Friday, March 7, 2014

Cricket in America (with apologies to Supertramp)

In honor of the inaugural American Cricket Federation’s North American Cricket Championship taking place today, I thought I’d finally get around to writing a post about cricket in America, from the perspective of a couple of fans and players, and the head of America’s top cricket organization (by “top” I mean “best,” not necessarily “official”).

I conducted the interviews for this piece a few months back, before the American Cricket Federation petitioned the International Cricket Council to review cricket governance in the United States. I wrote it because I thought it would be interesting to hear from a couple of Americans who approach the game as not just fans of cricket of as players. I also hope to hear from more of you!

In the next week or so I will post lengthier interviews with the people I talked to. For now, here’s my post.

Robert Taylor was like most Americans. He was aware of the existence of cricket, but that was pretty much the limit of his knowledge. Then, one day in 2003, he was walking through Heathrow Airport and happened to pick up a Wisden Magazine.

“It struck a major chord with me,” he says, “and just got hooked for good. I can't explain why … maybe I thought of it as a challenge to learn more about it and learn how to play it. Now I am hooked.”

As we try to grow the sport of cricket in America, one thing that struck me about Robert’s story is how he saw something there, and then was able to develop that interest until he became, as he said, “hooked.” What is it about Robert’s story that we can use as a learning experience? For me it comes down to one thing: He got his hands on a bat and started playing.

“It made zero sense in 2003 and now it's all clicking after fully immersing myself in the game,” according to Robert. “Learning about how to play and understanding the history and making new friends who teach me it all. What I didn't realize on that boring day in Heathrow, was that not only would I come to love and understand this classic game, I would end up making some of the best friends I've ever had.”

Robert is an all-rounder who says he loves fielding at mid-off and in the covers for his team, the Charlotte Cricket Club. He’s been playing seriously for about three years.

Far away from Charlotte, where Robert plays, Bandon Decker is a fan and player in another unlikely location: Missouri. Like Robert, Bandon enjoys fielding in close. He bats in the middle order, typically, and also bowls medium pace. His introduction to cricket came courtesy of a school project.
“We were doing turn of the century history and one of the modules was about WG Grace,” he says. “The homework was to learn a bit about cricket and I never really looked back.”
For Bandon, cricket obviously speaks not just as a spectator, but, like Robert, as a player.

“In both cases the intellectual, slow burning nature of the contest speaks to me. It is very easy for me to get lost in a match and not realize how much time has moved on until suddenly the umpires are taking the bails off. As a player this tends to manifest itself as it being an easier game for someone fairly out-of-shape like myself to play. It's a workout, but not a strenuous one and it's also not a huge mismatch between players of differing physical ability.”

While Bandon’s approach has been mainly spurred by the intellectual side of the game, Robert also finds that camaraderie, action, and achievement motivate him.

“It's a major high taking a catch, and it's a major low dropping an easy catch! I caught and bowled someone last month and I think about it every day. I clean-bowled one of the best Indian batsman in our league and it was such a rush, especially when your team congratulates you and jumps on you. I feel in those moments that is such a thrill to be alive playing this game AND contributing.  what an American dream feeling for me, proving that a dude like me can do it.  I am the only American guy in both North and South Carolina cricket so it feels special and I feel lucky.”

That last sentence presents us with the problem facing all of cricket in North America. Here’s a native-born American, with love and passion for a great sport—he gets it. And he’s the only one in two states.

Allow me to stop here and say there is nothing wrong with having all of our cricket leagues full of people born in America, or born anywhere else in the world. We are a melting pot—or we’re supposed to be, anyway. My point is simply that for the sport to become a success nationally, and for America to someday compete internationally, we also need to develop the game among native born Americans—whether their parents were born here or somewhere else. Whatever their roots. Whatever their beliefs or language.  And that is just what Jamie Harrison, the American Cricket Federation’s Chief Executive Officer, has been doing for years as the head of the United States Youth Cricket Association. The USYCA is an effort to bring cricket into schools—to teach kids and get them interested in the sport—and it has found a good level of success.

“I love the artistry and creativity of the game—it’s grace and beauty,” Harrison says of the game he obviously loves. “For example, as a lifelong baseball fan, I now see the batter's box as confining, something that restricts the movements of players, whereas the wide open area of the crease, and the 360° playing area, allows for so much more in the way of imagination. No one comes up with new ways of hitting a baseball, but with cricket, it happens all the time.”

Innovation like that sounds like something that would be meat and drink to American sports fans. But getting to that level of interaction, where people are aware of the game on a more intricate level, there is much work to be done.  Harrison feels like cricket needs to look at soccer for lessons on how to grow as a popular domestic sport.

“It was a niche sport, played generally by expatriates in certain areas of the United States, until the game found widespread adoption by schools and youth sports organizations, which in turn drew the parents into the game,” he points out. “There are over 50 million children under the age of 18 in the USA, and if we could just get 1% to play organized cricket, we'd be set up for an excellent domestic program.”

Therein lies the problem. Harrison says the domestic infrastructure has been has been ignored and untended on all levels.

