On an early Saturday morning in late August, two teams took the pitch, enclosed within a wide circular green with a boundary marked by small orange cones, resembling a shape that most Americans would never recognize. There was an undercurrent of calmness in the morning air, hardly disturbed when the first wicket was taken nearly five minutes into the match.
Yes, it was a cricket pitch, and yes, it was right here in the United States of America. And on this very same pitch in July at the South Germantown Recreational Park in Boyds, Maryland, the Germantown Kids Cricket Club defeated Cockeysville Kids Cricket by a score of 25 to 23. It was the first youth cricket championship in American history.
Cricket in America seems a joke to those who are even aware the sport exists. For most others, it is fully out of the sporting conscience. But to its small group of rabid followers, it is a noble, charming sport, one that is trying to overcome natural and self-imposed hurdles to burst into the crowded mainstream of American sports, where it could improve access to sports for many underserved communities and break down many of the social structures oft associated with the game.
Cricket has an ingrained following in much of the world, where it spread with the British Empire centuries ago. Whether the sport’s global success, especially in the Commonwealth nations, is a result of the appeal of the game or simple tradition is debatable. But due to its origins, most Americans would associate it with the upper classes of British colonialism. While soccer spread throughout the Empire, cricket’s reach was far smaller.
It was the 19th century when the sport began to reflect British colonial rule and race and class divisions in society made their way onto the pitch. The colonizer squared off against the colonized, the former claiming the position of batsman and relegating the latter to the less-glorious position of bowler.
In cricket, two batsmen are up at a time and bat until one of them is out. The bowler throws the ball overarm toward the opposing batsman in an attempt to take the wicket directly behind him. Runs are scored each time the batsmen switch places, which occurs when the batsman hits the ball and runs to the other end of the pitch—22 yards away—where his partner was standing.
Perhaps this is the main appeal to the elites such as Pippa Middleton who engage in the sport today. Cricket, rooted in tradition and its highbrow nature, simply offers more than other alternatives.
But while cricket’s colonial past remains its present in England—with class division “enshrined in the game’s aesthetic,” fewer working-class players ascending to the top of the English game, and a decrease in the number of state schools that play competitive cricket—that isn’t the case elsewhere. The great Trinidadian writer and cricket enthusiast CLR James suggested that the clash of race and class stimulated rather than held back cricket in the West Indies in the 20th century. Outside of the field boundary, society was very rigid, but on the inside, different groups could compete on equal footing without disrupting the social structure.
American cricket is wholly unique, especially at the youth level, since batsman and bowler aren’t tied to race and class. Cricket stateside—still in its early stages of development—is disconnected from colonialism. Players are a heterogeneous mix of expatriates and citizens from different racial and ethnic and income backgrounds. Think of it as a reboot of the sport with different cultural values. By some estimates, there are 30,000 Americans playing it. Another 15 million count themselves as fans. Yet the sport is still struggling to go mainstream, and there are plenty of reasons for that.
Part of it is that nothing the so-called gentlemen’s game offers favors American sporting values. It isn’t fast-paced or action-packed like football, it’s overshadowed by college sports when it comes to commercialism and an influx of money into the sport, and its complex rules, long game, and different forms of play don’t make for quality selling points. Its ties to colonialism and unfamiliarity in the United States make it seem decidedly un-American, especially compared to its closest equivalent, baseball, which has a patriotic narrative cricket lacks, even though cricket beat hardball to the United States by at least a few decades.
Cricket also lacks funding and the substantial youth movement that boosts sports here, even those of lesser popularity like soccer, which is fighting its way onto the American sporting landscape thanks to newfound funding and popularity among kids. A similar youth revival would have huge benefits for cricket, according to Jamie Harrison, president of the United States Youth Cricket Association (USYCA) and the Maryland Youth Cricket Association (MYCA).
“What’s required is mass adoption of the sport starting at the youth level, just like soccer had in the early 1970s,” said Harrison. “That’s where the focus of U.S. youth cricket is. What’s preventing this mass adoption is a lack of vision and leadership from the beleaguered and debt-ridden national governing body and a lack of youth volunteers.”
