What captured the imagination of many Americans, “glued” to the game of cricket, at the turn of the last century, was the grand manner in which it was played - full of spirit and competition.
George Washington, America’s first President, was an avid follower of cricket. So was his successor, John Adams. So also was Theodore Roosevelt.
Cricket was played in the American colonies as early as 1709. In 1859, President Abraham Lincoln attended an American cricket match between Chicago and Milwaukee. In 2004, the US won a tournament - the ICC Six-Nations Challenge - to determine the world's best second-level cricket team.
Sounds crazy? Incredible? And straight out of Ripley’s Believe It or Not? Or, maybe, quite in tune with the famous theme song of the game: of glorious impossibilities, possibilities, and tizzy uncertainty, or unpredictability?
Not really, because the fact remains, cricket was once a popular sport in the United States, with Philadelphia being the famed terra firma for every “flannelled fool”, as the inimitable George Bernard Shaw once said, of the willow game.
The question of cricket in the US was not quite related to numbers. It was allied to the spirit of excellence. Like the pure classical elegance of Sir Jack Hobbs - whose sublime artistry has survived more effectively than mere figures. Or, the brilliant symphony of Mozart.
Yes, this was cricket’s fascinating history in the US, a time long gone.
On the flipside, cricket in George W. Bush’s country today has remained obscure, which is why it is difficult to realise that the game was played as earnestly there as anywhere in the early 1900s. This also added “fuel” to the prospect of the US actually playing Test cricket on the cards.
What sustained and fostered the game in the US for most part were endowments made by wealthy amateurs in Boston, Baltimore and Virginia, a “British county”.
As well, cricket was as much loved in Canada. The Australian opener, Charles Bannerman, the first-batsman-ever to score a Test century in the first-ever Test match played in Melbourne, in March 1877, against England, was also credited to have posted the first “ton” for an overseas cricketer in Canada.
Canada, of course, has played in the World Cup - the globe’s premier cricket event - but without giving opponents a fright or good run for their money.
What truly distinguished Philadelphia cricket was an eye for innovation. For example, for18 years, beginning in 1896, Haverford College undertook five tours of England long before any English school, the cradle of cricket, had thought of a cricket trip abroad.
While the “Gentlemen of Philadelphia” visited England thrice there were also as many as six trips by the outfit to Jamaica and Bermuda - all for the sake of playing the game. In return, about a dozen teams from the two islands came and played cricket in Philadelphia.
The legendary Dr W.G.Grace took part in a match between “Eleven Gentlemen who visited Canada” versus “14 Gentlemen of MCC”, in Philadelphia, in July 1873.
Interestingly, Kent was the first English county to tour abroad. The destination - Philadelphia. It did not take too long, thereafter, for Marylebourne Cricket Club (MCC) to follow suit. Among the many giants that toured Philadelphia, with one of the MCC sides, was the Indian prince K.S.Ranjitsinhji whose batting had a rare alchemy: the classy mysticism of the Orient and the sheer technical excellence of the Occident.
And Australia, too, was not far behind. There were three sojourns by teams from Down Under to Philadelphia, even before the celebrated leg-spinner Bill O’Reilly had learned to walk or even hold a ball.
From a purely historical perspective, Philadelphia’s cricketing glory coincided with the years preceding World War I: the golden age of cricket. While its influence on world cricket was also profound, the city boasted two well-produced monthly journals, one of which was the American Cricketer. It was published until the Great War disrupted both sport and life worldwide. The magazine was technically perfect in an age that did not foresee the emergence of computer-to-print (CTP) technology. Only a few countries have been able to support such a publication, even today.
The publication was sponsored by Splanding’s, for most of its existence, when sponsors like Benson & Hedges and others hadn’t foreseen cricket’s bright prospects. The publication was more than a compendium of statistics even though the editor, F.Fitzmaurice Kelly, was just as good as any cricket statistician in Great Britain - the traditional home of the game. The magazine and the annual had a loyal following and a committed readership.
