Away Games

The challenges (and consolations) of trying to play cricket in America

by James Robinson

“It is indeed hard upon a man to find himself a lost stranger, helpless, incomprehensible and of a mysterious origin in some obscure corner of the earth.”
– Joseph Conrad,
Amy Foster

At the end of Joseph O’Neill’s Booker Prize-nominated Netherland, a character remarks : “There is a limit to what Americans understand. The limit is cricket.” The comment may stand for the alienation that the Dutch protagonist faces in his exile in New York, but it also serves as a succinct summation of cricket’s fate in America. Limping back through 280 years of history, the highest status that cricket has ever achieved in the United States of America has been to briefly become nearly popular. And that was 160 years ago.

Therefore, it was an unlikely turn of events to find myself last November, driving an hour out of Boston to watch a cricket match. The day was pallid, and blustery and confusing for anyone who instinctively associates cricket as a summer sport. I parked inside the grounds of the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth, and waited patiently. The school’s architecture, supposedly one of Paul Rudolph’s 1960s utopian designs, gave off a stale grayness that seems to blend into the gruff skies.

My guide, Trinath Polisetty, 28, was from Andhra Pradesh in the South of India. The history of cricket in Dartmouth, MA revolves around him. He discovered a few people playing cricket in a parking lot of the university, and built them into a team. After two seasons as the Dartmouth Tigers, he finally convinced the university to endorse the team and provide them with their own field.

Round-faced with scattered peach-fuzz facial hair, Polisetty was not an imposing man. He was wearing a 2007 Indian World Cup Cricket shirt, and pants adorned with NBA-insignia. He was a warm guy and a big-talker – somewhat prone to directing broader conversations into the minutiae of individual cricket matches that he had played in.

Today’s game had been cut-down from an intra-club friendly match, to an informal six-on-six game in an outdoor area in a nearby housing complex. Here the identical and cheap plywood condos formed such a dense perimeter around the playing area that you could easily forget being only a short walking distance from the road.

The town of Dartmouth has a population of 30,000, and is the sort of white and wealthy small town that can sustain three separate country clubs, all with golf courses, within its confines. Even so, the university that comprises a third of the town’s population is not the best university in America. Its educational magnetism – about a hundred Indian and Chinese students have dropped anchor and come here to study – is well hidden. Consider though, that 37 out of the top 50 ranked universities in the world are American, while two out of the top 500 are Indian. Branches of the UMass network place in the top-500, but Dartmouth is not featured. Consider also that, at a yearly cost of around $20,000, it provides an American education at half the cost of a big-ticket private school.

Polisetty ended up in Dartmouth, because a cousin of his studied here. Apart from playing golf or studying, there seems no massive appeal to Dartmouth. You don’t drive through it to get anywhere significant. There’s really only an all-American main drag, replete with B grade fast food and chain shopping, serving as an arterial access way to a spidery, nebulous suburbia. Its most obvious upside is the combination of its proximity to Boston with copious amounts of green space. “It is not a happening place,” Polisetty laughed.

The playing field…well, the players were using as a central pitch, a basketball court in the middle of the housing complex. The concrete was cracked. The hoops were bent and rusted, with their backboards chipped. The outfield incorporated a small grassy area surrounding the unwanted court, inconvenienced severely by three large boulders serving some decorative purpose, badly. A parking lot, mostly full, was close enough to the action to be a nuisance, and the surrounding houses were also not removed far enough to be out of consideration.

The pitch was marked out with wickets wedged into the cracks on the court. This was not the first time they had played here. The conventions of the game, with rules worked around the obstacles – everything about it – screamed of innovation born of total necessity.

Most American cricket teams are comprised almost entirely of recent immigrants, or children of immigrants. The American-born cricket player, of American heritage, playing cricket in America, remains an apparition. Still these 12 Indian men were making it clear that they would take any surface available.

