Can a tour of global cricket stars rekindle America’s forgotten cricketing past?
Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run was inspired by a simple question. Why did his foot hurt after running in expensive, cushioned shoes? The search for an answer was not so simple. We are, he concluded, evolved from early humans who ran long distances in order to wear down swifter prey. We were born to run, but we’ve forgotten how.
His conclusion immediately occurred to me when I learned that the world’s greatest cricket all-stars will tour the United States next month. Wait, cricket?Why connect our running ancestry with cricket, a sport played today almost exclusively among England and its former colonies?
Well, just as McDougall’s book touched off a bare-foot running revolution a few years ago by reminding us of our primal running past, might this tour of international cricket icons rekindle something that has laid dormant in the American sports psyche?
That’s right, America used to be a cricketing nation. George Washington is said to have “played at wicket” with his troops at Valley Forge. And cricket drew tens of thousands of fans in Philadelphia and New York as recently as the early 1900s before baseball took off as our national pastime.
Were we born to bat?
Cricket, which uses a bat and ball, will reawaken this fall’s slumbering Major League Baseball stadiums in Los Angeles, Houston and New York. The Dodgers, Astros and Mets will step aside for the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, the great Indian cricket batsman, and Shane Warne, Australia’s legendary bowler (cricket for pitcher). All eyes will be on Tendulkar who is cricket’s Babe Ruth, but my English friend, Simon Gideon, a well-connected London media executive, said Americans will appreciate Warne who is like a reality show star. Check out his recent poker exploits in Vegas.
If you’ve never heard of Sachin Tendulkar, wisen up. Viraj Patel created a fascinating algorithm for Medium earlier this year that places Mr. Tendulkar at #5 on the list of most popular athletes on the planet. Golf’s Tiger Woods is #3 and Tennis’ Rafael Nadal is #6. The Indian cricket team’s current captain, Virat Kohli, is #4. That starts to make sense when you consider that cricket’s 2.5 billion fans worldwide cast a huge shadow over smaller sports like baseball’s mere 500 million.
Those numbers coupled with next month’s U.S. tour will be watched closely by sports investors, like me. I am a partner in two baseball teams, the Walla Walla Sweets and the Yakima Pippins of the West Coast League, and I read with great interest a piece Rugved wrote that notes film star Mark Wahlberg’s ownership of a cricket team in the Carribean Premier league. There’s money in them ‘thar wickets!
I first learned to love the game of cricket on a trip to India. Over time I came to appreciate the rivalries between countries, the idiosyncrasies of bowlers and the wristy or power strokes of batsmen. Since then I have written about the game’s presence in the U.S. for the Seattle news site Crosscut and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
It was while reporting a story, “Coder by Day, Cricket Bowler by Night,” that I met Vishwa Gaddamanugu. He is a cricket organizer and youth coach in the Seattle area, where like Silicon Valley, Indian software engineers play competitive cricket in parks and on softball fields. He was a world class Indian cricketer in his youth.
Vishwa told me recently that he’s taken the role of advisor and ambassador for the upcoming Cricket All Stars tour, which is organized by the sports promotion firm Leverage Agency.
The International Cricket Council (ICC), the sport’s powerful governing body, sees the United States as an untapped market, according to Vishwa. But no one until Leverage Agency was willing to take the risk of producing a cricket event in the U.S. of this magnitude.
Now, just as American football, baseball and basketball look to expand internationally as soccer did, cricket is looking to the U.S. and hoping the combination of successful immigrants from other former English colonies and a curiosity about baseball’s kissing-cousin might spell new growth and new wealth.
Do a search of social media about the tour and two things will become very clear. First, there is a lot of excitement about this tour, especially among Indian ex-pats. And, two, they are not happy about the ticket prices. A search on StubHub found tickets starting at $75 and going up to more than $400 for a seat close to the action. Some have argued this tour is as much about the financial needs of faded cricket stars as it is about generating excitement for the sport in America.
“This is not just about Sachin, but it is about showcasing world class cricket in world class venues to the cricket starved fans in the USA,” Vishwa argued.
Cricket starved fans in the US? The Wall Street Journal recently reported that there are just over 32,000 cricket fans in the U.S., less than a night’s ticket sales in some parts of the world. But in some cities the ex-pat community is large and nostalgic for the game. And cricket festivals around the country still attract curiosity.
Jayesh Patel, who wrote a thoughtful history of cricket in America, emailed me from India this past week to say that in his opinion the tour “is not going to popularize the sport which has had its ebb and flow (in the US) for more than two centuries.”
To return Americans to the sport, he argues, the promoters need to get media partners to show real matches for a month or so before and after the tour to build and sustain interest. He felt that a highly produced instructional video should be played prior to each match. And there should be outreach to schools to start cricket clubs.
Joe Lynn, who runs the CC Morris Cricket Library at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, documents America’s cricketing history and is hopeful.
“I’m sure that ex-pats from cricketing countries will make up the bulk of the crowds for the games,” Lynn said to me recently. “Ideally the hope would be that the stadiums will be filled with Americans that don’t know much about the sport and are intrigued enough by the names or the hoopla or advance publicity to spend their money on tickets and walk away wanting more.
“The bottom line is that there is little to no exposure right now for cricket in America.”
Last year Disney flirted with cricket promotion when ESPN broadcast the first ever match on US cable and then followed that with the movie Million Dollar Arm about a promoter who held a competition to find cricket bowlers who could play professional baseball. Coincidentally, that same promoter is now looking for baseball players who might make a splash in international cricket.
Deep within the American soul, is a cricketing past. The United States was once among the cricketing nations, playing teams from England, India, Australia and Canada. One of the greatest cricketers of all time was the American bowler Bart King from Philadelphia.
Curiously, the ICC excluded the US from international cricket test matches in the early 1900s when Bart King and his Gentlemen of Philadelphia were competitive with England. American cricket never recovered.
The mere mention of the sport of cricket in America today is met with something between eye-rolling and scorn: “I don’t understand it,” is the common response.
Groucho Marx is reported to have attended a cricket match once. After about an hour of play he was asked what he thought. “This is great. When does it start?”
In his post- 9/11 novel, Netherland, Joseph O’Neil writes about a West Indian cricket promoter who had dreams of building a beautiful cricket field just outside of New York City. He hoped to inspire a cricket revolution in the U.S., but near the end of the book it’s clear that won’t happen. His reluctant backer reveals a more pragmatic point of view.
“My idea was different. My idea was, you don’t need America. Why would you? There’s a limit to what Americans understand. The limit is cricket.”