In summer 2014, as the FIFA World Cup was underway in Brazil, American sports media burst with commentary about the global game’s rising popularity in the States. But over the last weeks, as hundreds of millions of people around the world have followed the ICC Cricket World Cup, there’s been no such talk in the U.S. about rising interest in cricket. With co-hosts Australia and New Zealand set to meet in this weekend’s final, we spoke with three fans in New York City about following the sport while living in America.
Is there a consistent comment that Americans make about cricket that makes you want to tear your hair out?
Samir Chopra: There are three kinds of consistent and persistent misrepresentations that get my goat.
The first is that cricket is staid and genteel. I simply cannot wrap my head around this: are they talking of the game that gave us Bodyline, the West Indies, T20, six-hitting, bouncer wars, Rick McCosker’s broken jaw, sledging? Are they talking of the game that sees some of the fiercest manifestations of nationalist sporting conflict?
The second is that cricket is incomprehensible. Really? More complicated than the NFL’s penalties? Than baseball’s base-running rules? Than basketball’s endless strategizing in the last two minutes? Cricket’s rules are simple enough to be understood by anyone who watches with a fan for about an hour. It takes about the same time to understand most games. It is most decidedly not an outlier in this regard.
The third is that Test cricket is too long, that its very length marks it out as a bizarre outlier. Just imagine: it takes FIVE days to complete! Well, golf tournaments take four days, and fans still pay attention to them. Imagine saying to a golf fan, “But it takes four days and 72 holes to find a winner.”
David Papineau: Once I was playing cricket in Battersea Park – a fairly serious match between old club rivals – and I heard some passing Americans say, “Gee, look – cricket.” It was as if we were Beefeaters or some such other London quaintness. They seemed to have no inkling that it was a serious sport akin to their own sports.
In fairness, most Britishers are the same about baseball. They regard it as an alien game which they are determined not to be interested in. Somehow, NFL is different. There are plenty of NFL fans in the UK. But you have to be some kind of sports geek to be a British baseball fan.
It’s the same thing that most irks me about American sports fans’ attitude to cricket – they just aren’t interested. Even when they know how important it is in the rest of the English-speaking world, they just can’t be bothered to find out how it works.
David Mutton: I agree with all of Samir and David’s points, but I would add one more – that cricket is idiosyncratically English. When people learn that I am a cricket fan, it feels like I’m a walking advert for the British tourist board, somewhere between an extra in a Hugh Grant movie and one of the oddly dressed flunkeys at the opening of Parliament. They think of cricket as an odd game played by eccentric Englishmen. Whereas one of the reasons I love cricket so much is that it is a common language spoken around the world with many different accents.
Have you ever had instances when you’ve been able to pierce those American perceptions of cricket – a conversation where you’ve been able to convince an American to think of cricket as a serious sport, rather than a quaint artifact?
Samir: I’ve had some conversations like that. They always take place with a particular kind of American sports fan. Typically, this fan is a serious baseball fan who also follows the EPL and other “world sports.” That is, they are already cosmopolitan in a certain way. They are interested in the contrasts between baseball and cricket, but also the similarities. This kind of fan is intrigued by the existence of something that looks like baseball but isn’t – and wants to know what makes it tick. The interest in the EPL and other “world sports” does its work in making this kind of fan open to the fact that there is a world out there that isn’t dominated by “American sports.”
David P: I have always found this an uphill battle, even with Americans who have spent years in England. My strategy is to get them interested by comparing the different skills demanded by cricket and baseball: bowling/pitching – not dissimilar, but with a bit more variety in cricket; fielding – throwing by fielders is far superior in baseball, with more tactical excitement, but the spectacular catching skills of cricket are eliminated by the baseball glove; and batting – very different, with the explosive hit or miss in baseball, while in cricket the batsman can play each ball exactly as he intends for hours on end.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that this last aspect loses Americans. The idea of a noble stalemate between batsman and bowler, perhaps culminating in a tense draw, is understandably puzzling to fans who haven’t been imbued with cricket from an early age.
For better or worse, the rise of Twenty20 cricket might soon narrow the gap. In that format, batsmen have to do or die, just as in baseball. Maybe it’s time to launch a T20 tournament in the States.
