In Cork-born Joseph O'Neill's celebrated novel Netherland, a Trinidadian dreamer named Chuck Ramkissoon aspires to building a world-class cricket stadium on a plot of land in Brooklyn. Bald Eagle Field, as he intends to call it, will one day house the New York City club and, he believes, will change society for the better.
“All people, Americans, whoever, are at their most civilised when they are playing cricket,” says Ramkissoon.
Somebody should have told the New York Police Department.
Twelve years ago, in the midst of post-9/11 hysteria, the NYPD established a Demographics Unit as part of its ongoing efforts to combat the threat of terrorism. Amongst other things, their task was to investigate and monitor the recreational interests of what they called “29 ancestries of interest” throughout the city’s five boroughs. Pretty soon, they had compiled a dossier thick with photographs and information about one particular sport.
“The South Asian community within New York City contains avid fans of the sport of cricket,” went the report. “Members of the Demographics Unit identified 18 parks citywide where cricket is played, some of which have more than one cricket field therein. Additionally, the Demographics Unit identified 40 locations where fans congregate to view broadcasts of cricket matches and/or to purchase cricket equipment.”
For almost a decade, police infiltrated leagues (officers joined clubs, the NYPD sponsored competitions), and cricket became a sinister means of surveilling the Muslim community. To take a single example from the file, anybody who fetched up at Singh’s Sporting Goods in Ozone Park, a shop described as “a cricket fan hangout” that sold imported equipment from Pakistan and India, was, at the very least, on the radar of authorities.
Although the unit was shut down last year, without apparently ever spawning a single terrorism lead, there is still a civil rights case pending about a policy that rendered the simple act of buying a bat somehow suspicious.
Against that disturbing background, the sight of Sachin Tendulkar and Shane Warne hamming it up for American media in Central Park last Monday marks cricket's emergence from the shadowy world of homeland security and into the mainstream. On Saturday, this duo will captain two teams of former greats in a Twenty20 game at the New York Mets' Citifield, the first stop on an ambitious tour that also includes outings at Houston's Minute Maid Park and Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
“We really just want to give the fans the experience,” said Warne. “Lots of them have seen it on TV but never seen them live. We’ve had a lot of interest.”
The large number of immigrants from the sub-continent living in the hinterland of the stadium in Queens, some of whom were no doubt customers of Singh’s just down the road, may explain why the cheapest ticket for the clash between the awfully-named “Tendulkar’s Master Blasters” and “Warne’s Warriors” is $75.
Nobody is quite sure how many are willing to pay that much to see the likes of Brian Lara, Michael Vaughan and Jonty Rhodes this far past their prime but organisers are bragging there are 15 million cricket fans in the USA.
A game that is now largely the preserve of determined expatriates adapting school baseball diamonds or soccer fields to make them fit for purpose at weekends, cricket has a long and interesting relationship with America. As far back as 1879, an Irish representative side played two matches against Philadelphia Cricket Club in Nicetown. And, by then, the sport had already been in the country for much more than a century.
Official rule book
“The first public report of a cricket match in North America was in 1751, when the
New York Gazette
Weekly Post Boy
carried an account of a match between a London ‘eleven’ and one from New York City,” wrote
magazine. “The rules of the game on this side of the Atlantic were formalised in 1754, when
brought back from England a copy of the 1744 Laws, cricket’s official rule book. There is anecdotal evidence that George Washington’s troops played what they called ‘wickets’ at Valley Forge in the summer of 1778.”
Boasting this kind of rich heritage (the first international was a game between the USA and Canada in 1844), it's not surprising Harry Wright, often described as "the father of modern professional baseball" was originally a cricketer. Born in Sheffield in 1835 to Annie Tone (niece of Wolfe Tone), he moved to New York as a child when his father, Samuel, got a job as a club cricket pro with the St George's Dragonslayers in Manhattan. By the age of 14, Wright was togging out with his father's team, and soon after was on the payroll.
“Cricket was my first love,” said Wright decades later. “And I still retain the old love of it.”
Baseball, however, was where he made his name, firstly with the pioneering New York Knickerbockers where he became the first paid player in the 1860s.
He later managed teams in Cincinnati and Boston that came to define the fledgling sport during a career that culminated in induction into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Wright is credited with introducing concepts like relief pitching, spring training, knee-length trousers, batting practice, the hit and run, and players communicating via hand signals on the field.
From the Dragonslayer to the Master Blasters, the journey of American cricket.