If you had to guess which country hosted the first international cricket match, many would answer with absolute certainty that it was England. However, it’s said that the modern world’s first international sporting event was a cricket match between the U.S. and Canada in 1844, predating the modern Olympic games. Even though cricket holds a spot in the top two on the list of most popular sports in the world, falling just behind football, Americans just don’t really care that much.
Maybe it’s because cricket is not considered to be American. Cricket was first played in southern England in the sixteenth century. The expansion of the British Empire led to cricket being played overseas and by the mid-19th century the first international matches were being held. Today, cricket is most popular in Australia, England, India, and southern Africa.
The English are proud that they created the game just as Americans are proud that they created basketball or baseball. Americans are deeply involved with the sports they birthed, but they don’t heavily participate in international sports like soccer and cricket. International sports create more competition and Americans would have to work that much harder to work their way to the top to remain a world power.
In the 2012 Summer Olympics, the United States brought home 46 gold medals, 29 silver, and 29 bronze, putting them at the top of the Olympics medal table. Americans love watching the Olympics because they love proving that they have some of the world’s best athletes. However, cricket is an exception, very rarely televised in the U.S. in general, Americans shy away from following the sport at all.
Consequently, the United States doesn’t have a major team. This means no highlights on ESPN and no giant stadiums to sell-out. It’s difficult for Americans to get excited about cricket when they can’t watch it live or even on television. The few dedicated American followers can watch it online, but, very much like football, they are supporting teams from other parts of the world instead of from their home country.
So what do they do? They watch baseball instead. Baseball is America’s past-time. Baseball evolved from cricket and by the 19th century was widely recognized as the national sport of the United States. Because people compare cricket so closely with baseball, it’s tough to build support for another sport involving a bat, a ball, and running. They are too similar to both hold worldwide popularity. Americans spend enough time arguing about the differences between football and American football and the sports are nowhere similar to each other. They don’t have the time to do the same for cricket and baseball.
Cricket was among the more popular sports in America in the mid-19th century, but the introduction of baseball came at expense of cricket. Marketing played a major role. After the Civil War, nationalism exploded along with a new sense of an American national identity. With evolving communication and transportation technologies, baseball promoters recognized an opportunity to expand. They created the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players in 1871 by meshing together some of the existing traveling clubs. Young athletes and fans quickly embraced it. Cricket clubs, however, stayed regional and many of the top players switched to baseball, including Harry Wright and A. G. Spalding, both of whom founded sporting goods firms which are still active today. The American cricket fans went with them and never returned.
Cricket’s rules are extremely different than baseball’s and Americans don’t want to spend their valuable time and effort learning how to understand them. Different terminology such as “bowler” instead of “pitcher” and “wicket keeper” instead of “catcher” throws them off and they are unwilling to accept it. Furthermore, the idea of a 360 degree field with the all the action happening in the center is unfathomable.
Last year, British Prime Minister David Cameron visited President Obama and tagged along for a Mississippi Valley State vs. Western Kentucky college basketball game. In return, the president told a reporter, “He’s going to teach me cricket because I don’t understand what’s going on with that.”
With two leagues and 30 teams playing tons of games in both the season and playoffs, it’s difficult as it is for people to follow baseball. Americans have no time to start following cricket, which has various leagues and types of matches. This leads to another reason Americans don’t follow cricket: they have no patience.
Some cricket matches can last for days. The world’s longest match is held by Blunham Cricket Club from Bedfordshire in England. The club played for 5 days: 105 hours, from 10am on Thursday, August 26, 2010 until 7pm on Monday, August 30, 2010.
Each team gets 10 outs and usually scores between 300 and 400 runs in their turn at bat. Though the thought of it amazes most Americans, they just don’t have the attention span to watch six or seven hours of cricket. They can hardly watch a three hour American football game without getting too drunk to remember it. Cricket-watchers, however, make a day out of it, casually sipping their beers and watching their favorite clubs on the television at the local pub.
It seems that Americans just get bored easily. In soccer, teams score too few points for Americans to stay interested and in cricket, teams score too many. Games are long and tedious in both sports and American viewers can’t seem to find a balance. Yet they watch golf, one of the slowest-paced games there is. Golf is the sixth most popular sport in the country, but cricket doesn’t even make the Top 10 cut. This seems a little strange considering cricket is the second most popular sport in the world.
“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,” Jon Lockerbie, The United States of America Cricket Association’s Chief Executive Officer told BBC News in 2009.
Noticing this trend and hoping to spread to a larger audience, the Twenty20 league was introduced in 2003. Twenty20, or T20, cricket is the most condensed form of the game. A match typically lasts around three hours. In T20, each team has a single inning, which lasts between 75 and 90 minutes. In this timespan, each team bats for a maximum of 20 overs, or a set of six balls bowled.
