BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 11:12 GMT, Thursday, 21 January 2010

Could America take to cricket?

US v Australia
Steve Massiah of the US hits Australia for four

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

The Indian Premier League has announced plans to take cricket to the US. But could the home of baseball ever take cricket to its heart?

There are plenty of English people who find it hard to understand the joy of cricket.

But could the United States, the home of brash, all-action sports like American football and basketball, ever embrace a sport steeped in etiquette and played by gentlemen in white trousers?

The Indian Premier League, the new powerhouse in world cricket, certainly hopes so.

This week it promised to take its competition Stateside. Regional Indian sides could be competing in the Twenty20 competition by next year, according to Lalit Modi, the vice-president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India.

So could cricket take hold in the American imagination?

Steve Massiah
Steve Massiah was born in Guyana and is captain of the US team. He is also a real estate agent in New York
Next month he takes the US team to Dubai for the Twenty20 World Cup qualifiers
"The problem when you look at American sports is that they like a fast pace, so going to the park to watch a 50-over match over six or seven hours is not likely
"But the Twenty20 game is a sharp format that could capture the market.
"And the Indian Premier League coming here could be a start"

Many people would be surprised to learn that the US already has a strong cricketing heritage.

A fact that all pub quiz fanatics would do well to note is that the first international cricket match was played between the US and Canada in 1844, in Bloomingdale Park, New York.

"Most of the white inhabitants at that time in America had come from Britain and they took cricket with them," says Peter Wynne-Thomas, author of The Complete Encyclopaedia of Cricket. Indeed, there are references to cricket in the US from the early 1700s.

The first overseas cricket tour was by England in the US, says Mr Wynne-Thomas, but it was unfortunate that it came months before the outbreak of the Civil War, so there were no subsequent tours to build on that interest.

"At the same time, baseball got organised as a national sport and by the time the Civil War ended, baseball had taken off and cricket became more isolated, confined to the elite living in the Philadelphia and New York areas."

15 million fans

In the 1930s, the sport took an interesting twist when the actor and England cricketer C Aubrey Smith founded the Hollywood Cricket Club. He recruited the likes of David Niven and Boris Karloff to play in California, but it was already a minority sport.

Relations between cricket and baseball had never got off to a great start. The first officially recorded game of baseball was in 1846 in New Jersey. The New York Knickerbockers were defeated 23-1 by the New York Nine, a team reportedly made up of travelling cricketers.

Kevin Connolly
"Cricket is a hardy flower which has always flourished in unlikely places - I've seen it played in France and Afghanistan myself. So it could flourish again here, as it has throughout history. It won't replace baseball or the NFL but there's room for minority sports in the United States. Just look at soccer.

"George Washington's troops are said to have amused themselves playing cricket as they wintered at Valley Forge before defeating the inventors of the game in battle. And Barack Obama demonstrated a promising batting stance when he met Brian Lara in Trinidad last year. In between a Philadelphia XI toured Edwardian England and British Hollywood team demonstrated the importance of the tea break. Hopes for the future lie with immigrants from South Asia and the Caribbean"

Today, there are 30,000 registered players and about 200,000 people who play cricket of some sort at weekends, says Don Lockerbie, chief executive of the USA Cricket Association. Throw in an estimated 15 million fans, 950 clubs and 48 leagues, and the game probably hasn't been this healthy since that famous match in 1844.

"In the 1960s, a huge [immigrant] influx began from Commonwealth countries, but it took 40 years for them to find themselves in communities that became both affluent and influential enough to have cricket games in public parks or private pitches."

Developments in recent years suggest fortunes are changing. The first international-standard stadium has been completed in Florida, at a cost of $15m (£9.3m). A pilot scheme in New York, in which 32 schools play cricket, is in its third year, for pupils aged 15 to 19. And in Atlanta, 35 schools have introduced the sport into their physical education class.

Cricket's supporters in the US have also been finding themselves in the media spotlight. Joseph O'Neill's highly-acclaimed novel Netherland, which has been championed by Oprah Winfrey and President Barack Obama, tells the story of cricket-playing immigrants in New York and is to be made into a Hollywood film.

But Mr Lockerbie realises it will take more than velvet prose to sell the sport to the American public.

