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By Tom Melville
Henry Ford may have famously declared “History is bunk,” but he dedicated part of his personal fortune and life’s effort in establishing , on the Ford company property, Greenfield Village, what is today one of the foremost living history museums in the United States, a 240 acre recreation of the Detroit Henry Ford knew as a young man in the late 19th century.
Though it’s doubtful Ford himself ever took any notice, cricket was very much a part of the Detroit he grew up in. The future auto magnate was 16 when Richard Daft’s English side visited Detroit in 1879 and he was only 30 when Australia’s national team played in the city in 1893, a match that included a future Detroit mayor.
Detroit’s cricket legacy has, thankfully, not been forgotten by the overseers of Greenfield Village who invited me to recreate some 19th century cricket games at one of their recent events, and as I made my way to the village commons and began to pitch the stumps I was again undertaking, as I have for the last twenty years, the challenge of revamping cricket’s image from an alien, foreign, institution into a very real facet of Americana.
My activity soon attracted the curiosity of my first visitor, a tanned, middle age guy. “Is that cricket? When do you start?” he asked. “In about twenty minutes” I replied and, surprisingly, he was still there at that time. The curiosity of passing visitors quickly increased as soon as I brought out a bat and ball, those instruments of almost instinctive attraction to Americans, and soon another 3-4 visitors cautiously approached. A couple of kids, 10-12 years old, ran up. I asked them where their parents were and they pointed to their father, standing about twenty yards away under a tree and intently looking at these strange proceedings. “You need to spend some quality time with your kids” I shout over to him. He joins us.
I notice another lanky, middle age guy looking at our gathering from under another tree, like someone sizing up a new and unknown food dish but not sure whether to try it or not. I invite him to join us.
“I’m just gonna watch” he says. “This is for the doers, not the watchers” I reply and after a moment’s hesitation he joins us.
By now we’re up to about 9 or 10 people, a diverse collection of children, teenagers, middle age men and women and even a 60-something guy, enough to start a game. I launch into my presentation: “There’s no foul territory in cricket, you can hit it ANYWHERE…there’s no balls and strikes, you can swing and miss til the sun goes down you can NEVER strike out” (as it does almost everywhere I’ve been this last metaphor excites a buzz among the participants and I overhear someone mummer “Now that’s MY kind of game!”
The rules explained, I immediately delegate the most athletic looking of the participants to be one captain and after choosing up sides I send his team into the field and open the batting with an eager 12 year old.
I push the first delivery to the off for two runs, swing the next to the leg side for another two trying to work the ball around to as many fielders as possible, and then straight drive a four. Eight runs on three pitches! An excited buzz goes up among the participants and one of the fielders shouts “We’re getting smoked!” I shout back that cricket’s a naturally high scoring game and that they’ll do the same when they’re up.
After another couple of deliveries I give way to the next batter (have to finish things in under an hour; that’s all the time Americans will give you to prove your game) and settle in as the wicket keeper, which I’ll continue to play, for both sides, throughout the match so I can direct and monitor every swing, every delivery, every field placement, absolutely essential when working with American novices.
As expected, the play begins in a herky-jerky manner. Bats are dropped, batting is tentative, fielders are confused. But ball by ball, over by over, American’s bat and ball instincts begin to take over and the score slowly rises; 10 runs, 20 runs, with every fielder required to bowl in rotation their four ball over (this is, after all, 1860s cricket), father bowling to son, son to mother, brother to sister, until the innings closes with a respectable 29 runs.
No sooner has the last ball been bowled than the batting team races onto the field. No water break, no innings break, in that impulsive, hurry-scurry, spirit so characteristic of American sports and one the cricket world has always found so disconcerting, just as it did the great C.L.R. James the time he tried to teach cricket to Americans.
As the teams are switching a dapper looking, elderly, guy who I’ve noticed has been closely watching the proceedings from the sidelines, comes up to me and asks if he can see the ball I’m using . From his accent I can tell he’s either English or Australian. I hand him my 11” Incrediball which he turns over in his hand and then blurts out “This isn’t a cricket ball!” I remind him this is beginner’s cricket and safety is the top priority. He slaps the ball back into my hand with a look of disapproval on his face and walks away. I never see him again.
Meanwhile, the fun resumes…With the experience of just half an innings behind them, the participants make a quantum leap in their quality of play. With each over batting becomes more confident, bowling more accurate, running between the wickets more decisive as the baseball bred instincts progressively adapt themselves to the demands of this new game in a spontaneous and natural matter.
An entirely new emotional atmosphere also begins to emerge; not Calypso Cricket, not Downton Abbey cricket , but an atmosphere virtually indistinguishable from a Saturday night softball game, with parents now coaching their kids—“Don’t stand too close to the wicket”; “There’s a big gap in left field!”—as intently as any overbearing Little League coach while good natured banter—“Send him back to the minors!”; “He couldn’t catch a cold!” fly back and forth between the teams.
No ICC coaching clinic needed here. From just the logic and competitive demands of the game itself everyone’s quickly “picking up”, on their own, that in this game, the best way to hit a ball is with a straight bat, that the best way to “get an out” is with a good length ball, which I reinforce by shouting “Now THAT’S what we want!” with every half volley driven to the boundary and every good length ball that crashes into the stumps.
The batting team’s score slowly rises; 15, 20, 25 runs until the final batter makes his way to the crease. As is the case with almost every game I’ve done with American novices the batting team has kept, a la baseball, a “ringer” for the final wicket, which in this case, happens to be a barrel-chested 40-something guy who looks like he’s slugged plenty of softballs into the stands.
I announce that this is the last batter, that the fielding team needs one out to win, that the batting team needs five runs to win, and with this announcement the “ringer” stands erect, raises his arm and points to deep long on in mock imitation of Babe Ruth’s “called shot”, all to the loud laughter of his team. The fielding team, however, returns the laugh as his huge heave misses a ball outside the off stump. But he connects with the next ball and scores two. “Three runs to win, three pitches left…two runs to win, two pitches left”…I mechanically announce after each delivery to heighten the increasing emotional intensity.
Final delivery and the “ringer” mishits a good length ball, but it loops over the bowler who jumps but can’t reach it. “Thaaaat’s the game!” I shout as the batters scramble for the winning run and the bench explodes in cheers.
As the two teams now gather together, shaking hands, slapping backs in the warm afterglow of this newly discovered communal enjoyment my thoughts drift off, as it has on many occasions like this, to that elusive Holy Grail of American cricket, articulated no better today than it was by the New York sportswriter who, in covering a cricket match in his city 174 years ago proclaimed: “What can be done to naturalize this beautiful game in America?”
But there’s little time to ponder the course of sporting cultures. A crowd of anxious viewers has been growing throughout the game and well before the last handshake you hear the words: “When’s the next game gonna begin?”
[Tom Melville is an American cricket player and author of 'Cricket For Americans' and 'The Tented Field: A History of Cricket in America.' He’s been working with Americans at cricket for over thirty years].