Picture this: it’s 1992 and you’re a tourist in some quaint and picturesque English village. It’s a midsummer’s day and you’re snoozing in your deck chair, basking in the late afternoon sun. The distant ‘clunk’ of a leather ball meeting a willow blade is followed by a smattering of polite applause. You open your eyes and see a number of white clad figures walking off the smooth greensward and disappearing into the wooden pavilion, prettily framed by oak and elm. After six hours of play the game is over.

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And now picture this: it’s 2012 and you’re ears are bombarded by the shouts and screams of 50,000 fans as techno music thuds and blares through the cacophony. Down below, cheerleaders are jumping up and down as a man in orange and purple clothing has just slammed a white ball out of the stadium while the men in pink and blue stand around in disbelief knowing they’ve lost the game that began a mere three hours prior.

Cricket has changed and cricket is catching on. More and more countries around the world are starting to play a game that was once only the province of the British Empire and later the Commonwealth. It used to be just Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Pakistan and the West Indies. Now over 100 countries play the game. Recent newcomers include Sri Lanka, Canada, Holland, Afghanistan, Angola, France, Italy, Bangla Desh and China. The Chinese government has stated they want to be the world’s number one in cricket by 2020.

Cricket has changed and cricket is catching on. More and more countries around the world are starting to play a game that was once only the province of the British Empire and later the Commonwealth.

As they participate in the increasingly interconnected global marketplace more and more people are settling in ‘foreign’ countries bringing the customs of their country of origin to their new homelands. To wit, in America literally millions of ex-pats from Asia, Europe and the Antipodes watch live games from around the world on their TVs and laptops. America is now considered the second biggest commercial market in the world for cricket fans. Yet 99% of Americans are unaware that thousands of games of cricket are played across the country in every major city, every weekend, for at least six months of the year.

Ask Americans about cricket and they’ll say it’s slow and goes on forever! But frankly that is now an outdated myth. It’s true that a Test Match between two countries can last for five days and even then may end in a draw. Each day consists of six hours of play interrupted only by lunch and tea breaks. But the game has changed dramatically since the unfinished 13 day Test Match between England and Australia in 1939!

About forty years ago, realizing that cricket was in danger of losing its audience as young people turned to speed and instant gratification, administrators created the one day version of the game. About ten years ago, much to the horror of traditionalists and cricket connoisseurs, the game was catapulted into the 21st century with the advent of 20/20, a three hour version of cricket where each team is limited to facing only 120 balls (pitches). The winner being the team that makes the most runs.

Almost overnight the traditional garb of all white was replaced by bright, multi-colored clothes, the red ball changed to white, cheerleaders and loud music and night games under floodlights became the backdrop for the modern game. Players’ salaries rocketed into the millions and young people around the world became enthralled by this three hour version of the game that calls for batsmen to hit the ball out of the park as often and as quickly as possible. The purists were outraged. This was not cricket! This was a slug fest that threatened to turn cricket into a circus of frivolity!

But 20/20 is here to stay, and might just be the format that captures the American imagination. Compared to a three hour baseball game it is actually twice as action packed and offers non stop drama and thrills. In cricket a six is the equivalent of a home run in baseball. Baseball fans are thrilled when a player gets three home runs in a game or their team hits five over the course of nine innings. A few weeks ago the young South African rookie, Richard Levi, hit 13 sixes on his way to a world record fastest century. He blazed 100 runs while facing only 45 balls (pitches) – certainly not pedestrian!

A cricket field is a large oval which can measure as much as 150 x 175 yards. The action takes place on a 22 yard strip in the center of the oval. Unlike baseball the batsman can hit in a 360 degree arc. Batsmen have employed the same established hitting techniques for centuries but, with the advent of 20/20, new and inventive ways of scoring runs have emerged. The ‘dilscoop’ is where the batsman uses the velocity of a ball traveling at 90 miles an hour, and bouncing three feet in front of him, to flick that ball over his head, and the head of the wicketkeeper (catcher), to score a six directly behind the wicket he’s defending and into the crowd. When a spinner (slow bowler) is bowling a batsman might execute a reverse sweep where he will change from being a right handed hitter to a left handed hitter while the bowler is in the middle of his bowling motion! Like in baseball a cricket captain sets his field to prevent run scoring hits so this deception can play havoc with a captain’s field placings. Such shots were unheard of twenty years ago.

Will America be seduced by this rising tide of cricket mania? After all soccer is number one in the world and it has taken decades for that sport to take hold and even now, despite all those soccer moms, the recent World Cup success of the US women’s team, and the celebrity pull of David Beckham joining the LA Galaxy, soccer is still far behind football, basketball, baseball, golf and Nascar.

A little known fact is that cricket was played in the USA decades before the advent of baseball. In fact in the 19th century cricket was the national game of the United States.