David M: I’m always in a bit of a quandary about whether to introduce an interested American to cricket through T20. There is little doubt that twenty-over cricket is easier to understand and more accessible, but I sometimes feel that going down that path masks many of the beauties of the sport. And it’s as if the sport is almost on the defensive from the outset. More generally, I tend to assume – or at least hope – that anyone who likes baseball should be able to enjoy cricket (and vice-versa.)
On the subject of baseball and cricket, have you gained new appreciation for certain aspects of cricket now that you are able to view that sport in comparison to baseball, perhaps things that you didn’t recognize before moving to the US?
Samir: Indeed, I would say that just by examining the differences between baseball and cricket I have gained a new appreciation for both sports. The role of the pitch surface in cricket batting, the shape of the baseball bat, the element of choice in cricket – all of these have helped me understand better the different arts of batting. And I had never thought about how difficult bowling was at an intellectual level, despite having experienced it physically while playing, before I compared it to baseball pitching. Now more than ever, I’m amazed at what bowlers do.
Same goes for fielding. I noticed the brilliance of baseball throwing, which led me to think about the differences in fielding caused by the presence of gloves, which led me to think about how fielders in cricket pull off catches. But then fielders in baseball throw under greater pressure, which makes their work even more amazing. Of course, this then got me to thinking how cricketers have to catch the ball in fielding positions that baseball fielders don’t, like behind the batter.
Oh, and I also came to appreciate how difficult batting was in baseball, once I had seen baseball pitching up close. Geez.
David M: I’ve sat a few rows behind home plate at Minor League games and the sheer speed of the pitches – even at that relatively low level – was astonishing. A bowler in cricket will be a few miles per hour slower, but given the extra factors involved – such as the pitch, the lack of a strike zone, the emphasis on not getting out – it renewed my wonder at batting at the elite level.
David P: Fielding allows the most direct comparisons, with both games having their strengths. When it comes to stopping groundballs and throwing to base, baseball leaves cricket for dead. The arms are much stronger, the throws more accurate, even from off-balance. And then there is the split-second ballet of double and triple plays. Cricket has nothing to compare.
But with catching, it’s the other way round. For a start, the gloves in baseball take most of the excitement and skill out of catching fly balls, which can be one of the most spectacular aspects of cricket. And then there is the barehanded catching of hard-hit drives or snicks coming at 100 mph, often from only a few yards away. Again, the baseball gloves simply take this ferocious cricketing skill out of the game.
I wonder whether baseball infielders are doing themselves a disservice by wearing gloves and using them even for balls on their throwing side. Think of the wonderful catch by New Zealand’s Martin Guptill to dismiss Rilee Rossouw in the semi-final with South Africa. If he’d been a baseball fielder, he’d never have got his left hand up to catch the ball.
Has anyone ever checked whether infielders do better with gloves than without? I can see that they are a big help to outfielders with fly balls. But it’s by no means obvious to me that a barehanded cricketer in the infield wouldn’t stop and catch more balls. (Maybe we should suggest it to Billy Beane.)
On the subject of the dramatic New Zealand-South Africa semi-final, what do you do as cricket fans in America when there is an extraordinary match like that – with the kind of ending you want to talk about with other fans? Considering that one of the joys of being a fan is talking about the game, how are you able to express that side of your love of the sport when other fans are scarce?
David M: One of the fortunate aspects of living in New York is that there are places where you can watch games with other fans (the NYPD Intelligence Unit took a particular interest in establishments that show cricket and helpfully listed a lot of these venues in a secret document that was published in 2013). But such opportunities for social watching are rare for those of us with families, jobs, and some elemental need for sleep. Instead, I did what has become a routine for this World Cup: watch the first twenty or so overs of the game, fall asleep, and then wake up to catch the denouement. I punched the air and yelped in excitement when Grant Elliot hit the winning six against South Africa, much to the annoyance of my wife (it was about 5:30am). She was not very interested in my explanation of New Zealand’s past World Cup woes, so I took to Twitter to share and participate in the collective adrenaline of a close finish.
