Take a look at any of my previous posts and you’ll notice an obvious theme with the countries that I mention are competing in international cricket – they are all former British colonies. The Indian sub-continent the fabled jewel in the crown of the British Empire with it’s population of over a billion people is crazy about the sport! For the nation states of Oceania and Southern Africa, cricket is very much the number 1 summer game. Crossing the Atlantic, the Caribbean has always been a stronghold for cricket and even the Canadians now have their own T20 league that attracts some of the biggest names in the game. And yet, there remains one very obvious exception to this trend in the form of The United States of America.
Why is it that the game has never flourished in the land of the free and is there a place for cricket there in the future? These questions will be considered in the below post as well as a general tour of the history of cricket in the USA.
A question of class
As with large parts of the British Empire that have ended up adopting the sport of cricket, the game was initially brought to the shores of America by the social elite of England. In cities such as Philadelphia, Boston and New York, a number of cricket clubs were formed to serve the interests of the upper classes during the 2nd part of the 19th century. While cricket remained very popular amongst “old-money” on the East Coast, there seems to have been very little attempt to push the game out to the masses. This unwillingness to develop the game in America from the bottom-up can ultimately be seen as a contributing factor to crickets failure to establish a heavy presence in the country.
By contrast in countries such as India, with its strict caste system, the elite classes needn’t be as fearful of their position within society. Scholars have argued that as a result of this, the upper-classes were much more willing to introduce the sport amongst the masses and in fact that the British elite often liked to think that they had converted the Indian locals to their summer pastime in the same way that a missionary might spread religion.
This is an argument that I have heard on several occasions as to why cricket never took off in the States. In a nutshell, it suggests that in order to separate themselves from their previous rulers, the people of the new republic wanted to establish a sport that represented its independence from Britain. For America, that new sport (and a direct rival to cricket) was to be baseball, a game that was allegedly created by no less than a civil war hero by the name of Abner Doubleday. The 1907 Major League Baseball (MLB) commission stated that
However, there is now growing evidence that disputes the claims of the 1907 MLB commission and instead, multiple scholars now believe much of the Doubleday claims to be a myth propagated in the early 20th century to ensure that Baseball became established as the national past-time of America.
But was nationalism really the reason that cricket got edged out of daily sporting life in America?After all, games like golf and tennis which were also brought over by British immigrants have thrived on the other side of the Atlantic. Perhaps, instead of nationalism, it was simply the case that bat and ball games already existed in multiple parts of America that more closely resembled baseball than they did cricket. According to sport’s historian George Kirsch, these included games such as rounders, old cat and base which would all ultimately go on to be refined into the sport of baseball.
Is the sport of cricket compatible with the American psyche?
Maybe Americans just don’t like cricket and what they perceive it stands for. It would be interesting to do a simple word association or brainstorm around the word “cricket” and see what first springs to the minds of the Americans. My guess is most of them would initially think of a small grasshopper-like insect and even if you could get them past that and onto the sport itself the predominant view would probably be that cricket is “slow”, “complex” and “traditional”. There may even be those who would view the game as slightly “effeminate” in comparison to some other popular sports in North America. If you’re from North America and reading this blog, please feel free to let me know what first came to your mind when hearing the word cricket?
At this point, it’s also worth drawing back from casting too many assumptions based on national stereotypes. There are plenty of Englishmen who would also feel that the sport is boring or overly complicated and have no desire to watch or play it. However, you only have to watch a couple of US sports shows to realise that Americans have values that may not be compatible with cricket.
Bland white clothes – not likely to see any major US sports franchise turn up dressed like that!
Dull historical names like Middlesex – why not rebrand them as the London Cowboys?
Games that take 5 days to complete and still end up a draw – WTF?
In general, it has just been quite difficult to really sell the idea of cricket into the American market or at least that used to be the case……….
T20 Cricket and a chance of a new beginning
The introduction and rise of T20 cricket over the past couple of decades breaths fresh hope into the idea that America and other parts of the world that have yet to take to the game might now be ready to join the party.
T20 cricket ticks all the boxes to be a hit in America. It is fast, it is explosive, it brings a bit of colour and razzamatazz to its viewers. The players that compete in competitions such as the Indian Premier League (IPL) are modern athletes – their celebrity status is just as much a part of the excitement as their performances on the pitch. The IPL brand alone is already worth $6billion with that figure looking likely to grow as the tournament goes from strength to strength. Modern T20 franchises are replacing traditional cricket clubs all over the world and with them, they are bringing new exciting branding, colours and even cheerleaders to cricket venues. Instead of taking 5 days to complete, a match can now be over in less than 3 hours.
It’s also worth remembering that just from a sheer numbers point of view, the likes of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (all big players and watchers of cricket) are likely to see population booms over the next 20-30 years. Whether it’s from migration into countries such as America or just the general turning of the wheel of history that will see the likes of India flex its muscles on the global stage, it’s reasonable to believe that cricket could well find it’s way onto more American television sets in the near future.