian and Caribbean expats and diaspora across the coasts.

Boston cricket team The Boston cricket team, circa 1850 Getty

Baseball is America's national sport, but many would be 'stumped' to know that cricket was once its national pastime. In fact, since it predates baseball, cricket was once the national game of the United States of America.

Cricket dates back as early as the 13th century in some form, perhaps somewhere around the Norman-Saxon era between the 11th to the 16th century across English villages. It was one of the British empire's finest exports, one where the British royalists saw the spread of the sport as a way of getting their colonies to acquiesce to the crown. Surely, one of the largest, oldest colonies of the empire, the 13 original colonies of the United States, wouldn't have escaped this fine quintessential English etiquette?

As the Ashes commenced in England, most cricket tragics (a term for die hard cricket fans in Australia) would point to the MCG Test match of 1877 as the first ever cricket match. However, here's an interesting googly the earliest international cricket match was played in 1844 between the United States and Canada- two countries today, where the sport barely has life support to stand on.

In fact, this sporting event even predates the revival of the Olympic Games by more than 50 years and was well over a hundred years before India and Pakistan, bastions of the sport, gained their independence.

USA bags ODI status The USA cricket team celebrates attaining ODI status in Namibia (Image: @usacricket)

Fascinatingly, the US had more than just a dalliance with the game, it was a long affair that even preceded the American independence of 1776. History notes that Benjamin Franklin brought back from England, a copy of the 1744 Laws, cricket's official rule book.

There are apocryphal tales to America's other founding fathers and cricket. First president, George Washington's troops played what they called "wickets" in 1778. Its second President John Adams once referenced cricket clubs in a speech and a 1786 advertisement for cricket equipment appeared in the New York Independent Journal. And arguably America's most seminal and influential President, Abraham Lincoln reportedly turned out to watch Chicago play Milwaukee in 1849 in, yes, cricket.

The sport had germinated interest with an estimated 10,000 Americans playing the game, and many more were watching. Philadelphia, a city, that is synonymous with the Declaration of Independence was the fortress of American cricket. In 1878, reports state that nearly 15,000 people in Philadelphia watched the local team hold a formidable Australian side to a stalemate. And little over a decade later, the local Philadelphia team pipped the Australians.

The city produced J Barton King (also known as Bart King), the greatest American cricketer. His accolades against England on a 1908 tour saw him acquire bowling records that stood the test for four decades. So fine were his exploits, he even earned the lavish praise of Plum Warner (former English cricketer and team manager during the infamous Bodyline series) and the legendary Don Bradman.

Bart King was hailed by Don Bradman as the greatest cricketing son of America.

A city now known for Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA and for the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL once had over a 100 cricket clubs. Cricket historians attest that each neighbourhood in the old city had a cricket team. Today, Pennsylvania's Haverford College is the only American university to have a university cricket team.

So how did the sport wither away? How did the USA, which already had a good historical grounding, 'run itself out' of cricketing contention? Some may point to the concurrent rise of baseball, which began to gain popularity in 1870s, as baseball clubs, players and spectators began to rise.

Baseball's origins remain uncertain, with a few sport historians pointing to its evolution from rounders, a game played in Britain and Australia. Many see some sort of Darwinian evolution of baseball from cricket. The bat-ball component, pitchers being analogous to bowlers, batters with batsman and the catcher with the keeper. There are runs and catches and the term pinch hitter is prevalent to both. Of course, the ardent cricket connoisseur would be offended to assume the Darwinian evolution of baseball from cricket, would imply that the former is a more sophisticated version.

Cricket's image has been rechristened and recreated many times over from the sport of English nobleman to one where an erstwhile colony, India, now occupies the pantheon of cricketing powerhouses.

USA Cricket, ICC, India, Pakistan A cab driver of Pakistan origin plays cricket in New York. Getty

The sport faces a lot of challenges today, it's watched by millions and played across 92 countries, but only a dozen have elite test status. According to the Netflix's cricket documentary, Death of a Gentleman, the game is certainly contracting due to monopolistic mismanagement. Can the ICC actually confidently state that cricket is growing in an era, where the US and China, the two most powerful geopolitical and economic entities, find themselves non-participants in the sport?

Yes, it will be a herculean task to proselytise 300 million American citizens to cricket. But America epitomises the land of opportunity, the land of possibility, the land of new ventures, where the untried and the untested both find new success stories on its shores. The second beauty of America is that it is a sport crazy nation that is synonymous and pioneered the concepts of sports marketing, large endorsements, mammoth stadiums, cheerleaders, television rights and faster action.

On this rare occasion, if cricket could be made spicier for the American sports palette think IPL and other T20 leagues, then the money could pour in. And lastly, it is evinced that there is enough share of the pie. One doesn't need a PAN-cricket crazy nation such as India to grow the sport. The US has split its sporting airtime, budgets, fans and athletes largely across the NFL, the NBA, the NHL, and the MLB. Why even soccer, tennis and aspiring race car drivers find their earliest moorings in the US.

In August 2019, India took on the West Indies in Florida for two T20 internationals. Currently, that is the only cricket ground in all fifty states that meets the ICC standards. There are smaller cricket grounds across the states of Texas, California and Indiana. Presently, the cricket watching and playing audiences is close to 30,000, a woeful 0.0001 percent of the population.

Central Broward Regional Park Florida's Central Broward Regional Park has hosted 10 T20Is. @Getty

But America has shown in the past, if there is interest, there is money and when there is money, well, safe to say the possibilities are limitless. The former New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg in 2005 had announced plans to build a $1.5 million cricket pitch at St. Albans Park, Queens. The historic Philadelphia cricket club routinely competes against other cricket clubs and Atlanta, has seen an increase to 23 cricket teams with close to 400 players involved.

Cricket may not bowl out its ugly distant cousin, baseball, anytime soon, but it could certainly raise investment opportunities with budding interest. On a final note, apropos to Robin William's cheeky dig at cricket, us cricket connoisseurs, often love to chide our baseball loving friends with one particular phrase. It's an axiom that goes well explaining cricket and yet why cricket is slightly a 'hit' above baseball, it goes like "don't forget, cricket is just like baseball, for those who have brains".

Now, that's one mean curveball!