But even if American cricket were to grow at the youth and grassroots level—and it is—it remains so underfunded that it hasn’t developed much beyond that.
The International Cricket Council (ICC) is the international governing body of the game and is made up of the 10 most powerful cricket nations. It recognizes the United States of America Cricket Association (USACA) as the national governing body of the United States and provides $300,000 in funding per year for the sport. This sum, however, has no effect on the domestic game.
“The United States could make use of foreign funding to build its domestic infrastructure and to grow the game,” said Harrison. “Sadly, the foreign funding it gets is committed to expenses that have nothing to do with growing the game here, so it ends up being a zero-sum game.” Herein lies the problem: It’s difficult to find where the $300,000 from the ICC is going. As roughly 75 percent of USACA’s annual revenue comes from the ICC, the thought that there could be so little transparency in the funding of American cricket is troubling. This has raised concern, notably in an independent governance review of the ICC by Lord Woolf and PricewaterhouseCoopers in February 2012.
According to the report, the ICC “should develop a clear funding strategy to ensure an appropriate allocation of revenue between distribution to Members, funding of development of global cricket and targeted assistance to Members” and “would be better able to fulfill its role as leader of the international game, if the current subscription and distribution model were replaced.” These recommendations go hand in hand with addressing the lack of financial transparency, which the report notes is prevalent in global cricket. It’s compounded by the fact that “certain aspects of the finances of global cricket are not well understood.”
When American cricket has received foreign funding, it has been quickly yanked back. In June the ICC withdrew a payment of $8,100 to the USYCA’s volunteer body that was intended for the USACA, blaming the gaffe on an administrative error.
The message to American cricketers is clear: if the sport is to continue growing, it needs more domestic funding.
According to Harrison, cricket in the United States is funded through team and league fees, tournament fees, and donations, among other ways. But there also needs to be more short- and long-term investment by deep-pocketed individuals like actors Mark Wahlberg and Gerard Butler—new Caribbean cricket stakeholders—who have shown an interest in the sport and are willing to bet on its egalitarian potential, along with its ability to make sense to rather than perplex Americans.
Money can’t buy an instant boost to cricket’s popularity. But it can buy equipment to distribute among schools, particularly low-income schools, and more cricket fields to fill the current void.
But even if Americans aren’t going to become cricket fans, they could stand to learn more about the sport because of its larger political implications in the United States. In their new book, Enemies Within, Associated Press reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman expose the secret surveillance by the New York Police Department of cricket-, soccer-, and billiards-playing Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians around New York City. The NYPD’s findings are compiled into a 38-page “Sports Venue Report,” which contains “South Asian Sports Locations” and “Arab Sports Locations” while listing pictures and descriptions of cricket-related establishments. This association of cricket with terrorism is unwarranted, saddling the sport with another level of geopolitical implication less warranted than the last, which could turn off new potential fans before they even learn the game. And it’s distressing to see community activities turn into another means of surveilling communities that are already under heightened scrutiny because of their racial or ethnic backgrounds, or their religious practices.
Back at the pitch in Boyds, Maryland, the bowler is on top of his game. He takes a few steps back before charging forward and hurling the ball in one fluid motion. His momentum follows the path of the ball to the batsman.
If cricket is going to grow here, it needs that same momentum. American cricket’s sticky wicket is similar to the ones that have plagued other global team sports in the past, with scattered interest and an unpromising financial outlook. Yet it doesn’t feel like cricket is fighting the same battle as soccer for a foothold in the U.S. sporting mainstream. That’s because, more than anything, American attitudes toward cricket tend to be misplaced cultural biases that result from having the wrong perception of the sport. If we are able to shed the untruths that cricket is a colonialist sport for British snobs or one played only by Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians, then we can realize its potential to bring together communities in America and foster a sense of inclusiveness, especially among youth.
Eliot Sasaki is an Assistant Editor at American Progress.