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Had it not been for the civil war, Americans might still play cricket

America’s first sport

James Astill, The Economist’s Washington correspondent, argues that Americans might still be playing cricket, had it not been for the civil war

James Astill, The Economist’s Washington correspondent, argues that Americans might still be playing cricket, had it not been for the civil war

James Astill | August/September 2016

When the removal van parked outside our new home in Maryland last summer, my six-year-old son and I grabbed bat, ball and stumps and ran. On my sixth foreign posting, I found packing and unpacking more tedious than ever; my son had already worked out where the practice pitch should be. There was a patch of common ground next to the house – the meadow, we called it – which was flat and grassy enough for cricket.

An hour or so later, and despite the sticky heat and clouds of tiny biting flies, we were still playing; so was one of the removal men. He had seen some Indians in his neighbourhood play our game, he said, and had often wondered about it. Patiently, but not without a certain smugness, we tried to amend his knock-kneed, big-swinging baseball stance. It might be good for hitting a fastball, with its roughly predictable height and trajectory; but in cricket, the ball is smaller, heavier and, because played off the pitch, less predictable in pace, height and angle. That calls for a more awkward, technical stroke, played with the bat perpendicular to the ground. Though we admired the removal man’s easier cudgelling swing, it was gratifying that he could not manage to lay bat on ball.

Cricket’s technical complexities make it especially delightful to its fans, and rewarding to coach. I learned my method from a Gujarati friend, Arvind Pujara, who, by tossing hundreds of balls a day to his son, Cheteshwar, helped him become one of the world’s best batsmen. My son does not need to reach anything like those heights for our practice to be deeply satisfying; in fact, Arvind swears he was always motivated by simple love of watching his son play, not by the prospect of the enormous wealth he has since made from the game. I find that easy to believe. To see confidence flood into my son’s driving off the front foot (Arvind says to forget about back-foot play for now) is an experience as good, I think, as fatherhood can get.

But there is another pleasure to our practice, and that is the reaction it draws from the dog walkers who cut across the pitch. Occasionally one gives a murmur of recognition but most have no idea what our game is. In one of America’s more cosmopolitan suburbs, this is astonishing: cricket is not only the world’s most popular game of bat and ball, but it also has a long history in America.

It was America’s first organised sport, played in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and elsewhere for much of the 18th and 19th centuries. The earliest surviving report of a public cricket match in America tells of an encounter between a New York XI and a London XI in 1751. Three years later, the game’s laws were formalised in America, after Benjamin Franklin, a keen cricket fan, brought a copy of them back from England.

America’s cricketers were for the most part well-heeled and Anglophile, yet they could gather a crowd. Cricket’s first international contest, a match between America and Canada in New York in 1844, was watched by an estimated 20,000 people. It was not until the civil war, when the army of the North spread baseball through its ranks, that this younger, simpler, more intuitive game clearly superseded cricket in America’s sporting affection. After that, cricket’s demise was steep.

Philadelphia once had 100 cricket clubs; by around 1910 almost all had folded. Politics probably had a hand in that, albeit to a much lesser degree than in Ireland, where cricket was violently extinguished by nationalists around the same time. Some Americans considered baseball best because it was home-grown. “It’s our game,” Walt Whitman said of it. “That’s the chief fact in connection with it: America’s game.”

Yet that preference was typically based on an idea of America as a dynamic, thrusting place, which baseball reflected better than the leisurely cricket of the time; baseball captured the “snap, go, fling of the American atmosphere,” Whitman said. The result, in an introspective country with a genius for mythologising its culture, was a surging national enthusiasm for baseball that exterminated all rivals.

There is a surviving tradition of cricket-writing from America; but it tends to focus on the game’s absence, sometimes in ways that are revealing of other national peculiarities. One historian describes the cricket played by West Indian immigrants to New York, before the civil-rights movement, as a protest against the racism that then pervaded American sport.

My practices with my son, it pains me to acknowledge, have become tinged with protest too. For six months or so, he loved them, and for more than the joy of laying bat on ball. Like generations of cricketing exiles to America, he found in the game’s unappreciated excellence a way to feel confident about his own sense of unbelonging. But that feeling is fading with his English accent. He likes his school and he likes his classmates much better now. He is less into cricket and even wonders if he might prefer baseball. At least he is happy.

Readers' comment

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Etienne Leroux - July 21st 2016

We Americans are often known for (upbraided for?) our grandiloquence and cultural self-satisfaction. Both are on display in the National Pastime; the former in the name World Series (many a Commonwealther has smugly noted to me the fatuousness of claiming a World Series in a sport that is only played in North America [they ignore Asia and the Caribbean]) and the latter in our total lack of interest in other games played around the world, most notably soccer (the nascent soccer community here is but the tiniest of minorities). As a fan of cricket who came to appreciate the sport through learning about the history of baseball, it struck me how American grandiosity and provincialism are proportionally complemented by Commonwealth anxiety and numerical aphasia. While Americans don't even think about cricket, it seems that the cricket fans I've met have bent over backwards to point out the superiority of cricket, often invoking, as the author does here, erroneous claims about the nature of baseball: e.g. baseball is simple (go read Men at Work or anything on sabermetrics, or just watch a good game with a knowledgeable fan, the ever-evolving variables and complexity will fairly put paid to such claims); cricket is the world's most popular bat-and-ball sport, and baseball is only really popular in a handful of (implication: largely insignificant) countries (US, Canada, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico, that makes 11; now UK, Ireland, South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand, that makes 12). My point is, the anxiety of the claimants is often betrayed in the hyperbole of the statements. This is what makes this American fan of, first and foremost, baseball and, additionally, cricket, roll his eyes. If cricket is so great, so infinitely superior to baseball, then I recommend taking a page from us Americans: act like it is, and drop the anxiety. Summarily ignore baseball. Going out of one's way to prop up one sport at the expense of another merely contributes to the notion, widespread among Americans, of cricket's marginality.