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.