While many of the leading clubs in Philadelphia flourished, cricket was played in the best possible sylvan surroundings, with “international” fixtures, sometimes attracting large crowds of over 20,000. The reason was simple. Local cricket was efficiently organised along with a handful of different leagues and competitions. And, true to the American style, cricket was also something for experimentation. No doubt the purists would not have approved.
The city’s eight clubs were the first to think of 8-ball and 10-ball overs. Australia took the cue to experiment, and the rest, as they say, is history - albeit Ricky Ponting’s country did away with its 8-ball-an-over practice, many years ago.
Philadelphia too had its share of cricketing heroes. John Barton King was a world-class fast bowler and an exciting batsman. Playing in England, King headed the English bowling averages in 1908 - the year cricket marvel Sir Donald Bradman was born - with a phenomenal tally of 87 wickets at 11.01. This awesome figure, by way of merit, has not been scaled or beaten by any touring side bowler until now.
King, as an enterprising batsman, not only held the US batting record for all time, but also the distinction of being the first “professional player”: a reference which most Americans detest today. King holds the highest individual score, with 344 in an innings, in the US. He made 39 centuries during his distinguished cricket career. In 1897, King took 7 for 13 against Sussex, a powerful side, which included the great Ranji. King castled the Indian wizard’s stumps with his first ball.
Philadelphia’s tryst with cricket was short-lived for a variety of reasons, including the change-over of cricket clubs into all-sports bodies, and the growing preference of individuals for shorter games like tennis.
Other factors included the Great Wall Street Crash and overdependence on wealthy amateurs, who neither had the time nor inclination to pump money into the game. Cricket in Philadelphia also died because there was a total lack of cricket in schools - the assembly-line for senior cricket. And, no game, as we all know, can survive without grassroots-level grooming and or continuity.
Although cricket is still played today in Philadelphia and elsewhere in the US by a minuscule émigré populace, it is quite understandably an irrelevant patch on what was once in Philadelphia a “truly American cricket phenomenon”.
But, there’s hope, if hope for cricket exists in the American dream, or psyche, and for cricket optimists wherever they are. It is quite possible for cricket to regain its vintage glory in the US if former cricket great Imran Khan has his way.
Today Philadelphia hosts the International Cricket Festival, an annual event, during the first weekend in May to promote cricket, friendship and community service. Each year 12 teams, including five from the city, seven from across the US, and guest international sides, are invited to participate in the festival. The tournament is held over four days with matches being played at four of the country’s major venues.
Says Khan: “Cricket has already lost a lot of ground to other sports, especially in the Americas. Like everything else in life, it must go forward, or suffer the consequence.” He adds: “South Africa has broken the monotony with its new faces as well as a cricketing ideology that has strong traditions in the game. I don’t see why the International Cricket Council (ICC) does not make efforts to promote the limited-overs game in the greatest sports-loving country of all - the United States.”
Add to this yet another new advance, Twenty20 cricket, and you may have many excited takers for the format in the US, today.
Elaborating further, Khan notes, “In the Caribbean, American sports, such as basketball and baseball are gaining ground. But, there’s still time. After all, limited-overs cricket is far more exciting on TV than baseball!”
He has a point. No waste of time, no long-drawn-out schedules, right? This is what most Americans would want in a sport. There could be nothing better than the pressure-cooker atmosphere and delight of 50-overs-a-side-one-day, or Twenty20, cricket.
For cricket to survive in the future it has got to expand and reach new lands. America has everything to nurture the nature of modern cricket - sponsorship, money and the hype.
This is, of course, notwithstanding the fact the ICC has formally banned the United States of America Cricket Association (USACA) because it failed to meet a time limit for implementing a new constitution and hold elections. But, there is optimism. As ICC Chief Executive, Malcolm Speed, explains, “The ICC recognises that the US has vast potential as a cricketing nation … The ICC hopes this measure (the ban) will serve to focus minds within cricketing circles in the US … (And) that sense will prevail, and that all those with the good of the game at heart will come together and take control of this unfortunate situation."
Now, the next big hope is an exciting prospect: the US gets the go-ahead to stage the famed quadrennial cricket World Cup in the not-so-distant future.