May 3, 2005


Bowling for democracy (Orlando Patterson and Jason Kaufman, MAY 3, 2005, The New York Times)

Cricket, the quintessential English game, is nonetheless one of the most international of sports. It is a dominant game in more countries than any other sport except soccer, in lands as varied as Australia, India, Pakistan, South Africa and the Commonwealth Caribbean. But a glance at the global map of cricket poses a remarkable cultural puzzle.

Why, on the one hand, does the game flourish in lands like Pakistan and India, where a hard-fought series can transfix two nations and even lead to improved diplomatic relations? And why, on the other hand, is cricket not much played in other former British colonies like Canada - or, for that matter, in the United States, with its heritage and "special relationship" with Britain?

The puzzle only deepens when one considers that cricket was once popular in both Canada and the United States. It rivaled baseball for most of the 19th century, with as many stories in the sports pages of The New York Times until 1880. Indeed, the world's first international test match was played between Canada and the United States in 1844. So the puzzle is not so much why it was never adopted in North America, but why in the early 20th century it was subsequently rejected.

Many popular explanations are flawed. Climate has nothing to do with it; cricket emerged as a summer game, and is easily played in North America during mild weather. North American multiculturalism is hardly a factor, given the game's popularity in the multicultural societies of the Caribbean and South Africa. Ethnicity cannot be the answer: There was a far greater proportion of English in North America than in India or the Caribbean. Why is it, then, that hockey and baseball eventually trumped cricket in Canada and the United States?

Cricket lost ground in North America because of the egalitarian ethos of its societies. Rich Americans and Canadians had constant anxiety about their elite status, which prompted them to seek ways to differentiate themselves from the masses. One of those ways was cricket, which was cordoned off as an elites-only pastime, a sport only for those wealthy enough to belong to expensive cricket clubs committed to Victorian ideals of sportsmanship. In late 19th-century Canada, according to one historian, "the game became associated more and more with an older and more old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon elite."

This elite appropriation played into the hands of baseball entrepreneurs who actively worked to diminish cricket's popularity.

We had a semi-batty Anglophile in our Freshman dorm and he organized a cricket match one day. We got out in the Quad wearing whites, with a sawed off goalie stick as a bat, a tape-wrapped tennis ball, and wickets made of stacked milk cartons...and a vat of gin. Two professors who we had to let walk through the "pitch" at one point were heard to comment: "At least we're attracting a better class of hoodlum these days."

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 3, 2005 9:08 AM

It's not that cricket is a bad game. In fact, it's quite a good game. It requires skills and talent and power and subtlety (besides, those who flock to this site will be most appreciative of the fact that contact between one's feet---or head---and the ball is not encouraged).

Like baseball, cricket supplies both excitement, expectation, anticipation and tension. Proof of the pudding is in cricket's international appeal. Nor do I buy the "elitist" label. Maybe in the past, but no longer.

It's simply that baseball is a much, much more multi-dimensional game, hence its public appeal (and more streamlined, hence its commercial appeal). And while both games provide tremendous pitcher/bowler-batter adversarial matchups, there is a flow and variety to baseball that I don't believe cricket can match.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at May 3, 2005 9:23 AM

. . . People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been cricket. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rewritten and erased again. But cricket has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh . . . people will come Ray. People will most definitely come. . . .

Naaaah. Just not the same.

Posted by: Mike Morley at May 3, 2005 10:00 AM

It's no footy.

(Anyone else here going to the USA/England friendly at Soldier Field memorial day weekend? OJ? Should be a good one. Let's hope England brings the full squad. Rooney, Becks and Owen included.)

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at May 3, 2005 10:43 AM

"and a vat of gin."

Probably explains everything.

P.S. What is a silly mid-off?

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at May 3, 2005 12:06 PM

I've seen weird uses of class warfare, but this may be the most unintentionally hilarious.

Cricket didn't lose out to baseball in this country because it was a elitist game for the rich. Cricket lost out because it TOOK FOREVER. It became real, real hard to get a good batsman out. So cricket matches stretched on for days. Full-scale international test matches can still last five days.

