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The Spin | ‘Land of opportunity’: USA is cricket’s bold new frontier once again
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The Spin | ‘Land of opportunity’: USA is cricket’s bold new frontier once again

Manhattan’s skyscrapers are built on cricket fields. There was one under Pier 17 at the Seaport on the East River, another beneath the North Meadow of Central Park, and a third right on 1st Avenue and East 32nd St, below the car park of NYU’s Langone Medical Center.

In 1844, a crowd of about 5,000 New Yorkers watched the first international match there, between the USA and Canada. “Cricket was the first modern team sport in America,” says Chuck Ramkissoon, in Joseph O’Neill’s great New York novel Netherland, “a bona fide American pastime”. He’s right. It was, once.

There were dozens, even hundreds, of clubs in the US in the middle of the 19th century. Historians have never settled on a single reason why cricket died there. The civil war was one factor. “We had a large number of good young men playing the game up to that time, and then the war fever took over them,” one player wrote in the American Cricketer at the beginning of the 20th century.

Baseball was an easier game for the soldiers to pick up and play because it didn’t need a rolled wicket, specialist coaching or equipment. When they made it professional in 1869, it was packaged and sold as the indigenous American sport. The patriots’ game.

There were places where they carried on playing cricket, around Philadelphia in particular, but even that scene sputtered out during the first world war.

Which made Netherland a hard novel to sell. “When I was writing it, people would ask: ‘What’s it about?’” says O’Neill. “I’d say: ‘It’s about cricket in New York,’ and people didn’t know what to say back. It really didn’t sound very promising.”

O’Neill played himself. “When I first arrived in New York in 1998, it was a question of driving around and spotting people playing cricket, stopping and asking them: ‘Can I play?’”

There has always been more cricket in the outer boroughs than anyone but the players knew. “It’s a very different cricket culture,” says O’Neill. “The people who love cricket here are often the ones out driving taxis all night.”

The Nassau County International Cricket Stadium.View image in fullscreen

Everyone I talk to in US cricket seems to be chasing a dream of one kind or another, even if it is only a little weekend time playing the game they loved in the home they left behind. “There’s a reason they call it the land of opportunity,” says Ali Khan.

He was a teenaged tape-ball player when his family moved from Pakistan in 2010. He assumed he would have to give up cricket because he didn’t think they played it in the US until his uncle took him to their local club in Dayton, Ohio. He played his first proper game that same weekend. Now he is going to be opening the bowling for the national team in the T20 World Cup.

Among the dreamers, there have always been some who were thinking even bigger. O’Neill knew one and based the character of Ramkissoon on him. In the novel, Ramkissoon dreams of building a proper stadium outside New York. “An arena for the greatest cricket teams in the world, twelve exhibition matches a summer, watched by eight thousand spectators at fifty dollars a pop.”

There are others. I’ve met some myself. I still have a box in the attic filled with promotional leaflets Allen Stanford sent out to the confused locals of Fort Collins, Colorado, which was the test venue for his own effort to break cricket in the US. There was the Pro Cricket League, which began and ended in 2004 after an opening game that was delayed 50 minutes because nobody had any stumps. The Cricket All-Stars series, led by Shane Warne and Sachin Tendulkar, managed three matches. “The USA can be the capital of cricket in the western hemisphere,” Don Lockerbie, the chief executive of the old cricket association, used to say.

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Ramkissoon’s stadium is finally there, a temporary build in Eisenhower Park, 30 miles outside the city. “A game between India and Pakistan in New York City?” he says in the book. “In a state of the art arena with Liberty Tower in the background?”

It’s finally happening. The match, on 9 June, is one of the hottest tickets in sport in 2024.

US cricket isn’t a game for shift workers any more. The men who run it now are leaving long, lucrative careers in Silicon Valley. They launched Minor League Cricket in 2021, Major League Cricket in 2023 and they are still building. MLC’s investors include the managing director of the largest media conglomerate in India, the chief executive of Microsoft, the former chief executive of Adobe and the former director of technology at Amazon. They have credibility, capability, capital, and connections. English cricket now has serious competition in the summer months.

Fans watch the Texas Super Kings take on the LA Knight Riders in a Major League Cricket match in Grand Prairie, Texas last summer.View image in fullscreen

“It was 10 years ago, when I realized the T20 format is here to stay, that I felt, for the first time, there is an opportunity for this sport in this country,” says Soma Somasegar, who co-owns the MLC’s Seattle Orcas.

He grew up in Pondicherry in India and fell in love with cricket from listening to the commentary on his pocket radio. He moved to the US to study, rose to become a senior vice-president at Microsoft and now runs a venture capital firm.

The Orcas have set up an academy and are starting work on a new stadium in Seattle. “The next time the World Cup comes to the US,” he says, without stopping to add an if or but, “we will host games in Seattle.”

Somasegar has a dream, too. “In my mind, the only thing is to see cricket become a mainstream sport here,” he says. “Not just for the diaspora, but to see if we can break through and make cricket a major sport in the coming decades.”

He makes the comparison with football, which, he says, nobody took seriously in the US until after the 1994 World Cup. “Now you can’t go to a park without seeing a bunch of kids kicking around a soccer ball, right? Well, ask yourself, why can’t we see something similar with cricket?”

This is an extract from the Guardian’s weekly cricket email, The Spin. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.

Source: theguardian.com