As American as Cricket

A movement has been growing to bring what was once the most English of sports into the American mainstream. It just might succeed

Robert M. Cunningham

THE American cricket season had entered its penultimate week last fall, and Manish Prabhu, Microsoft Cricket Club's most gifted player, was praying that his team would win the Northwest Cricket League championship. For that to happen, Indo-Pak Cricket Club had to upset Seattle Cricket Club, Microsoft's main rival, in a game then in progress at Fort Dent Park, in Seattle. A cricket fan ever since I was a child in South Africa, I watched the game with Prabhu from the sidelines. Mid-conversation he broke into applause as a burly Indian software engineer thumped a ball over our heads. It bounced off a Jeep Cherokee and disappeared into the parking lot beyond.

The scene around us seemed airlifted straight out of England: blackberry bushes lined a leafy lane, a humpbacked stone bridge spanned a stream, cricketers clad in pristine white dotted the willow-edged park. Even the weather felt right. Rain had been forecast, but the sun had sheared through the clouds to deliver an immaculate blue day, as rare in Seattle as in Yorkshire.

Fort Dent, five minutes from Sea-Tac Airport, is the hub of American cricket's renaissance. Every weekend from April through September engineers, chefs, postdoctoral fellows, taxi drivers, and paper-pulp moguls gather at Fort Dent to play and talk cricket. Their conversations, as often as not, turn to the prospect of converting cricket into an American game.

Most Americans view cricket as quintessentially, unfathomably English -- less a sport than an eccentric kind of picnic, and as baffling as wallpaper on the ceiling and "spotted dick" on dessert menus. But cricket is no longer particularly English. For one thing, the English are no longer so very good at it: they currently rank a wretched eighth out of nine among the major cricket-playing nations. Cricket's epicenter has shifted decisively from England to South Asia. Now enterprising South Asian immigrants are eager to make the United States a force in world cricket.

As we sat beneath the wind-tousled willows, Manish Prabhu described the new energy that the Indian diaspora has brought to the game. Microsoft's Redmond campus has about 15,000 employees. Some 2,000 of them are South Asian immigrants. Most of the immigrants, like Prabhu, are software-development engineers. Together with a smattering of Australians, South Africans, and Englishmen at Microsoft, the South Asian engineers constitute a serious cricket subculture. Microsoft evidently understands that cricket makes them happy: it pays the league fees for its employees' teams.

Prabhu joined Microsoft -- the corporation and the cricket team -- in 1996. Now twenty-eight, he is at the peak of his cricketing prowess -- and of his dedication. When he can't find bowlers (pitchers) to practice with, he improvises with a baseball pitching machine. But it's a frustrating compromise. In cricket the ball is supposed to bounce off the ground before reaching the batter. It's supposed to swing and spin unpredictably, with variable speed, not just through the air but off the grass as well. A pitch from a baseball machine is lackluster, offering only movement through the air, and is consequently too easy for a cricketer to hit. It is only natural to compare cricket with its domestic rival. After work Prabhu and his colleagues practice cricket on a field that adjoins a baseball diamond. When night descends, Prabhu finds himself gazing enviously at the baseball players' expensive floodlights, their batting cage, the perfectly level green. "Someday that could be us," he said to me. "I've told my wife that when I make money, the first thing I'll do is build an excellent cricket field. The thing is, if I keep playing this much cricket, I'll never make that much money."

What would make the biggest difference to cricket in America? His response was instant: "Seeing cricket, lots of it, on TV. Not just pay-per-view, like now." Prabhu recalled journeying as a boy from Bombay to his grandmother's village, a place that electricity hadn't yet reached. He would try to play cricket with the village children, but they weren't interested. When he returned to that village recently, electricity and TV had made a difference. "The kids were playing the game every minute, everywhere," he said. "Now they can see cricket wherever it is being played in the world, nonstop on television. But you know the best thing for cricket in America?" he added, his eyes twinkling. "Get Bill Gates's kids involved."

Prabhu grimaced and fell silent: an Indo-Pak fielder had dropped a straightforward catch near the boundary. Seattle Cricket Club was headed for certain victory. Together we watched Microsoft's hope of taking the championship go into hibernation until the spring.