There was downtime, while we waited for everyone to arrive. People meandered in, eventually. As the roll call came near to complete, I found myself picking up a cricket bat. As a cricket player in my childhood, the bat felt natural to the touch. But something was different, an indescribable sense of separation. It was the mixture of the instinctive and the familiar in a completely foreign culture, x miles away from home in New Zealand, that felt incongruous.

The game began, and it was immediately clear this was not a casual game, makeshift surroundings be damned. The stakes were high, bragging rights real. A fielder dived to stop a ball and managed to catch a batsman out of his ground while completing a run. He jumped onto one of the rocks and celebrated, overcome with the glory of his own action. The sheepish, tired, cold students speaking amongst themselves in Hindi had been made over into hungry, athletic men at home in their surroundings.

Through my history as a fellow foreigner from a cricket-worshipping nation, my impartiality as a journalist was tough to maintain. It was less a connection than hypnosis that I felt while watching that game. The cultural linkages they had with each other, and the way they dominated the space and brought cricket to life was convincing, and genuine. Having surrounded myself with Americans after moving from New Zealand, all that I had felt to date towards my own home culture had been apathy, and atrophy.

Three young teenagers sat bemused on a newer Astroturf tennis court on the far side of the unfolding action. “Fucking Indians,” one of the three kids yelled out as they trudged away. Shocking, but only for a second. It didn’t disrupt the play. No one batted an eyelid.

Cricket can be perplexing to an outsider. It needs to be absorbed organically. To watch it played with someone who has had no contact with the sport is like trying to explain the seemingly perfect logic of a dream, the second after waking. Cricket is a game that for those reared in its orbit, description is futile – for it leads one to contemplate just how arcane a pursuit it appears to be. Cricket in America, and India, is a calling card of each country’s colonial back-story, the game having arrived from the British in both countries in the 1730s.

Cricket in India is played fervently and obsessively across all classes of people. The film Slumdog Millionaire offered a recent example of this. Follow the movie closely and you’ll see cricket being played on a television screen in the house of a wealthy industrialist, and played by the kids in the slums. “Cricket is the opiate of the masses, I believe Karl Marx said,” laughed Shweta Khrishnan, an Indian journalism student, now living in Boston. “When India wanted independence from the British, it really just wanted the freedom of its own rule. India wanted the British out, but they didn’t hate the British the way the Americans seemed to. Cricket has become India. It is a vessel for people to become closer to their country.”

With over 50 million players, India has more cricketers than America has baseball and basketball players combined. Conversely, America has between 15 and 30 thousand cricket players. Yet America is also home to the oldest international cricketing history, and the game did not always solicit confused stares in America.

On the 24th of August 1853, in New York, the United States of America played Canada in a cricket game. The USA and Canada had first played each other in 1844, and cricket was surging. There were 2,500 spectators estimated to be in attendance, and described by the New York Times as ‘anxious to witness the most interesting game made in this vicinity for several years.’ Three ‘handsome’ marquees stood at the southern end of the regal, oak-lined ground. The game was played at the home of the St. George’s Cricket Club at the Red House Tavern, situated on the corner of 2nd Avenue and 106th Street in Harlem. Today this corner is marked with a Cold Cut House Caterers NYC, a Chase bank and a Triangle Pizzeria.

At the time of this game, cricket was a visible part of the wave of popularity of team sports sweeping the country, still keeping pace with baseball. In retrospect though, historians note a continued anecdotal exaggeration of how successful cricket was at the time. There was little popular spark towards cricket. The fact that everybody on the US team was British was protested by the New York Herald in 1857, who after victory in the match against Canada that year wrote : “We cannot claim the honor of the victory for Americans, the simple fact being that the victors are natives of Great Britain.”