In fact, cricket would probably have expired as a spectator sport if the game hadn't introduced shorter forms of competition. First was one-day cricket in the 1970s. But even those matches can ramble on for seven or eight hours.

So cricket has finally come up with a baseball-sized version of the game, with two twenty-over innings. It lasts two-and-a-half to three hours, which should sound familiar.

If cricket had developed this form of the sport in the mid-1800s, it might have had a chance against baseball in the U.S.

Oh well, better late than never. But it had little to do with elitism or snobbery, and much more to do with that humble little stat: time of game.

Posted by: Casey Abell at May 3, 2005 12:31 PM

One more note. If anybody thinks that cricket's main problem was snobbery or elitism, check the soon-to-conclude test match between the West Indies and South Africa on

The absolutely sure outcome of the match will be a draw. The bowlers for these two teams have labored mightily for nearly thirty hours over five days. Their combined result has been to get thirteen batsmen out.

That's about one out every two hours. Imagine baseball at that pace.

I'll admit this is test cricket at its worst, due to a terribly prepared pitch. But even the best traditional test matches require an enormous time commitment from spectators.

That's why shorter forms of the game were essential to keep cricket going. And that's why traditional cricket in the 1800s had no chance against the much faster pace of baseball. Again, snobbery and elitism had little to do with that outcome.

Posted by: Casey Abell at May 3, 2005 12:58 PM

That match between RSA and the Windies is getting kinda funny. Of course, it's a dead draw and has been since at least the third day. But the West Indies have piled up a ridiculous jumbo-jet total of 747 runs in their first innings, which is more than the Pittsburgh Pirates will score this year.

The South African captain let everybody on the team, including the wicket-keeper, bowl a few deliveries. That's like a baseball manager letting the catcher, infielders and outfielders each pitch to a hitter.

One nice note of sportsmanship: the Windies admitted that an apparent catch off an RSA batsman hadn't carried to the fielder. A cynic might suggest that sportsmanship is easy when the game is a sure draw. But it's still a nice gesture.

Posted by: Casey Abell at May 3, 2005 3:58 PM

One more note of cricket commentary and I'll shut up. In that Windies-RSA match, the South African wicket-keeper actually took the last wicket on a "rank long-hop." He had hardly ever bowled before in his career.

The baseball equivalent would be Jason Varitek trotting out from behind the plate and getting A-Rod to pop up on a pitch a foot outside. Of course, they might have a brawl afterwards, which is definitely not cricket.

Posted by: Casey Abell at May 3, 2005 4:30 PM

Casey - Any sport where you can't pull out a last-second victory isn't going to make it.

Posted by: pj at May 3, 2005 4:44 PM

Of all the competitive sports Cricket is the most relaxing of the lot. No edge of the seat excitement...just a darned good way to while away an afternoon and feel good about it.

Posted by: Tom Wall at May 3, 2005 5:46 PM

In limited-overs cricket, last-minute (actually last-second) decisions are hardly unknown. Things can easily come down to the final over, even the final ball. The classic example is the semi-final tie between Australia and South Africa in the 1999 World Cup. (Which wasn't really a tie because Australia advanced on a better receord.)

Really, the shortest form of the game, Twenty20, ain't a bad spectator sport at all. I've listened to some of the matches on BBC Internet and enjoyed them. Last-minute decisions are quite possible in this form of cricket. Australia and England will play a Twenty20 match before the Ashes this summer, and it should be a lot of fun.

Australia will win, of course. Or will they? One of the nice things about the short forms of the game is that even the best team in history - which the current Aussies probably are - can be upset.

Posted by: Casey Abell at May 3, 2005 6:42 PM

Just goes to show that the only sports that last are those in which offence and defense improve at the same pace over time. Good sports developers (commissioners) take care to change the rules over time so that the scales don't tip too far either way. Basketball, which has developed into an all offense game, is now just a personality show -- while the constant tweaking of the rules in pro football (American style) can be annoying it has kept the game in relative balance over the years.

Posted by: Shelton at May 4, 2005 11:40 AM