"SERIOUS sport," George Orwell once wrote, is "war minus the shooting." This is nowhere truer than in the cricket stadiums of South Asia, where the line between the region's military conflicts and the passions stirred by cricket victories and defeats can be razor-thin. Tensions between India and Pakistan over Kashmir and nuclear testing have spilled over into cricket, resulting in riots, fans' deaths, and the ravaging of cricket fields. Such volatility has forced the two nations' teams to stage most of their contests in distant, neutral venues such as Toronto and Saudi Arabia.

When India defeated Pakistan in 1996, traumatized Pakistan supporters accused their team's captain, Wasim Akram, who had withdrawn because of an injury shortly before the game, of folding under pressure from a betting syndicate. Vengeful fans kidnapped Akram's father and held him hostage for several days. (In light of such an incident, Seattle's "Indo-Pak Cricket Club" sounds like a magic-realist joke in a Salman Rushdie novel. It's as if a Cold War-era hockey team had called itself the Soviet-Americans.)

In the four cricket-besotted nations of South Asia -- Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh -- the sport knows no equal as a repository of virulent patriotism. When the Bangladeshi team pulled off a shock upset of Pakistan last year in the Cricket World Cup, in England, millions of Bangladeshis took to the streets to celebrate. Some waved banners declaring PAKISTAN'S SECOND DEFEAT: 1971 & 1999 -- a reference to the war between East and West Pakistan that led to the creation of Bangladesh. When Sri Lanka played South Africa during the Cricket World Cup, Tamil secessionists hired a plane to fly over the cricket stadium trailing the words SOUTH AFRICA, WE TAMILS SUPPORT YOU. To Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority, such an act was tantamount to treason.

Fort Dent Park is quite a distance from South Asia's impassioned geopolitics. Yet in the past few years some of that energy, stripped of its bitter factionalism, has unquestionably begun to invigorate the American game. One early-fall day I returned to Fort Dent to talk to U.S. cricket's most erudite, indefatigable campaigner, Deb K. Das.

Das emigrated from Delhi by way of Cambridge University, arriving in Seattle in 1962. He holds a master's in economics and works as a long-range energy forecaster for the city of Seattle. But cricket remains his first love. Das is the U.S. coordinator of cricinfo.com, the world's largest cricket Web site. Along with the predictable match schedules and reports, the site offers a treasure trove of arcana: a summary of cricket's thousand-year-old ancestry, the composition of the 1930s Hollywood team that toured Canada (it included Errol Flynn, Boris Karloff, and Nigel Bruce), and an exhaustive cricket-to-baseball dictionary -- a magisterial work of translation.

Together Das and I watched the seemingly invincible Seattle pulverize Portland. I asked Das how big he thought cricket could get in America.

"You must understand," he said, "this is not something new. Cricket has been played in Seattle for over a hundred years, and in places like Boston and Philadelphia for far longer than that. In the 1850s cricket was the most popular team sport in America. At Bloomingdale Park, in New York, ten thousand spectators would spend a hundred and fifty thousand dollars -- a fortune back then -- gambling on the outcome of a cricket match."

American cricket's finest hour to date came on January 5, 1888, when C. L. Bixby, of Boston's Longwood Cricket Club, led the United States to victory over the fabled West Indies cricket team. But as cricket went professional in England and Australia in the 1880s, it remained on an amateur footing in America. By the 1920s it had been eclipsed by the secessionist sport of baseball.

Deb Das is hopeful that the sport can reclaim some of its former glory in this country. "We may never have a cricket Big Ten in America," he told me. "But if you're thinking soccer, even tennis, yes, we can get to that level. Twenty years ago soccer was as foreign as cricket is today. Then they introduced it as an alternate sport in elementary school. This is our challenge: to get it on TV and into schools. And have cricket camps for American kids."

Das recounted how in the past eighteen months Mike Miller, a former club cricketer from London, had launched a pilot program to take the sport into California schools. The kids' enthusiasm has persuaded the United States of America Cricket Association (USACA) that it can generate for cricket a grassroots culture comparable to soccer's, lifting the sport beyond its immigrant base.

Das's friend Jack Surendranath joined us on our park bench. The two have known each other since the early sixties, when Surendranath, recently arrived from India, bowled for the U.S. national cricket team.

