Cricket returns to its roots in the US

The game predates baseball in America

By Chidanand Rajghatta

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Published: Wed 25 May 2022, 9:32 PM

Outside of some eight (and later ten and now 12) Test-cricket playing nations, cricket got its first expat exposure in the Gulf in the 1980s. Till late in the century, India, Pakistan, and occasionally other cricketing majors like Australia and England, played rousing one-dayers in Sharjah, watched by passionate expats and a growing television audience. The fervour was extinguished by alleged betting scandals, and Sharjah lost its lustre. Although cricket has returned to the Gulf via the Indian Premier League (IPL) and the region’s own rise as a cricketing force — powered by many expat players — it has not been able to recapture the glory days of international cricket despite being a “home” base for Pakistan during its troubled times.

It now appears that America has set out to do what the Gulf region could and should have done: Fashion an international cricket league for expats from South Asia (and the Caribbean) on the lines of the IPL, which has its own imitators now in most major cricketing nations. A cohort of Indian-American expats, led by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen is investing more than $120 million to bring T20 cricket to America in the US version of the IPL.

The announcement came last week from Major League Cricket (MLC), the first professional T20 cricket league in America, which said the funding will be used to develop premier cricket-specific stadia and training centres in eight US cities, including New York, Washington DC, Seattle, San Jose, and Houston, to kickstart a world-class six-team T20 league, possibly as early as 2023. Incidentally, the United States is slated to co-host the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup alongside the West Indies in 2024. India has also played the West Indies in T20 internationals in Fort Lauderdale in Florida in recent years.

Those who believe America’s national sport is baseball (or basketball or the erroneously-named “football) will be surprised to know that cricket predates baseball in America. Colonial Britain brought it to America, just as it did to the Indian sub-continent and a few Commonwealth countries.

Historic references to cricket in the United States include games in Georgia in 1737 and in Baltimore in 1754, the same year Benjamin Franklin brought a printed copy of cricket rules of play home to the Colonies, almost 100 years before the first book of baseball rules was published.

Indeed, many of America’s Founding Fathers were known to be cricket aficionados. Cricket historians say there was even a reference to the game in the 1776 debate in Independence Hall, when John Adams argued against the chief executive of the new country being called “President,” saying “Fire brigades and cricket clubs have presidents.” So Americans were hitting fours and sixes long before they were hitting home runs.

In fact, the first-ever international cricket match involved, not the Brits and Aussies as you’d think, but — hold your breath here — Americans and Canadians. It was a game played between the US and Canada in 1844 at the St George’s Cricket Club in New York, watched by more than 10,000 spectators. Canada won by 24 runs. Some historians say this USA vs. Canada cricket match is the oldest international sporting event in the modern world, predating even the modern Olympics by nearly 50 years.

Certainly, cricket flourished in the US in the 19th century. Founded in 1854, the Philadelphia Cricket Club god-fathered the American Lawn Tennis Association in 1881 and even hosted the National Women’s Tennis Championship till 1921 when it was moved to Forest Hills, New York. Similar clubs existed on the West Coast, especially in the Pacific Northwest, where American colonial descendants often played against their cousins from Vancouver and Victoria in Canada’s British Columbia province, now home to the largest concentration of people of Indian origin in North America — large enough, in fact, to once elect an Indian-origin person (Ujjal Dosanjh) as the Premier. In fact, the game was so popular in the region that the City of Seattle, south of the border in America, fearing their residents were being ‘’Canadianized,’’ issued an ordinance in 1923 that explicitly forbade “the playing of cricket in Seattle parks without the express permission of the City Council.’’ So there is delicious irony in the fact that Microsoft’s Satya Nadella is the lead in bringing big-ticket cricket back to America.

While the game faded away from the United States in the 1900s, Canada hung on to it, although its cold weather tilted it towards ice hockey as a national sport. In fact, for a brief five years starting mid-1990s, as the sun set on cricket in Sharjah, India and Pakistan travelled to Toronto in early fall each year to play a series of five one-dayers spread over two weekends. More than 10,000 expats from the sub-continent who lived in America would drive or fly to Canada to see the games, taking in a side-trip to Niagara Falls in the process.

That expat population, which was only a couple of million then, has expanded to more than five million now, and if you include expats from the Caribbean/West Indies, there is now a substantial market for cricket in America — even if American nativists remain cold to the game. One can’t help feeling though that the Gulf region could have beaten America to an international cricket league nearer the true home of cricket — the Indian subcontinent.

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