Row Z – Cricket, a great American game

An American cricket fan

Joseph O’Neill’s much praised (and, Gaw and I agree, pretty overrated) Netherland pitches into the crowded market of self-consciously literary psychological post-9/11 novels with an interesting ‘USP’, namely New York cricket.

But the cricket played in NY little resembles the gentle, gentleman’s game that some, especially Americans perhaps, might envisage. It is a rowdy, fierce business conducted by south Asian and Trinidadian immigrants, the unkempt outfields forcing slogging tactics (in the local parlance, ‘going long’) rather then the shotmaking so beloved of English cricket aesthetes. O’Neill, although an Irishman, is clearly an aesthete:

…the American adaptation is devoid of the beauty of cricket played on a lawn of appropriate dimensions, where the white-clad ring of infielders, swanning figures on the vast oval, again and again converge in unison on the batsman and again and again scatter back to their starting points, a repetition of pulmonary rhythm, as if the field breathed through its luminous visitors.

In the novel a dodgy entrepreneur, Chuck Ramkissoon, has the dream of building a cricket stadium in New York to host international teams, with the money coming from local immigrants and overseas television rights. In the world of Twenty20 and the IPL the idea doesn’t seem so far-fetched, but could Americans ever really learn to love cricket? When even soccer can’t seem to penetrate US consciousness, it seems unlikely.

Yet, as Ramkissoon observes in the novel, cricket, though imported from Britain, is historically a very American game. Prior to the Civil War it was as popular as baseball (another British-invented game, contra the wilful false mythologizing of US sports historians), and Bloomingdale, New York was the scene of the first ever international cricket match, when the US played Canada in 1844. Its popularity declined in the early twentieth century, not helped by the 1909 formation of the Imperial Cricket Conference, which facilitated early international fixtures between British colonies but excluded the US. By that time, baseball had become established as ‘the people’s game’ and was poaching the best players and administrators from cricket (Nick Young, a president of the baseball National League, was originally a successful cricketer who only took up baseball during the Civil War because “it looked like cricket for which his soul thirsted”) and the rest is history.

Ramkissoon’s hope is that cricket nonetheless lies rooted in the DNA of Americans, and with a bit of prompting and time they could be persuaded to take it up once again. But in O’Neill’s novel Ramkissoon winds up beaten, bound and drowned, and the last word on his pipedream is given to an Indian guru, Faruk:

The New York Cricket Club was a splendid idea…but would the big project have worked? No. There’s a limit to what Americans understand. The limit is cricket.

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About Author Profile: Brit

'Brit' is the blogging name of Andrew Nixon, a writer and publisher who lives in Bristol. He is the editor and co-founder of The Dabbler.

9 thoughts on “Row Z – Cricket, a great American game

  1. Worm
    September 6, 2010 at 10:22

    Love the last quote, sums it up perfectly. Cricket is all about a sort of deferred gratification (it’s a game that can last 5 days? and maybe no one wins?) and subtlety, neither of which seem to be deeply ingrained in the american psyche

    • spentz56@gmail.com'
      Mr Bleaney
      September 6, 2010 at 17:20

      Come now, Worm. Are we Americans all that stereotypical? The “lack of subtlety” canard is a bit overdone and lazy, don’t you think?

      Any other thoughts on things that are not “deeply ingrained in the American psyche”? I’m always eager to learn about myself.

      Signed, Unsubtle American, Incapable of Deferring Gratification.

      ;.)

  2. Gaw
    September 6, 2010 at 11:44

    There’s a British version of baseball which crossed back across the Atlantic. There’s an annual England vs Wales fixture, which usually means Liverpool vs Cardiff as the sport has remained largely confined to these Atlantic-trade ports. The ’80s rugby player David Bishop was a baseball international (and, incidentally, also represented Wales at boxing).

    British baseball has different rules to American baseball including having eleven players, a point per base reached and underarm bowling.

  3. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    September 6, 2010 at 19:21

    Nobly said, Mr Bleaney. Worm of course makes a wild generalisation, though as wild generalisations go, delayed gratification not being an American trait is a pretty fair one -even I, an confirmed Americaphile, would have to admit that. But it should be noted that the very slow form of cricket – Test cricket – is declining in popularity everywhere except England, relative to the brash new bish-bash quick form of the game Twenty20. This is especially the case in India, which is increasingly the commercial centre of the game in worldwide terms.

    • spentz56@gmail.com'
      Mr Bleaney
      September 7, 2010 at 02:32

      Thank you, Brit. I was merely “taking the p***” out of Worm. Did I use that expression correctly?

      But, having thought about it further, and having perused recent editions of subtle, deferred gratification English publications such as The Sun and The Mirror, I have concluded that Worm may be right. In fact, I have found an exemplar of the English traits of subtlety and deferred gratification: Wayne Rooney – a veritable Wittgenstein of nuanced subtlety, capable of deferring gratification (at least through the first trimester of his wife’s pregnancy).

      ;.)

      P. S. Our baseball games aren’t fixed.

      • Brit
        September 7, 2010 at 09:04

        No need to tell me about Britain’s tabloid-propelled plummet into the spiritual malaise, Mr B. Long may Test cricket remain an island of sanity in a world of Rooneys and NOTW stings. Your fixing remark is below the belt, mean and inaccurate .

  4. jonhotten@mail.com'
    September 6, 2010 at 19:53

    I must say the book didn’t arouse any great feelings in me either way. I quite liked it, like lots of books I’ve read. That paragraph you reproduce was the one I really remember, actually, because I thought it was an original image – haven’t seen that idea of pulmonary rhythm in any cricket writing. It’s very nice. If I remember, I think the main character is Dutch, and Holland is another cricketing outpost [imagine if they could produce a team good enough to beat England. Oh.] But that was quite nice, too, the idea of a Dutchman in America liking cricket.

    One novel with fictional cricket in that’s better is Malcolm Knox’s Adult Book. Less literary, less self-conscious, too.

  5. bugbrit@live.com'
    Banished To A Pompous Land
    September 8, 2010 at 16:42

    As a Brit now at home in the USA I look with horror at much of what has happened to cricket in the 6 years since my departure.

    If the circus of brute force and ignorance known as Twenty20 continues to spread like the malignant growth that it is then I suggest cricket lovers take a long hard look at baseball.

    It won’t be long before the average baseball game is actually longer than most criket matches. It’s the Man with Ball vs.the Man with Bat (OK, the stick) and a near Wisdenian (?) obsession with statistics. Even as a Yorkshireman I find it an excellent day to day substitute.

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