Twenty20 cricketers are becoming very wealthy celebrities, too. Mahendra Singh Dhoni, captain of the Chennai Super Kings, racked up $1.5 million for just over six weeks on the field in 2008, making him the league’s top earner. The expansion of the league can be seen in monetary figures alone. For the 2013-2014 year, Mahendra Singh Dhoni is to receive $26 million: $3.5 million in yearly match fees and $23 million in endorsements from top companies such as Pepsi, Reebok, and Lays. He is the most wealthy cricketer in the world. Most of the top paid cricketers are from India, with only two hailing from Australia – Shane Watson ($5.9m) and Michael Clarke ($4.9m) – and one from England, Ricky Ponting ($4m).
“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,” said Lockerbie.
In addition to the introduction of a T20 league, other measures can be taken to promote cricket expansion in the United States. First of all, we need to get kids to start playing the game. In New York, 32 schools played cricket among young adults aged 15 to 19 when BBC reported it in 2010. And in Atlanta, 35 schools had introduced the sport into their physical education class.
Jatin Patel, president of the Indiana Youth Cricket Association, said students in about 240 Indiana schools have been shown the basics of the sport since his Indianapolis-based group began an outreach program in 2010.
In the U.S. today, there are more than 50 leagues across the United States with 1,100 registered clubs and around 32,000 active participants. These are all under the country’s governing body for the sport, the United States of America Cricket Association (USACA). Once children begin to become interested in the sport, perhaps adults will follow suit. This process can be sped up if the USACA appoints a National Youth Cricket Coordinator to implement cricket into more schools and youth programs across the country.
Correlating with exposing cricket to schools, cricket equipment needs to be sold and readily available in sporting goods stores across the U.S. Just as children can’t ride bikes without helmets, they can’t play cricket without proper equipment.
Furthermore, the United States needs more places for cricket to be played. In 2007, the first international-standard stadium, Central Broward Regional Park and Stadium, was completed in Lauderhill, Florida at the expense of $70 million. In May 2013, while a Phillies baseball game was being played in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, there was a cricket match happening simultaneously at the annual Philadelphia Cricket Festival. This five-day long event has been going on for 21 years at the Philadelphia Cricket Club, featuring clubs from across the country and sometimes internationally.
“It’s kind of like underground sport — a secret society — in the sense that it’s everywhere if you know where to look,” says Della Penna, who is the cricket editor at ESPN. “But if you don’t know where to look, you wouldn’t know it existed.”
Though the United States has a long way to go until they are even close to being comparable to India, Australia, or England, many American states are making advances toward the sport in hopes that it will increase international tourism and ultimately benefit from economic development.
“If your goal is to try and connect with many parts of this world for potential commerce, trade and tourism, that’s a huge market to go after,” Lauderhill Mayor Richard Kaplan said.
The city of Indianapolis, Indiana is spending $6 million to equip one of its parks with a premier cricket pitch. Indianapolis has also signed a three-year deal to host a U.S. amateur cricket tournament and championship, starting in August 2014. The city hopes to be the heart of American cricket, just as it is the heart of American auto racing.
“When people around the world think of cricket, I want them to think of Indianapolis,” Mayor Greg Ballard told media in India during a trade visit in April.
Cricket’s supporters in the U.S. have also been finding themselves in the media spotlight. Joseph O’Neill’s highly-acclaimed novel, Netherland, has been highly encouraged by Oprah Winfrey and President Barack Obama (I assume after the Prime Minister explained to him the rules of the game). The novel tells the story of cricket-playing immigrants in New York and is to be made into a Hollywood film.
In addition to cricket being seen on the big screen, cricket highlights need to be seen on television in order for Americans to adopt the sport. I remember sitting in a London pub when I visited Europe in 2011 and asking the bartender what sport was being shown on the screens above me. I was 18 years old and I had no idea what a cricket match was or what it even looked like. Looking back, it seems awfully naive, but how could I have known if I was never exposed to it in school and the sport isn’t even televised by ESPN?
However, cricket isn’t as foreign as most Americans think. Today, I can set my self apart from most Americans and say that I’ve attended an International cricket match. From the minute I walked in the gates of The Oval, the competitive atmosphere turned out to be very similar to that of an American sporting event. Even better, I understood the rules of the game.
Americans seem to have a rather strange obsession with the newly birthed “Royal Baby.” Maybe they’ll start following cricket when the baby is old enough to play. Until then, American cricketers will continue implementing their sport into schools, expanding on the construction of stadiums, and attempting to explain cricket to their friends and family. The future of cricket is bright for Americans and in time they can easily adopt the sport and maybe even produce some of the world’s top cricketers.