Is cricket's 'American dream' more than just a novel idea?

With the US co-hosting the World Cup, people are asking whether the sport can go mainstream stateside

US captain Monank Patel plays a shot during the Men's T20 World Cup match against Canada in Grand Prairie, Texas, this week. AFP
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With 16 out of 55 matches in the Men’s T20 World Cup being played in the US, much has been made of cricket’s longstanding connections to North America and the game returning to a place of historical importance.

The first time English cricket’s most recognisable player of yore, WG Grace, embarked on an overseas tour it was to the US and Canada. The first international cricket match was not between Australia and England, but Canada and the US in 1844. Benjamin Franklin and George Washington were both said to be cricket men.

Cricket’s popularity diminished significantly in the US in the latter part of the 19th century, but the ever-increasing power of the diaspora has helped put the sport back in bloom in the 21st century.

The International Cricket Council claims there are up to 30 million cricket fans in the US and about 200,000 people play the summer sport in the country, up from about 20,000 two decades earlier, which represents rapid growth.

Cricket will return to the Olympics in 2028 when Los Angeles hosts the games. The US is already home to a fledgling franchise cricket league. People speculate that the sport is experiencing the same transformative moment in the US that soccer took after the country staged the 1994 World Cup.

On Sunday, New York will stage the biggest and most intense international cricket fixture in the world – India versus Pakistan.

People speculate that cricket is experiencing the same transformative moment in the US that soccer took after the country staged the 1994 World Cup

All 34,000 seats at the purpose-built Nassau County International Cricket Stadium were sold out months ago, and more broadly the eyes of the world will be on the city for a match timed to take place at peak viewing hours in South Asia.

The fiercest rivalry, played out on a foreign field in front of thousands of passionate fans, makes it a near-perfect fixture for headline writers. Expect a fair smattering of “New York state of mind” references or “field of dreams” and “theatre of nightmares” mentions in match reports if one side dominates or if the pitch proves as unreliable and uneven as it has done already in this tournament.

One person who may afford himself a wry smile whatever the result is novelist Joseph O’Neill, whose 2008 novel Netherland deliciously explored what was then the niche world of cricket in America and imagines a version of the sporting world we now find ourselves in.

“I know what you’re thinking, I am out of my mind,” Chuck Ramkissoon, a character at the heart of the book, says early in the novel. “A game between India and Pakistan in New York City? In a state-of-the-art arena? It is an impossible idea, right? But I’m convinced it will work. Totally convinced.”

The author's sweeping narrative in Netherland flits between London and New York in the post-9/11 era and is driven forward by a combination of the “macabre discovery” of a missing person’s body in a New York canal, a broken marriage struggling to find a way to repair itself and a dream about bringing international cricket to the masses in the US.

The title was a play on the Dutch heritage of the book’s protagonist and, perhaps, the lowly status of the game in North America only 20 years ago. The running joke in O’Neill’s book is that cricket would always exist on the fringes in the US, played as a “matter of indulgence” by stubborn expats and economic implants.

The book was warmly reviewed by this newspaper when it was published. O’Neill’s latest novel, Godwin, is out this month, which is probably a smart piece of publisher scheduling to maximise the appeal of the author’s back catalogue.

More broadly, contrasting views of how cricket may develop in the US emerge throughout the book.

Chuck wanted to start a “cricketing revolution” and get the nation playing the game again, rewinding the world to that 19th-century peak of popularity. As the evangelist of Netherland, he is convinced he could start a “whole new chapter in US history”. Another character imagines America as a staging post for international matches.

The presence of the World Cup in the US has begun a version of both, but the sport’s big moment in New York may prove fleeting.

The temporary stadium in New York will be dismantled after the final match at the venue next week and its stands, which were filled with raucous India fans earlier this week for the team’s match against Ireland, will be reused on the US golf tour from where they came in the first place. Not much will remain of cricket’s New York moment in a few months from now.

The grassroots appear stronger than ever, however, if ICC estimates on participation are accurate, even if the New York arena idea has not yet found permanency. Nearly 20 years on, Netherland has been transformed into a form of nearly land.

Published: June 06, 2024, 3:00 PM
Updated: June 07, 2024, 3:28 PM