"This is a global age, and cricket has gone global," Das said. Indeed, the populations of all the cricket-obsessed countries add up to more than 1.5 billion people, roughly six times the population of the United States. "In India you breathe cricket," Surendranath said. "There are one billion Indians. Is there anyone in India who hasn't seen cricket? I sincerely believe such a person does not exist. But cricket still has an image problem in America. What did Robin Williams call it? 'Baseball played on Valium.'" I said I had once mentioned to an American friend that Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett were both ardent cricket fans. "Of course," the friend responded. "All that organized futility." Das nodded. "But the One Day Revolution has given us the chance to change all that." He recapped the history of that revolution, which began in the late 1970s, when a maverick Australian entrepreneur invented a condensed one-day cricket game to rival the three- and five-day games that gave cricket its reputation in America for geological-scale tedium. Although the long version is still widely played, "one-day cricket," in which each team faces a single inning of 300 balls (cricket's equivalent to pitches), has sparked the sport's international resurgence. The shorter, less arcane, more dramatic game can draw 90,000 spectators to stadiums from Calcutta to Melbourne. Excitement surrounding the 1999 Cricket World Cup, in which one-day cricket was played, accounted for some 35 percent of all TVs sold in India last year. As cricket has gone populist, so the sport's coffers have begun to fill.

Purist defenders of the game dismiss quick cricket as the Disneyfication of their hallowed pastime. Their metaphor may actually be prophetic. Representatives from the Disney Corporation attended the World Cup last year and were evidently impressed: they have had discussion with the USACA about the possibility of constructing a stadium in Orlando and perhaps even hosting the World Cup there.

Max Shaukat, a New Yorker born in Pakistan, believes that cricket will prove lucrative enough to enter the American mainstream and that enthusiasts here will soon be able to watch the game on open TV channels. Shaukat presides over the World Cricket League, an organization concerned less with American cricket players than with the needs of cricket fans. He estimates that one million to 1.5 million people in America follow cricket on a regular basis. But they're still mostly South Asian and Caribbean immigrants residing in New York, New Jersey, Florida, California, and the Pacific Northwest.

"The challenge is to get cricket into the American mental software," Shaukat told me. "At the moment, we're still under different operating systems." Last year Shaukat's organization pulled off a triumph, winning support from New York City for a new cricket stadium. The stadium is to be erected in Brooklyn with $30 million from private investors. As Ken Podziba, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's sports commissioner, puts it, "We don't want people to think of just basketball, baseball, and hockey -- they should think of cricket, too. We want a cricket field that will attract the world's best players for a New York audience."

WANDERING my favorite cricket haunt -- Van Cortland Park, in the Bronx -- one sultry afternoon last summer, I was spoiled for choice: five games were in progress. I decided to watch Big Apple Cricket Club take on East Canje Cricket Club. Big Apple was a here-comes-everybody sort of team, with players from at least five different countries. East Canje, I learned, is a tiny coastal village in the Caribbean nation of Guyana. All the players on the East Canje team were Guyanese expatriates; they knew one another from high school. The captain explained to me, "When anyone arrives in New York from East Canje, the next week he gets recruited."

Before me, competing fiercely, were two very different visions of American cricket: the one expansive, a global sport's embrace of cosmopolitan possibility; the other an act of immigrant nostalgia, an attempt to re-create within the chaos of America the ancestral village, through cricket and ethnic self-enclosure.

Even if American cricket chooses the cosmopolitan road, it has a long way to travel before it can recover the popularity it possessed a century ago. Despite the game's resurgence in America, India still boasts more blind cricketers -- three million of them -- than there are sighted cricketers in the United States. (In blind cricket a rattle is placed inside the ball, enabling play by ear.)

Cricket's advocates take heart from the way soccer has been grafted onto the American sporting scene. Even in the early eighties soccer was viewed as alien. But today there are some 18 million U.S. soccer players, a professional league with growing popularity, and a ubiquitous presence in the schools. Can cricket hope to emulate that success? Or, for that matter, even hope for the kind of modest fan base that "American" football has built in Europe? Perhaps. But even in Seattle not all the auguries are good. Despite Microsoft's support for the cricketing devotions of its software engineers, my Microsoft Word spell checker still underlines "cricketer" in red as a nonexistent word.


Rob Nixon is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. His most recent book is Dreambirds: The Strange History of the Ostrich in Fashion, Food, and Fortune (2000).


The Atlantic Monthly; July 2000; As American as Cricket - 00.07; Volume 286, No. 1; page 79-81.