"I've tried to explain Test cricket to Americans who say 'How can any sport go on four or five days?' To that I say 'Tiger Woods starts on a Thursday and plays until Sunday or even Monday.' We watch eight hours of golf at a time and still don't know the winner.

Charles Aubrey Smith
Actor C Aubrey Smith played cricket for England and brought the sport to Hollywood

"It's not so much whether cricket is boring or slow but Americans just want to see the great players excel. They don't need high-scoring games. Some of the great baseball games are the low-scoring ones. Twenty20 is the form of the game to put before Americans."

The next target is to have a professional Twenty20 league by 2012 and top international teams regularly playing in the US.

One advantage cricket has over baseball is that the top batsmen can have hours at the crease to demonstrate their run-making prowess, he says, while the rules of baseball conspire against players having more than four scoring hits in a match.

"Cricket is much better at showing the action of the great players. It's far more exciting at hitting balls and scoring runs than baseball, yet baseball is over in three hours.

"If Twenty20 cricket is marketed properly and fans, television and sponsors embrace it, we could see the sport of cricket becoming the next great sport in the US, where other sports have tried."

There is some way to go, says sports historian David Brooks. To many Americans, cricket is a mobile phone company of the same name, or to those who know their sports, it's a strange English quirk.

Dupaul Singh owns Singh's Sporting Goods in Queen's
It is, he says, the only shop in the US entirely devoted to cricket
Hundreds of cricket bats line the walls
"I came from Guyana to the US in 1986 and arrived on a Thursday. On the Saturday I was playing cricket."
People are optimistic about the future of cricket but there have been many false dawns, so there is caution too, he says

"I think demographics were vital in the early days when the sports market was still relatively open. But cricket, with its need for a lot of time and good facilities, was not well suited to a country dominated by low-income immigrants, many of them from European non-cricketing nations.

"Today I think time is important. I'm not sure what it is in the American psyche that makes long attention spans rare, but it is a fact that none of the US sports last more than three hours. They've found a formula that works, and cricket - with the possible exception of Twenty20 - does not fit into it."

American sports fans also can't stand a draw, or a tie as they call it, he says. They always play until there's a winner, so the concept of playing five days and not having a result is completely alien.

Today's demographics also count against cricket taking off, because the fast-growing Latino community prefers soccer and baseball.

On the other hand, the sport has some things going for it - plenty of time for adverts and lots of statistics, which Americans love. So how could it spread in popularity?

Given its need for facilities and equipments, it will need to take hold in schools and universities, says Mr Brooks. And Americans will need to be exposed to world-class cricket, although the time difference means that mostly happens when they are in bed or in work.

"Perhaps if the US team, complete with a baseball star selected by reality TV, qualified for a Twenty20 World Cup in the West Indies, with a game or two in Miami, then perhaps, just perhaps, with the right marketing, cricket could get the exposure it needs."

Sounds like a plot for a novel, but who wants to read about American cricket?

Below is a selection of your comments.

Cricket has a very long history in the US. My great-grandfather used to coach at the Merion Cricket Club, near Philadelphia. To some degree, it's still looked upon as an elitist sport here, since one needs to be a member of the Country Club or Cricket Club - which tends to be a very expensive proposition. It would be interesting to try to introduce it into schools as an alternative or supplement to the usual offerings of basketball or football. There is, however, the risk of a starting a brand new breed of cricket cheerleaders.
Jean Upton, Chelmsford

Cricket has one very important element going for it and another which could scupper it as a US spectator sport. For - it is a natural for American TV because of the ready-made breaks at over end for advertising and the limited over game would fit well into the four-five hour attention span of the public.
Against - US spectators would never give the ball back if a six landed in the crowd because of the baseball tradition as the homer ball as a trophy. This would radically affect the strategy of managing the wear and tear on the ball as part of the game.
Tony Lord, Ann Arbor MI

Cricket flourishes in Southern California. The Los Angeles based league has 5 divisions and 50+ teams. Social cricket matches these numbers and the weather means games are played year-round. The British & Dominion Cricket Club has British roots but has a diverse playing membership from all over the globe.
David Collicutt, Hermosa Beach, US

As an Indian attending a US veterinary school in the Caribbean, I can see how Americans can be drawn into watch T20. Several of my classmates who did not even get swept up in local World Cup fever caught the IPL on TV and were so entranced, ended up having picking their own favourites and betting on games while learning it from scratch. With a little help on the rules from me, they are now crickets newest American fans.
Arvind Badrinarayanan, Conaree, St Kitts, West Indies