Between 1860 – with the Civil War and the rise of baseball – and 1920, with World War II, cricket experienced a slow, gradual death. Why did Americans never take to cricket? As Tom Melville, sports historian, posits in his book The Tented Field: A History of Cricket in America, there is no single answer. The British never put an American face on cricket. America had gone to war with the British to throw them out and establish its own democracy: why would it want to inherit cricket verbatim? [Editor’s note : That didn’t stop India, or Pakistan.] Cricket’s rules are confusing, and it is time and space intensive. Many hypothesize that the meandering nature of cricket ran counter to American tastes. On top of this, you had the colossus of baseball, supposedly an American expression of itself that the whole country could, and did, get behind.

150 years later, cricket has made a weak resurgence, indiscernible to the eye of the American-born. In the 1960s immigration policy changed, broadening the diversity of those coming in. As more Indian, Jamaican and Pakistani families moved in, cricket came with them.

So it is that in Dartmouth, present day, such players continued this tradition, taking to that particular game with breakneck intensity. The players moved with purpose, and with a touch of mimicry of the heroes they’d seen on television.

Polisetty broke out of our conversation, to head out and bat for his team. He was out first ball, prompting raucous taunts and hollers from his opposition. “I was a bit distracted,” he said later, blaming our interview for his performance, adding that ‘trash-talk’ wasn’t a regular feature when the teams competed against each other. The team seemed close, and his admission came with the subtext of humorous cruelty that seeps into friendship.

The team all served as coaches, providing each other with advice, mutual respect and knowledge of their teammates style and temperament. Polisetty spoke fondly of all of his team. He lives with two of its members, and he described his friends as being equally as passionate about cricket as him, even more. He pointed to a student from the University of Rhode Island, whom he says drove for over an hour immediately upon hearing of today’s game.

The team lost their semi-final in the Massachusetts State Cricket League this year by two runs, and Polisetty introduced me to the last man out in that game. “He came to me after the end of the game in tears, and said that he was so sorry to have disappointed me.”

Cricket has, it seemed, provided Polisetty with a network in America. But he was defensive when asked about whether he has American friends. He has many American friends, he maintained. But they are rarely mentioned. “When I first came to America I lived with non-cricket friends, but I just gravitated towards these guys,” he said. It helped him to fight the loneliness in his new surroundings. “When you come to America, you’re so isolated. And you need friends. If you don’t have friends, it is really tough. What are you going to do on weekends? I can’t sit at the library everyday.”

Playing cricket requires a significant amount of open space. Polisetty’s dedicated cricket field is a notable victory, an elusive achievement for many cricketing zealots before him. Persistence was the key to this victory. UMass Dartmouth operates on a ring system, marked out by a single, circular road through its grounds. All grounds on the outside of the ring are for sports, and on the inside for academics. Seeing no room in the middle of wall-to-wall basketball courts and football fields he eyed an unused field. It was prime real estate sitting in between the library, the halls of residence, and a block of offices.

The Chancellor, whose office overlooks the field, was initially reluctant, referring to the planned pitch and telling Polisetty he “can’t have a whole field where it is all green but then has a mud-patch in the middle.” Undeterred, Polisetty presented power point slide shows to administrators. He taught people about cricket, lobbied for financial support. He now controls virtually every aspect of the new university cricket set-up, right down to training the groundsman.

Standing in the middle of the field, in the freezing cold, Polisetty surveyed his own kingdom with the air of a monarch. “People who used to come and play, they’d say it was just like their home pitch. They loved it.”

The link to home settings seems wishful. The field was far from traditional. It was rectangular, hardly ideal for a game that is supposed to have even, circular boundaries. The ground was big, with a small, steady slope – uneven, with a pitch comprised of thick, muddy clay. Polisetty’s pride in this field extends to jokes at the expense of other grounds in the area. He laughs, “I played at a ground where the grass was this high.” He motions about a foot in length with his hands. “The fielder lost the ball. The batsmen ran five runs. It is pretty tough. Our field has the best outfield.”

