Photo Courtesy: New York City Archives
Cananda won the match against USA by 23 runs in the first international match. Photo Courtesy: New York City Archives (Representational Photo)

September 24, 1844. The first ever International cricket match was played — between United States and Canada in New York. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the pioneering match curiously contested in a land famed for being cricket agnostic.

It was the first international cricket match ever played. And curiously, the setting for the historic occasion was not Lord’s or Oval or the great cricket grounds at Melbourne or Sydney. The match took place at the Bloomingdale Park in what is now a cricket agnostic New York City, in the Kips Bay neighbourhood at 31st Street and First Avenue in the heart of Manhattan. Only in those days, that part of Manhattan was still a rural area.

The year was 1844, and the showdown that has been acknowledged as the first ever Test match was still 33 years away. The United States of America not only saw the clash of two international cricket teams for the first time. The game that started on that September day is believed to be the first ever sporting contest of any kind involving rivals across international borders.

The mysterious invitation

However, it was not the first time the United States and Canadian cricketers met on the cricket field. There had been a rather intriguing match four years earlier, somewhat shrouded in mystery. But, it was more of an inter-club affair — and has gone down as such.

On a quiet day in late August, 1840, the handful of Canadian cricketers at the Toronto Cricket Club were more than surprised to find 18 American men from St George’s club lumbering into their arena, tired, hungry and almost penniless. They had no idea that the Americans were scheduled to visit them. It turned out that these men from St George’s Club had been invited by a mysterious Mr Phillpotts to take on the Toronto Cricket Club. However, this gentleman who had supposedly issued the invitation was nowhere to be found. It did not amuse the Americans who had crossed Lake Ontario by steamer after travelling across New York State on board a stage coach.

The Canadians could not turn these men back. They hosted them, allowed them to recover from their arduous journey, and hastily arranged a cricket match played on September 4 at Caer Howell, Toronto. Not only did the players of the club turn up on short notice, so did a fair number of spectators. A brass band performed with vim and vigour and the match was attended by Sir George Arthur, Governor of Upper Canada. The game was played on a stake of $250 per side.Fortified by hospitality, the New Yorkers bowled the hosts out for 52 and 54 and won by 10 wickets.

The interaction left many fond memories, and the Canadians were invited for a return match in New York. This time there was no hoax about the invitation. The match was billed as “United States of America versus the British Empire’s Canadian Province”.

The showdown

There are many who still raise their eyebrows at the claims of the match being international. The Canadians were ostensibly a representative side, but most of the players were from the Toronto Cricket Club. So, although the USA side consisted of cricketers across clubs of Philadelphia, Boston, Washington DC apart from New York, the ‘international’ status remained dubious.

Cricket remained popular in America through the 1850 but it did not manage to survive the American Civil War that started in 1861. Photo Courtesy: USEmbassy.gov (Representational pic)
Cricket remained popular in America through the 1850 but it did not manage to survive the American Civil War that started in 1861. Photo Courtesy: USEmbassy.gov (Representational pic)

The stakes were as much as $1000 this time, and the match was scheduled for two days — September 24 and September 25. The Canadians arrived after a long haul up the St Lawrence river and across Lake Ontario on boat and then a rather primitive train connection to New York. With no arrangement for a pantry, the cricketers ate by buying food hastily from the various stations.

The match generated more than a fair amount of interest. The crowd that gathered numbered in excess of 5000 and the bets placed amounted to around $100,000. The sides took the field at 11:40 am, about 100 minutes after the scheduled start, for no apparent reason other than lassitude. However, the spectators, busy with placing their bets, were not complaining.

Canada batted on a wicket that was rather treacherous — as was customary in that era. They managed 82, helped along by some poor fielding by the Americans. The Yorkshire-born Sam Wright, father of four Wright brothers who later excelled in cricket and baseball, captured five wickets. David Winckworth top scored for Canada with 12, alongside a cricketer simply known as Freeling. Winckworth,who later moved to Detroit and turned out for USA in 1946, is the first man to represent two countries in cricket.

The hosts batted after a rather long lunch break, and ended the day at 61 for 9. The next day was washed out by rain, and the match resumed on September 26.

The United States took field when their innings ended after just three more runs had been added to the overnight score. However, they were faced with a problem in addition to the 18-run deficit. George Wheatcroft, the batsman who batted at No 3, had not turned up on the third day. Alfred Marsh substituted for him on the field.

Winckworth, who was also the joint top wicket-taker in the first innings with four scalps, now opened the innings and was once again the top-scorer with 14. Henry Groom and Wright got among the wickets for the hosts and the second innings amounted to 63. The home side required 82 to win. But, Wheatcroft had still not arrived.

James Turner and John Syme did give indications that he would not be needed, adding 25 for the first wicket with some confident hitting. But, George Sharpe was introduced into the attack and soon wickets tumbled and the score slumped to 36 for 6. Fifteen runs were added for the seventh wicket, but Sharpe finished with six wickets and the US innings came to an end at 58 for 9 with Wheatcroft absent.

The absconding batsman finally strolled in 20 minutes after the fall of the last wicket, and the Americans tried to resume the match at 58 for 9. Strong words were exchanged, but the Canadians stuck to their stance that a match could not be restarted after it had been declared over. The game ended in a 23 run win for the visitors.

Of head-butting batsmen and Civil Wars

Canada went on to win the next two matches between the countries, beating USA by 61 runs in Montreal in July, 1845, and then by two wickets in New York in August that same year.

A year later, in August 1846, the sides met in Harlem, at the Red House Cricket Ground in Harlem. Once again Groom picked up six wickets, and Canada were dismissed for a meagre 28. In response Sharpe captured seven, but Winckworth, now playing for USA, top scored with 10, and the hosts ended their innings at 57. After this, pandemonium broke loose when Canada batted the second time.

At 13 for 2, John Helliwell hit the ball from Sam Dudson into the air. For some reason the Canadian batsman thought he could charge into the bowler and prevent him from catching the ball. He knocked Dudson to the ground, but the bowler had clutched on to the ball. On getting up, Dudson ran after Helliwell and threw the ball at him. He was restrained by his teammates, and apologised to the batsman. However, the visitors refused to continue with the game. Bell’s Life stated that Canada had forfeited the match.The ensuing bad blood meant that the fixture was not played for seven years.

Cricket remained popular in America through the 1850s, and laid strong claims to being the number one sport in the country. However, it did not manage to survive the American Civil War that started in 1861. When the War ended, it did not regain the popularity it once enjoyed.

Brief Scores:

Canada 82 (Sam Wright 5 wickets) and 63 (Henry Groom 5 wickets, Sam Wright 4 wickets) beat USA 64 (David Winckworth 4 wickets, Fred French 4 wickets) and 58 (George Sharpe 6 wickets) by 23 runs.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry.He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)