“Every civility was, however, shown us upon reaching the territories of the United States by the Custom House officers in consequence of the baggage being marked ‘Cricketers of England’.”
Frederick Lillywhite – The English cricketers’ trip to Canada and the United States (1859)
As I talked, a yawn was unsuccessfully stifled. My friend had quickly raised a hand to his mouth in a gesture just one moment too late to stop me from noticing his faux pas. The fault, however, was all mine. I’d ruined what had been up to then an interesting sports conversation over a few beers, but then I’d started talking about cricket, hadn’t I? I couldn’t help it, a compulsion had taken over me. I’d been up late the night before, following online as England played India in a Test match and I had now crowbarred the subject into our conversation. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to initiate a discussion about the game, I don’t think I was really interested in doing that. It was more that as we talked about baseball, about college football, about basketball, I felt the need to bring up cricket too; that in doing so I was emphasizing that cricket was just as worth our time as these other sports which if I were being truthful I felt little connection too. But I was a passive-aggressive dick about it. I didn’t try to explain the laws of the game to my companion, I didn’t try to put the Test series with India into some sort of context for him. I just wanted, perhaps needed, to talk about cricket, and so that’s what I did. I’d become a bore.
It wasn’t the first time either. I’ve mentioned before on this blog how when drunk I sometimes start talking to Americans about cricket, I’m fun like that. If I’m being a particularly pleasant drunk, I may even try to explain the laws of the game to them in excruciating detail. For any of you curious about the laws, here’s a video of Vincent Price explaining them for the benefit of PBS viewers. There’s a lot more slurring and far less urbanity when I do the explaining.
For the most part, cricket seems to be a faintly ridiculous and impenetrable game for Americans. The USA’s own link with the sport was still there to an extent up until the time of the Civil War. The postbellum period, however, saw the rise of professional baseball and - aside from some geographical pockets such as Philadelphia that kept up an interest in the game up until the 1930s, and more recently from immigrant groups arriving from cricket playing nations - cricket was forgotten. Americans that I speak to, confess that from what little they know about cricket, as a sport it seems impenetrable to them, a game that has a whiff of effete pomposity and imperialism about it.
Cricket fails the Goldilocks Scoring Principle that American sports fans often cling to. If soccer is invalid as a sport because it doesn’t have enough scoring in an average game, cricket is ridiculous because it has too many. That a Test match can last for five days and still end in a draw seems an affront to the American sporting psyche. Five days seems to be an idea that people can’t quite get their head around, though I’d contend it’s just a matter of perspective. The World Series is played over seven evenings so the notion isn’t entirely alien. Also when I stop and think about Test cricket, there’s a lot there that is compatible with American sports; it combines the stop-start action and tactical nous of football with the navel-gazing nostalgia of baseball. It may seem ridiculous, but then aren’t all sports when viewed with some cultural distance. That thousands and thousands of people will gather to watch and scream with the intensity of religious zealots as 22 individuals chase, or hit, or kick, or throw a ball, in a multi-million dollar stadium specifically erected for such an occassion is mind-blowingly ridiculous.
Despite the incompatibilities I’ve noted, cricket, unlike soccer with its increasing popularity in the US, will remain a lonesome interest for me. England ascent to the top of the Test rankings (giddily exciting for those of us who grew up in the 1990s – the dark days of English cricket) but nobody else but me will know. I’ll stay up late and on a bad internet feed I’ll be bewitched watching the English seam attack, but when I wake I’ll question whether it really happened. The internet will tell me that it did, but no one else I meet during the course of the day will have the faintest clue of what happened. Really, what is the point of sport when it’s moments can’t be shared with those of the same faith? And should I try to share it, I know full well, I’ll just be boring the poor sod I’m talking to? They’ll try, and fail, to stifle a yawn. I’ll pretend not to notice. I won’t, thanks to technology, ever be reduced to the desperation of Charters and Caldicott who spent all of The Lady Vanishes seeking the latest Test score, but at least they had each other.
With cricket’s relationship with America on my brain somewhat I’ve been recently been reading, thanks to the modern wonder that is Google Books, Frederick Lillywhite’s The English cricketers’ trip to Canada and the United States. The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that in a futile effort to lend this blog the smallest pretense of some class, I led this post with a brief quotation from the book. The book is an account of a pioneering tour taken in 1859 by an English first eleven to both Canada and the United States.
As noted by the civility shown to the team by US customs (I can’t be the only immigrant to the US who finds the notion that someone working customs or immigration is capable of showing civility somewhat novel) this is a time where there still is some interest and knowledge in the game.
The tour was organized by a Mr Pickering, an Old Etonian who had emigrated to Canada. For the English touring party, all their expenses would be paid for as well as receiving the princely sum of 750 pounds for their trouble in traveling over to North America. The selected English players featured the finest cricketers then playing, including one Julius Caesar. In fact, so good were they, that in each of the games that they played on the tour, the opposition was allowed to field twenty-two players. That’s twice the number the English team fielded. The English eleven would complete the tour undefeated, against Julius Caesar the North American teams didn’t stand a chance.
On September 7th 1859, they set off from Liverpool on board the Nova Scotian. The Nova Scotian anchored in Quebec on September 22nd. On the journey across the Atlantic the ship had to navigate past icebergs and the touring party struggled to deal with storms seasickness and boredom. Being English sportsman their solution to alleviating the boredom was, of course, to gamble. When not vomiting from the sea-sickness, they spent most of their time playing whist and shuffleboard for bottles of Moët.
In New York, 25,000 spectators came to watch the English champions play. Despite Julius Caesar only scoring six runs, the English team still managed to win comfortably. At a dinner held in the touring party’s honor, after all those present had toasted “the noble and manly game of cricket,” three times, the band then played Rule Britannia followed by the Star-Spangled Banner. In Philadelphia, Lillywhite remarked on how the American women in the crowd were ”tastefully dressed in every variety of modern costume”. With snow fall in New York on October 22nd, the scheduled game of cricket was cancelled and an impromptu game of baseball held instead. The Americans would win this game, Lillywhite noting that the English cricketers found baseball to be a ”very childish game”.
The tour was a success. Unfortunately for American cricket plans for future tours didn’t come to fruition on account of the Civil War. By the time further tour were feasible (one was held in 1869) the increasing professionalization and popularity of baseball ultimately proved too much for cricket to contend with. Lillywhite’s book is not the easiest read, despite in “…and Lord Beauclerk was bowled out by a ratcatcher” containing probably the greatest sentence ever committed to print. It’s not that it’s a difficult or long read, far from it. It is, however, an often dry account of the tour and only occasionally showing flashes of wit. It does, however, present an interesting “what if”. It demonstrates that there was still an appetite for the game that Washington’s troops had played before the battle of Valley Forge leading up to the Civil War, and, who knows, if things had gone differently perhaps cricket rather than baseball might have become the national pastime. If things had been differently, perhaps even when I start to talk there would be no stifled yawn. Aw, who am I kidding?
1 I am, of course, grossly generalizing here but that seems to be the nature of the beast with expat blogs like this.
2 When in one of my snarkier moods, I argue that America, the country that gave the world the all-you-can-eat buffet, has no right to criticize Test cricket and should instead view it as the sporting equivalent of said buffet.
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