Why Cricket Cannot Progress in America

2014 Jan 23 by

[Cricket in America] remains stubbornly subterranean; its tunnels and caverns may be continually lengthened and expanded but rarely do they break the surface into the sunlight of mainstream American sports interest.

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By Tom Melville

The recent failures of the national team has once again, like the predictability of the seasons, brought calls for change, a new direction, for cricket in America. The national cricket ship-of-state, small and dilapidated as it is, has lost its way and plenty of self-nominated individuals and organizations have stepped forward to put it back on course or, better yet, chart a new course.

Just as predictably, progress for cricket in this country continues to be viewed as an issue of who, controls the game, rather than what they are supposed to be controlling. And what cricket remains in America, as it lurches from one organizational crisis to another year after year, is the same as it always has been: an almost exclusively ethnic institution, out of sight and mind of mainstream Americans, the proverbial “underground” sport as one ex-USACA official famously dubbed it, and, as a result, cricket, a game which by all rights should have at least a moderate American following, remains one with virtually none.

Now there’s no question cricket has “progressed” in the United States over the years and will continue to “progress” to some extent or another no matter who’s running the show. Youth programs have sprung up, grounds are being constructed, and tournaments continue to be organized, officially or unofficially. But for all this, the game remains stubbornly subterranean; its tunnels and caverns may be continually lengthened and expanded but rarely do they break the surface into the sunlight of mainstream American sports interest.

Now there have always been enlightened individuals from the cricket community who recognize that this is a situation that must change, that there will never be any meaningful progress until the game breaks out of its confinement within the ex-pat community. But even these progressive minded individuals rarely grasp the implications or enormity of this task. I once ran into such an individual. He was a long time administrator of a local league and had expectations that his son would one day play for the national team. But as we talked I asked that if he were truly committed to making cricket a more mainstream American sport was he willing to dedicate himself (at least in the long run) to seeing mainstream Americans one day holding his position, or seeing (again, in the long run) an American taking his son’s position on the national team. A noticeably troubled expression came over his face once I turned the conversation in this direction.

But this is exactly the role the ex-pat community must assume if cricket is to move forward, not a role of cultural preservation but transition, committed to a, perhaps slow, but dedicated, self-dissolving of cricket’s cultural insularity into the melting pot of mainstream American culture.

It’s a transition American soccer and rugby (once both viewed by Americans as predominantly immigrant sports)  have accommodated with palpably positive results: increased American support, financial stability, and international competitiveness.

And this won’t happen by just coming up with a new organizational flow chart but by hitting on the right formula for moving cricket beyond something Americans now only get excited about on a short term basis to one of long term support and commitment.

One person is an individual, two or three make a group, but eleven becomes a culture, and introducing a team sport to people unfamiliar with the game involves more than just teaching them how to play. It involves nothing less than creating a new sporting culture, a tremendously challenging and uncharted task, the “heavy lifting” of any sports development, especially for a sport like cricket where hundreds of years of accumulated cultural baggage and cultural stereotypes must be discarded or at least remade to attract an American following.

Now just to avoid any potential misunderstanding it should be said right here and now that that this is not an issue of persons or groups but mindsets. Some years ago I met an American (he’d been living in England for a number of years) who was as rabid a cricket fan as I’ve ever run into. But I soon recognized from our conversation he was hardly “American” in his enthusiasm. For him cricket was essentially an antidote to the objectionable over commercialization and over competitiveness he saw in American sports. And as I listened to his excoriations on how limited overs cricket was corrupting the game (for him only test cricket was “real” cricket) I wasn’t surprised that he ended his diatribe with a resigned lament that his fellow countrymen, despite his best efforts at conversion, didn’t share his enthusiasm for the game.

And so the paralyzing impasse for American cricket continues with no resolution in sight: Americans will never take to a sport where they can’t be American, and the cricket world remains unable or unwilling to let their game become American.

(Tom Melville is an American cricket player, teacher, and author of Cricket For Americans and The Tented Field: A History Cricket in America. He’s worked with Americans at cricket for over thirty years.  Opinions expressed are those of the author.)