“America will become a cricket-playing nation,” Harrison predicts, “just as soon as we throw ourselves into the hard work of making cricket widely available to all ages.”

For his part, Robert Taylor looks at the current state of cricket’s reach and feels there’s no chance for cricket to catch on in a big way in the U.S. His reasoning is based not on infrastructure or administrative approaches. It is based on how the game has been introduced here, and on an opinion that does hard-core cricket fans proud.

“The only way to appreciate limited-overs cricket is to be well-versed at test cricket,” he says, adding that he doubts that is an investment the average American will make. “You can't just suddenly arrive at T20 without first fully appreciating test cricket. So we are doing the game a big disservice by presenting the game first as T20 to America because no one will really fully appreciate it.”

Harrison, however, feels there is a chance, mainly because cricket is such a great game with some at least subliminal connections for Americans.

“I think of cricket as a beautiful mashup of the bat-and-ball skills of baseball and the psychology of golf,” he points out. “It's a very cerebral game, and I think that gives it an advantage over many sports that simply rely on physical attributes. I'm convinced that the game can bring in a whole new audience who are looking for something they can sink their minds into, so to speak.”

Bandon, on the other hand, agrees with Jamie Harrison that cricket does have a fighting chance in the United States, and says that increasing communication is important.

“Certainly I think cricket can follow the example of rugby, which gained a foothold first and is now starting to expand beyond that. I don't know if I would go so far as to say it will though; the organization is so poor that I think it will at the very least be a slower process.”

Bandon points out that efforts to reach children—like those being undertaken by USYCA—are key, as well as possibly introducing the game to a fairly small market and using that as leverage.

“ What must happen at some point though is that the matches be on some reasonably easy to watch platform,” he points out. “Cricket isn't going to get far with the current set up of having to pay $15/month to watch only whatever matches Willow deigns to pick up. What must not happen is executives deciding that Americans will only care about T20. Certainly some will only care about T20, but there are plenty like me who will prefer the longer format immediately. …To only try to introduce one will be foolhardy, especially as there is nothing to suggest that people do migrate from the short forms to the long one.

As far as international cricket and the United States, Bandon says he’d love to see an England/USA matchup someday.

“From a more general perspective, there is nothing really to be lost by trying to be competitive on the international stage,” he says, adding “it is a worthy goal.”

As for Robert whatever happens on the national or international level, he’ll be standing at mid-off or running in to bowl and loving every second.

“I thought it was just another sport or another game but had no idea then that it would become a religion and a way of life. How lucky I am to find it because not many other people like me from my background discover the game and fully appreciate it.”

So, what are your thoughts? Can cricket survive and thrive in America? What will it take? Can it ever be part of the mainstream?


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  2. I take that back, I know of another American trueblood like me who play for the UNC-Chapel Hill club. Paul Comer is his name and he has decent bat skills. Of course, there is the odd case of a trueblood "dabbler" showing up at a nets session or two then disappearing after one game, never to be heard from again, but Paul and I seem to be the only ones in North Carolina who got past the basics and play in a league for competitive hardball clubs. That's a long and difficult process to just to make that quantum-leap. It takes a lot of work and dedication just to be a bottom-feeder player!

  3. The true thrill is when you go from being that "funny American dude" who can't hold a bat to someone your club is counting on to regularly perform in a real hardball league game on regular basis. It just takes so much time for a trueblood American to get the basics down. It took me two years of constant practice and patience just so I can suck at this game! Almost everything about it was foreign to me, and no sports I played growing up in Houston TX prepared me at all for it, and my background in baseball felt more like a curse, because when I first took the crease in the nets my instinct was to make a baseball stance and a baseball swing at the ball, which is the absolute wrong way to go about hitting a cricket ball, but those are my raw INSTINCTS. That’s a very difficult thing to overcome and where I see most other truebloods like me get frustrated and quit, because it really is frustrating. Same with bowling. there is nothing about bowling that compares to anything I did growing up in the USA, so there are the two main elements of cricket that are foreign and befuddling for an American to grasp, much less perform or dare I say,.. excel. I used to be a golden-duck-lbw waiting to happen, but now I can’t wait to get out there and bat and score some runs. I still haven’t scored a half-century, but I’ve been in double-digits before and I hope to keep building on that this year.

    Those two years of struggling to understand the basics and learning how the game works was a true investment that earned me the right to share the field equally with other guys who’ve been playing all their lives without being looked upon as the “funny American dude” but as someone who is out there competing in the trenches with the rest of the guys, gutting it out, staying alert for 6+ hours, not getting out cheaply, backing up every throw, running dudes out, even sledging and mixing in a slow delivery, all the elements of the competition that really make the experience special. That’s the real joy for me is going to that “next level” and truly competing in the game you spent so much time learning how to play. I hope other guys like me make that investment, but you either have the passion or you don’t. that’s the mysterious part. You can’t teach that.

  4. You are right, Robert--there's no way to substitute passion and love for playing. It can be a daunting prospect. Maybe programs like those run by the US Youth Cricket Association, and affiliates like Indiana Youth Cricket, can get kids interested and trained in the basics, so they have something to build on.

  5. That's the best place to start planting the seeds.