Incredibly. America actually has an international cricket stadium – situated in Lauderhill, Florida, a town of 60,000. The area had been looking to build a sports venue (in 1987, it had unsuccessfully tried to bring the Florida Marlins to the region), but the stadium’s 70 million dollar construction was hi-jacked for cricketing purposes. Duncan Finch, the Broward County Park Manager, says: “People at city council meetings were given the power to vote for the park’s purpose, by putting stickers on their lapel. The cricket people just happened to be the only ones to go to all of the meetings.”

The Broward County Park is quaint, yet tropical, lined with palm trees and green hills, and two small stands for spectators. On May 22 and May 23, 2010, New Zealand and Sri Lanka played each other in two matches at the ground, the first ‘official’ international cricket played in America. The games received little media attention, and prompted bemused local responses to the game of cricket. Sports columnist Greg Cote from the Miami Herald wrote: “Rule of thumb : if your sport is named after a grasshopper-like bug, give it a new name.”

Lauderhill’s experiences highlight the shortcomings of aggressively trying to bring resources to a cause that does not have a base of local support. Finch says that the Broward County Park is not marketed as a cricket ground. In its first year of operations, there were just nine days of cricket at the park. After campaigning for the ground, local clubs could not afford the steep fees to hire it. The amount of cricket increased slowly in 2009 and 2010, but cricket still takes up much less than 10 percent of the park’s attention.

Meanwhile, back in Dartmouth….the day’s cricket game was getting close. After a longish interval where the ball became stuck under a car, and a sheepish, all-hands-deck search party situation developed, play resumed. The first team made 62 runs, and the opposing team gradually reached 40. Each new run was being exclaimed loudly with an updated tally. “41! … 42! …”

Randiv, 22, and a computer science major had been in America for about a year. He was watching the game intently, waiting for his turn to bat, and hoped to make a winning contribution. Did he like America? “Sort of,” he laughed. He was thrilled to be able to play cricket, figuring he’d have to quit the game when he decided to come to America. His iPhone rang, spitting forth a Bollywood ring tone. Randiv answered, and began animatedly conversing in Hindi.

Recently, the rise of the 20/20 version of the game has spurring hopes of having a shorter, punchier product of cricket to bring to America. Yet even a big-ticket, national cricket event would still lack the flash typical of your average American sports outing.

John Hoberman a University of Texas Professor in Austin, has written extensively on sports ideology in America. He says that with the advent of the Super Bowl in 1967, the “spectacle potential” has become a great attraction in American sports. “There’s bells, whistles, they keep the music loud, there’s a beat, they blow up the monitors and don’t give people a minute to themselves…”

In tandem with this requirement for flash and spectacle, sports in America have a local, rather than a national focus. For example : setting aside the intricacies of basketball and its own intra-racial politics, sitting in the TB Banknorth Garden watching the Boston Celtics play is a hyper-parochial branding exercise. Everywhere you turn you see the word BOSTON. There’s neon, and dancing cheerleaders. The arena is loud and unsubtle, but that’s not to accuse it of not being engaging. It is. Everyone loves it, including me. As an outsider it is impossible not to fall into the trap of condescendingly remarking to yourself, “how American,” but at the same time to feel undeniably closer to BOSTON, in the ‘bigger than the sum of the parts’ sense – and to wonder wistfully if, as an immigrant, you are a fraud for that, and are bound never to feel an attachment on the same ‘level’ as your 20,000 more authentic co-inhabitants of the stadium.

“Societies cultivate a demand for sports,” Hoberman says. America’s three biggest sports – football, baseball, and basketball – have offered the country a set of gratifications that form different symbolic, and resonating entertainments for followers to project identity on. America doesn’t need national sports the way smaller countries do, where national competition becomes an important display of vitality to the rest of the world. Superpowers don’t need this expression, Hoberman says. “Whose interests would it serve to watch America turn up at every sporting event and obliterate the competition?”

Cricket has never provided America with an angle to project itself on to, or maybe America just doesn’t see anything in cricket that it recognizes. After gaining the Dartmouth university endorsement for the cricket team, Polisetty promoted the new side extensively throughout the school. The season started two weeks before the end of classes. A full school was in session, but no one came.