David P: Yes, I agree with David that New York at least is very good for this kind of thing. Sometimes too good. When Spurs (my team) were in the League Cup Final against Chelsea a few weeks ago, I went down to my local bar on 14th Street, O’Flannery’s, for the 11am kick-off, only to find it was completely packed and they weren’t letting any more in. Still, we were able to find another bar a few blocks away with a pile of soccer fans, albeit mostly Chelsea.
As for the cricket, I have quite a few fellow enthusiasts at work, and we have been comparing notes the morning after the world cup matches.
But this isn’t just an expatriate-in-the-USA issue. My sporting enthusiasms are various and geographically widespread. For example, I am an avid fan of the Natal Sharks in Super 15 rugby. It’s not easy to find kindred spirits for this in London, let alone New York. I resort to texting and tweeting with distant friends when matches are on. I suspect that this will be the way of the future for many sports fans.
Samir: Like David, I rely on social media, but I’ve also retreated from it a bit. There is nothing quite like watching a game in physical company (an old friend is going to come over and spend the night at my place to watch the India-Australia semi-final – this makes me feel young all over again!). I’ve also watched cricket on the television in the company of a few fellow fans in NYC – David Mutton being one of them.
As the two Davids point out, New York is better than most places for being able to find fellow cricket fans to talk about the game. As I noted in a blog post at the Cordon, before the India-Pakistan game I was able to talk about it with a young Pakistani lad in my neighborhood. Of course, in the moments immediately following a great game my first reaction is to head to Twitter!
David mentioned the crowded pub in New York for a Tottenham-Chelsea match. But 15-20 years ago that was not the case in the States – crowds in a New York bar watching English soccer, or even the television audiences that the football World Cup had this past summer. Do you see an opening for cricket to gain a substantial following in the U.S., in the same way that world football has established such a strong fan base in recent years?
David P: I think cricket is going to have an uphill climb in America. It doesn’t have a natural fan base in the way soccer did, with the Hispanic Americans and those with European antecedents, not to mention all the children who were playing and the success of the women’s national team. There are not the same numbers of immigrants from the West Indies and the Subcontinent, and unfortunately it’s not an easy game to get going at school. Maybe it will change with T20, but I fear it’s fated to remain a minority interest – with an image of English quaintness to most Americans.
Samir: I’m not too optimistic given the entrenchment of other sports on the American landscape. Perhaps the various T20 leagues worldwide could start to start to capture some eyeballs in expat enclaves and thus attract a few more local viewers. Perhaps. I can’t see it being taken up as a local sport. Soccer was able to do so because its requirements are a little simpler, and it began with a larger footprint in the various immigrant communities. Cricket doesn’t have that same kind of presence.
David M: One of the problems, I think, is that people get fixated with making cricket the next massive sport (and raking in the dollars that come with it). The International Cricket Council regularly speak up the USA as a potential market. But there is no way that cricket can become another soccer-like success story (even with soccer, it took several decades of investment, including the failure of the North American Soccer League, the 1994 World Cup, and then the formation of Major League Soccer).
Just because cricket won’t become huge, though, doesn’t mean we have to resign ourselves to its current depressing state. There are some relatively easy ways of increasing access, including ESPN airing more games. If we can make the USA into a strong associate nation that qualifies for the World Cup, we might start the long transformation from a purely immigrant sport played on the margins of the national consciousness.
And lastly, what is your prediction – or perhaps, your hope – for this weekend’s final?
David P: I really hope New Zealand win. I’m slightly surprised to have such strong feelings, but there is something a bit brutish about this Australian team (as an Englishman, I haven’t forgotten the excesses by Clarke, Warner, Johnson, et al on the last Ashes tour). And more importantly, I have always admired the way New Zealand makes the most of their limited resources by respecting the cricketing verities. New Zealand continues to be inventive in exploring the outer limits of what you can do with classic cricketing strategies. They have a few batsmen who can take the game away from the Australians. I hope they do.
Samir: My pre-tournament prediction was Australia, so I’ll stick with them. However, I’d be very happy to see New Zealand win. They’ve been playing a wonderful kind of cricket in this cup.
David M: The heart says New Zealand. The head says Australia.
Samir Chopra teaches philosophy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is author of Eye on Cricket: Reflections on the Great Game, and he regularly contributes to The Cordon at ESPNcricinfo. You can follow him on Twitter at @.