Leading Edge: Only America can make cricket great again

Sunday Times


TELFORD VICE, Cape Town

EVERY cricket tragic worth the red smudge – metaphorical or not – on their whites knows that the first international match was not played at Lord’s, Melbourne or what used to be called Bombay.

Instead, it was staged in Bloomingdale Park at 31st Street and First Avenue.

That’s right: in Manhattan. Yes, in New York City.

Teams representing the United States and Canada, watched by perhaps as many as 20000 spectators, took each other on from September 22 to 24, 1844.

The Canadians, bless ’em, won by 23 runs. Best we don’t tell Donald Trump lest he hatch an alternative result. That’s if he doesn’t brand cricket some kind of dire foreign threat. Like French fries.

But even orange agents of truthless outrage can’t deny that the home of international cricket is the US of A.

Funny thing is, despite everything that has happened in the ensuing 173 years, cricket’s future is as American as its past.

It’s viable future, that is, as an entertainment that competes for the ever-shortening attention spans of people who have better things to do than watch teams pretend that not a lot has changed since 1844.

That’s test cricket in a nutshell: still played exclusively in whites, almost always in daylight hours, nearly never by women, too often for hours on end in which little of consequence appears to happen, seemingly without a thought for the convenience of a public that does not have five days to sit around and take seriously a “match” that might not even produce a winner.

If Trump blusters himself into a war with Britain or its former colonies – hey, remember when we thought not even the fattest, stupidest Yanks would consider him for president – cricket could easily construed as the trench that divides his Us from our Them.

You can hear him now: “Build! The! Boundary!”

Which is not to deny the grandest form of the game its grandeur. It lives and breathes an integrity that puts it exponentially beyond any other team sport and produces contests within its larger contest that stay with you like a first kiss.

But can test cricket get some relevance already? To do so, it will have to go home to the US – where big sport is about fine professionalism, not the fake patriotism of national teams, where major cities are home to two franchises in the same code, and where administrators know their game is followed by people with lives.

Baseball, for instance, is concerned about games dragging on for too long. So, since 2015, measures like warning players who stray from the batter’s box between pitches and limiting the time pitchers take to wind-up and throw have been instituted at various levels.

And that in the interests of shortening a game that, on average, takes around three hours to get through nine innings.

Which is as long as long as a game of T20, cricket’s shortest, most frenetic format – factors that tend to make purists stay away or change the channel.

Cricket refuses to enhance its watchability, instead going the other way and ensuring – in the shorter, ostensibly more with-it formats, nogal – that any bowler who does not serve up deliveries that a reasonably coordinated 10-year-old could slap to the boundary is slandered with no-balls and wides, and submitting itself to the contrived pretense of nit-picky power plays.

Please, cricket, sell your soul to the Americans. They’ll make you great again. Or at last. 

That 1844 game, for instance, was hosted by the St George’s Cricket Club, whose team had a kickass nickname: the Dragonslayers.

Sign me up. I’m already a fan.

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