I'm an immigrant from the US, and have noticed a crucial difference between cricket and baseball. The situation, meaning likely winners and losers, changes very rapidly in baseball. Scoring is harder, with a "base hit" closer to a cricket run, and not a few baseball games are won or put out of reach by the result of a "bases loaded, two outs, full count" batting situation, resolved by a single pitch (bowl). Cricket has none of this situational tension, its own situations taking hours to develop even in Twenty20.
Richard Reed, London, UK

Cricket would be a hard-sell in America, considering, as you have stated, "There are plenty of English people who find it hard to understand the joy of cricket." Also, just to be clear, this is patently false: "plenty of time for adverts and lots of statistics, which Americans love". We ENDURE adverts because there is no choice if you want to watch TV; we don't have the option of advert-free TV because we don't pay a TV tax.
Becky, Rochester, NY

It would be a major breakthrough if cricket could gain more popularity in the US. In the long run it might increase the popularity of the sport in other countries worldwide. I've always viewed cricket as chess on a field and would love for more people to enjoy the tactics involved in the game and the moments of greatness it produces. And of course attending a cricket match is a fantastic day out for all ages and always with good fun banter between the supporters.
Jennifer Reed, Manchester, UK

Americans only take to a sport in which they are the world leaders, normally with only two or three countries worldwide that play it. Just look at football - they had a World Cup in 1994 and although there have been some good results and an increase in quality and numbers playing, it will never overcome American football, baseball or basketball. The main thing in cricket's favour is that it is played by so few countries - and baseball is probably the most boring game ever invented, it can go on for hours and finish up 1-0 - so cricket should be pretty interesting.
Noops, Bristol

My father used to explain to me that "The English had no conception of boredom and so they had to invent cricket." Dad was born in Middlesborough.
Bill Dunn, Paisley, Scotland

As an American who loves cricket, I have a hard time imagining it taking hold here. Most people will see it as too similar to baseball, and I'm afraid a lot people will immediately dislike it for being too "foreign." Soccer (football) is still struggling to break through into the mainstream here, and I think that has a much wider appeal than cricket.
Jim, Virgina, US

I think 20-20 has a real chance in the US as it really is "all-action". In fact much more "all-action" than American football or baseball which I find extremely formulaic and - even at the highest level - potentially boring compared to soccer, rugby and cricket. They need the cheerleaders to add atmosphere.
Tim Reynolds, Brussels, Belgium

Were I in charge of the project of marketing cricket in the US, I would start with some sort of challenge to major league ball players to attempt to hit world class bowling and vice versa. It would give American baseball fans some sort of reference point.
Kealin Murphy, Cresco, Pa

Philadelphia has a very active cricket scene - albeit played mostly by expats. We have some wonderful grounds that go back to when cricket was very popular in the region in the 1900s. We also have the Philadelphia International cricket festival which will include teams from the UK, Canada and sometimes the WI. The clubs have preserved the cricket grounds as they use them for grass tennis during the summer.
David Lamb, Philadelphia

I live in a relatively new suburb with a lot of open space. Some of that space has been devoted to cricket pitches; Indian and Pakistani immigrants are out there all weekend playing cricket. It's hard to believe the game isn't already more popular; it's really just a matter of time.
Pete, Chicago

Cricket is a Commonwealth sport and provides a wide reaching role not just on sporting but also on cultural and political fronts. Cricket helps to bind together the Commonwealth countries that play it and sometimes (perhaps one could argue not for the better) it plays an important political role too. For a global superpower to take it up at this stage would dilute all of this. I don't think the sport will be richer for it either - it doesn't need the US for expansion when it has India and all the possibilities that country brings as it continues to develop in to a major global economic super power. Is football any the better off for having what is now a very respected US team?
John Raftery, Morpeth, Northumberland, UK

Cricket is too long and boring. I have watched it on cable and I failed to understand is appeal. BTW, I am a retired ESL teacher so I am well educated and still fail to see the purpose in playing the same game for so many days. Nevertheless I wish you good luck.
Roberto Yarzagaray, Milford, PA, US

Could America take to cricket? Answer, no.
Could America take to 20/20? Answer, possibly, but it ain't cricket.
Keith Hart, Wimborne, Dorset

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