Surveying the game in Dartmouth, Polisetty conceded : “It is hard to get people to come outdoors. Americans are sedentary. Everybody wants to play videogames….My American friends, they love how much I love cricket, but you can’t get them to a game unless there’s a party afterwards. Americans are not going to be interested in cricket. Boston loves the Celtics. It loves the Red Sox. It is a similar to the way Indians love their cricket team.”

This small rejection in Dartmouth has been played out in several far more high profile flops for cricket in America. The New Zealand versus Sri Lanka game in Florida left the United States of America Cricket Association (USACA) allegedly many hundred thousand dollars in debt, and is strongly rumored to be the reason for the recent resignation of the chief executive, Don Lockerbie. Pro Cricket USA was an eight-team professional league that launched in 2004 and lasted a year. TV rights fell through, and no more than a few hundred spectators attended games held in large baseball stadiums. The debut game was delayed an hour when staff forgot to bring key equipment to the ground. Major League Cricket followed, but never got past the planning stage. In 2009 an American Premier League cricket competition was announced, but its start date has been pushed back twice.

The latest immigrant pioneer is Salman Ahmed. Ahmed, a sports marketer from India who has worked with the Indian Premier League, has been in America for two-years. Ahmed’s Pro League USA allegedly brings 20 million dollars to the table in investment, made available from a contributing board with “unshakeable” confidence in Ahmed. He speaks with unassailable conviction. He is eloquent, and witty. His booming baritone makes him sound like a talkback host. Ahmed’s vision is for a bottom-up resurgence of cricket in America. Pro League USA pays for local cricket sides to have access to the Lauderhill stadium four days a week. It pays for facilities, equipment, and local academies. They have a ten-year plan, broken in to two five-year blocks with annual benchmarks. Ahmed says that cricket, as it stands in America, will never be profitable. But one day, as more and more Americans see it played, this could change. Ahmed tours to road shows and says he has offices across America. He plans to extend into Houston, Chicago and New York.

“There is more cricket being played in America than anyone comprehends,” Ahmed says. But for a man with millions of dollars supposedly at his fingertips, there has been nothing written about Ahmed in America, outside of his website and its press releases. When our conversation ends, I cannot decide if Ahmed is a con-man, or the Second Coming.

There is a point where the continued attempts at getting America to like cricket become difficult to justify. Whether driven by a desire for validation in a foreign culture, or a genuine interest in growing the game globally, it seems to miss the point. Each new effort seems to carry a belief that cricket simply needs to be presented in the right light, and America will bite.

Yet somehow…when you consider the connection that it fosters between Polisetty and his team and their home culture, it seems a shame that this can’t be left as enough. The good name of cricket appears to be destined to a fate of being put garishly on display to America and then rejected, time and time again. It sits awkwardly alongside the folksier charms of the unfolding game in Dartmouth.

The game was coming to an end. The mood was tense. A fielder missed a ball and there was a large groan. The backstop missed a catch and the bowler threw his hands behind his head dramatically. Polisetty made the final dismissal and his team won.

Polisetty’s parents had urged him to come to America to get the best education possible. Talking to him about how he feels after five years in the country, his perception of America seemed a tad exhausting. Watching the game, it was almost as if Polisetty and his participants exist in two places at once – alive, yet incomplete in their American setting. O’Neill’s Netherland puts it to the reader, that the broken psyche of a man in exile can only be fixed by going home. Just maybe though, there was the pencil outline in this do-it-yourself cricket in front of me that suggested the beginnings of a new narrative for them all, and by extension, a new narrative for cricket itself.

After the game concluded, there were brief celebrations among the victorious team. Then both sides came together. They hugged, shook hands and patted each other on the backs. They were happy. It was 3 p.m. and there was an hour and a half of daylight left. “We’ll play again. We like to play until it is dark,” Polisetty said.