By Jamie Harrison, Head Coach and Program Director, Cardinal Gibbons School Cricket Team in Maryland
As the director of what might be the only American high school cricket program outside of New York, I can testify to the addictive nature of the game.
A man with a large property wanted his yard to be shaded with beautiful, tall oak trees, so he visited his local nursery and purchased eleven expensive oak saplings. He had them delivered and planted by professionals, again at great expense, and then he hired a team of gardeners to care for his beautiful saplings so that they would grow straight and tall. Unfortunately, despite the tremendous time and expense given to the saplings, they did not grow. In fact, one by one, they withered and died. Why? Because the man's yard was composed primarily of deep sandy soil, and was unfit for oaks, no matter how much time and money he lavished on them. The trees died because the soil he planted them in was not prepared to receive them.
This is the state of cricket in America today. We all are anxious for cricket to prosper and grow here, but the ground has not been prepared. We lack the infrastructure to properly support a top-flight international program; we possess so little funding, facilities and trained support personnel that even if we had the best eleven cricketers from India, within a few years they would no longer be considered the great international players they once were. We lack the market to support a professional league or to convince sponsors to invest significant resources into our sport. Why should they when less than 1% of the population would be considered fans?
Ask yourself: While it may be a noble endeavor, how would the United States Under-19 cricket team winning the World Cup be received by the American public? Would it even be reported in the mainstream American media? Probably not. So, how then would this major accomplishment, for which so many in our cricket community would be justifiably proud, advance the sport of cricket in the United States? In short, it wouldn't, not now anyway.
To expend most of our resources at the top end of our sport is time and treasure wasted. Before we can begin to dream of a successful American Premier League, or a competitive international test team, we must combat our natural impatience and spend many years preparing the ground. We must measure our successes not in terms of international matches won, but in the number of youth leagues formed. We must dream of seeing ten-year olds playing cricket in the summer, not twenty-five year olds playing Zimbabwe in the autumn. Of course, USACA has a responsibility to maintain our international programs as integral components of national program; however, our focus should be on developing cricket from the ground up, starting with schoolchildren, if we are to make the United States truly a force in international cricket. Until this nation has literally millions of school-age children playing youth cricket every year, and has gained the support of their parents, it will never be able to attract the funding and create the necessary infrastructure required of a top-notch cricket-playing nation, and all of our efforts will be in vain.
Do you think I am too pessimistic? Look to American soccer as an example. It took decades to create the interest necessary to sustain an international program and a viable professional league. Attempts made in the 1960s and 1970s failed, because America was not yet ready. Even so, with millions of American kids playing soccer today, the American men's international squad still struggles to gain respectability and often is defeated by less wealthy and less populous nations. The difference between nations at the top levels is the number of children playing soccer exclusively (and thus able to give themselves to it year-round), sponsorship money and professional infrastructure. The same could be said for cricket-playing nations. Cricketers around the world are developed from a very early age and the best give themselves over to cricket exclusively; to expect international success from half-hearted, part-time players for whom cricket has for too long been a "once a week in the summer" proposition is fantasy. Our task must be to create the proper environment for cricket to grow straight and tall in America, and for this, it requires the right soil to be in place first.
So how do we accomplish this revolution? How do we make the ground ready for cricket? We do it by convincing American schools to teach cricket in their Physical Education classes. This is not as daunting as it might seem at first, because cricket is the perfect game for gym teachers and once they are made aware of the benefits that cricket holds for themselves and their students, they will welcome the game. It is also crucial that cricket is demonstrated to them in such a setting that they themselves are allowed to play; having experienced the joy of cricket, many will be sold on it from that moment.
So why is cricket such a great game for Physical Education classes? It allows the instructor to observe students both as individual participants and as parts of a team. Cricket also possesses the unique potential to appeal to all athletes, not just those who are typically large, strong or fast. In a gym class, this propensity causes many disaffected students to shrink away from active participation. This means less involvement and a discouraging, awkward experience for the student; it also makes the task of assigning that student a fair grade more difficult for the instructor. Cricket rewards patience, technique and intelligence; stature has very little to do with eventual greatness. This encourages all students to participate, and draws out those typically disaffected students. Everyone wins.
USACA, for its part, must provide the direction and organizational structure to coordinate this effort nationwide, as well as providing the financial backing necessary to support the beginnings of school cricket in America. There is a great need for individuals across the country to present cricket to school systems, local recreation departments, Police Athletic Leagues and YMCAs. Someone at the national level needs to actively recruit these individuals, coordinate their activities and support their efforts. As a first step, I have proposed to USACA that they offer to reimburse any school, up to $100, for the purchase of their initial indoor cricket set. However, much more needs to be done, and I believe that someone at USACA needs to be on staff with the sole and specific responsibility of promoting and developing youth cricket in the United States. This task is far too important to be left to chance, without direction or guidance from the national organization.
Cricket, properly promoted to America's youth, can become the new equal-opportunity sport. Cricket can become the sport that encourages that undersized city kid to work hard and become the best he can be. Cricket can be the once and future "Great American Pastime." Moreover, once cricket had been reintroduced to a new generation of American youth, the United States, drawing from an under-19 population in excess of 40 million, will be properly positioned to rise to international prominence.
As the director of what might be the only American high school cricket program outside of New York, I can testify to the addictive nature of the game. In the past year, I have seen students become completely obsessed with the sport in just an hour's time, and have participated in the development of a thriving cricket program where, only months before, no one even knew what a wicket was. Most of the players on my team were introduced to cricket by another student who merely invited them to play. That's the key - we need to get cricket bats in the hands of America's youth. When we have done that for enough children, we will one day look up from our work to notice that America has truly become a cricket-playing nation. Only then can we hope to compete internationally, because only then will the soil have been properly prepared to receive this first generation of youth cricketers. And that, Cricket Nation, is when the revolution will have occurred.