I once had a theory that cricket was no longer played in the United States because Americans weren’t good at it, but I have since learned about Bart King, who is one of the world’s best cricketeers. Yet, no one has heard of him. Bart King provides an excellent analogy for US cricket culture, which has been driven underground by other sports.
Cricket was played in the North American British Colonies by at least the beginning of the 18th century. The earliest definite reference to American cricket is in the 1709 diaries of William Byrd of Westover about matches on his James River estates in Virginia. The game was so popular that the troops at Valley Forge played matches with George Washington participating in at least one game of “wicket.” Not sure if I can really mention Thomas Jefferson’s digs at Williamsburg, but they had a cricket bat there. That led to me explaining how to play cricket to the docents!
US cricket culture is best described by this quote from an Article on King from the Guardian:
Nowadays, as everyone knows, Americans don’t play cricket. The surprise is that until well into the 20th century, they not only played cricket, but played it almost to test match standard. Until baseball overwhelmed it less than 100 years ago, cricket was America’s most widely played team game. It thrived, especially in the Philadelphia area, where more than 120 clubs existed at various times. In 1905, more than 400 matches were played in Philadelphia in a single season. Almost all the players were American, and King was the best.
On three occasions before the first world war, Philadelphia was strong enough to mount first-class tours of England – playing and beating county sides. There was talk of the US becoming the fourth test match-playing nation, although that prize went to the West Indies. As late as 1912, Philadelphia defeated an Australian test team by two runs. King, then 39, took nine for 78 in the match with his fast inswing. After two decades in the game he still reigned as Philadelphia’s king of swing.
Within a generation, cricket in the US had all but collapsed. One or two Wasp schools and colleges on the east coast continued to play. Touring sides occasionally crossed the Atlantic to play knockabout cricket at club level, as they still do today. In Hollywood, a team which boasted Errol Flynn as opening batsman and Boris Karloff as wicketkeeper, kept going into the 40s. But America’s years as a cricket power were over, never to return.
Cricket’s status in the US may be changing as more people move to the US from the West Indies, Pakistan, India, and other nations where there is a cricket culture. I remember writing to ESPN in the 1980s and asking why they didn’t cover a sport which is immensely popular throughout the world only to be told there wasn’t any interest. This was about the time that an international cricket magazine did an article about Philadelphia’s cricket culture.
The status of cricket has changed somewhat in the US and ESPN now has Cricinfo as part of its sports empire. Even better, the Sports Authority sells cricket equipment! While the gear for playing cricket is expensive, one can find inexpensive equipment on eBay, or used.
There was even a professional cricket league called Pro Cricket which was formed in 2004 with eight geographically distributed teams organized in two divisions. Most teams used minor league baseball parks as home fields during that first and only year of league operation. However, with the absence of adequate revenue the league closed at the end of the 2004 season.
Perhaps, the real reason that cricket fell to the wayside is not that there were no good US players, but that the sport takes a long time to play if one gets into serious cricket. Test matches can last several days. This is a game where winning streaks are measured in centuries. That is something which does not go well with a society where leisure is not valued.
Of course, there are the limited over games which can allow for something which is more inline with US culture. One can have a one day cricket match. Commentator Robert Waller predicted that cricket “had taken so deep a root in Philadelphia that it could never be uprooted”. While cricket may not be the main focus of the remaining Philadelphia cricket clubs, they still exist.
Cricket has not died in the US and the fact that there is even a cricket underground means the sport still has some popularity, but it may be a while before people start saying “as American as Cricket.”
- Bart King – cricket’s forgotten giant | Sport | The Guardian
- Bart King | United States of America Cricket | Cricket Players and Officials | ESPN Cricinfo
- The C. C. Morris Cricket Library – Famous Cricketers – Bart King
- History of United States cricket – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- Haverford College – The C. C. Morris Cricket Library and Collection
- Philadelphia Cricket League
- Philadelphia International Cricket Festival
- How’s that? Cricket’s quest to grow in America takes root in Philadelphia
- Sports Authority online Cricket store
- ESPN Cricinfo