In a diary he kept between 1709 and 1712, William Byrd, owner of the Virginia plantation Westover, noted, “I rose at 6 o’clock and read a chapter in Hebrew. About 10 o’clock Dr. Blair, and Major and Captain Harrison came to see us. After I had given them a glass of sack we played cricket. I ate boiled beef for my dinner. Then we played at shooting with arrows…and went to cricket again till dark.” 1

To demonstrate cricket’s wide ranging appeal consider the story of the ‘Homies & the POPz’ from the gang plagued neighborhood of Compton, Los Angeles.

The first cricket clubs in the USA were established in the 1700s, not long after they made their first appearance in England. Originally played by officers of the British Army with local landed gentry predisposed to be Anglophiles, cricket became a major recreation of American gentlemen of leisure and indeed, several Founding Fathers of the United States were known to be avid cricketers – John Adams among them, who stated in the US Congress in the 1780s that if leaders of cricket clubs could be called “presidents”, there was no reason why the leader of the new nation could not be called the same.

An astonishing but little known fact is that the first annual Canada vs. USA cricket match, played since the 1840s, was attended by 10,000 spectators at Bloomingdale Park in New York. The USA vs Canada cricket match is the oldest international sporting event in the modern world, predating even today’s Olympic Games by nearly 50 years.

Then, there was this urban (and local) recreation originally called ‘townball’, which had developed out of cricket. Unlike cricket, ‘townball’ could be played in small city squares and compact urban spaces, rather than spacious cricket parks. Some city cricket clubs, viewing it as an auxiliary entertainment, had even sponsored the first “baseball” teams, as they came to be called. After 1900, baseball took over the American scene, created its independent mythology, and obviated the sport that gave it birth. In a few decades, cricket in America had become only a memory.

The eclipse of American cricket was aided and abetted by developments in the British Empire. The British, it appears, were not at all enthusiastic about US participation in world cricket. The Imperial Cricket Conference which was formed to coordinate the worldwide development of the sport specifically excluded countries from outside the British Empire from any role in the proceedings. This exclusionary policy certainly undercut any momentum to professionalize cricket in the USA. 2

Fast forward to 2012 and the new CEO of Cricket Holdings America LLC, Keith Wyness, who will be spearheading a professional 20/20 pan US league: “Cricket is the second biggest sport in the world and the USA is the biggest commercial market for sport. Cricket is already played extensively across the USA with close to 50,000 regular players and it is the world’s second biggest consumer of internet cricket behind India.”

A $70 million custom built cricket ground in Florida has already hosted an international 20/20 match between New Zealand and Sri Lanka, and plans are afoot to build another cricket stadium in New York. At Marin Cricket Club, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, where I captain the Social Team, there are three Americans who play and play well. They have learned to straighten their arms when they bowl (unlike baseball where you ‘throw/pitch’ the ball with a crooked arm; in cricket the bowler delivers the ball over arm with a straightened elbow/arm), and discovered that there is not too much difference between a ‘line drive’ and an ‘off drive’. Furthermore, nowadays there are young cricketers in America who were born here and whose immigrant fathers have taught them cricket from a young age. These young players are playing in the USA national 20/20 team at Under 19 level against the major cricketing nations of the world.

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To demonstrate cricket’s wide ranging appeal consider the story of the ‘Homies & the POPz’ from the gang plagued neighborhood of Compton, Los Angeles. The Compton Cricket Club is an all American-born disadvantaged exhibition cricket team. The team, which includes Latino and African American ex-gang members, was founded in 1995 by US homeless activist Ted Hayes and English Hollywood movie Producer Katy Haber to combat the negative effect of poverty, urban decay and crime in Compton. The club uses the ideals of sportsmanship, and the particular importance of etiquette and fair play in cricket, to help players develop respect for authority, a sense of self-esteem and self-discipline. Having toured England once as a homeless team and three times as the Compton Cricket Club the Homies toured Australia in February, 2011 and become the first American born cricket club to tour Australia.

Moreover, members of the club formed a band called ‘Cloth’ and their hip-hop track ‘Bullets’ was given the accolade of all time best cricket tune and music video by the UK’s Guardian newspaper. As you watch former homeless gang bangers dressed in cricket sweaters with bats in hand and listen to them sing “From Bullets to Balls to Grass and Mats … we Play’in Cricket” you may agree with me that it’s possibly the unlikeliest piece of hip hop you’ll ever experience!

The world is changing faster than ever. Maybe in ten years from now we’ll see a 20/20 World Cup final between the USA and China. Stranger things have happened!

Footnotes

  1. From an article by Simon Worrall in the Smithsonian, October 2006
  2. From the article ‘Cricket in the USA’ by Deb K. Das ESPN on the web site Cricinfo in 2009