Cricket and America: Separated by a common language

Shortly before the American election in 2004, The Guardian launched something called Operation Clark County, designed to help their concerned readers have a say in the election by writing to undecided voters in the crucial swing state of Ohio. Over 11,000 letters were sent by liberals fearful of another four years of George W Bush.

The reaction from Americans was, on the whole, vituperative, this response from Dayton, Ohio typical: ‘We don’t need weenie-spined Limeys meddling in our Presidential election. If it wasn’t for America, you’d all be speaking German. And if America would have had a President then, of the likes of [John] Kerry, you’d all be goose-stepping around Buckingham Palace. Butt out!’ There was much more where that came from, and The Guardian, to my knowledge, has not repeated the self-defeating exercise this year.

Every time someone shakes their head in utter bemusement at the thought of a moose-hunting, gun-toting, pro-life, arch-conservative, former beauty queen with antiquated views on faith, family and nation as John McCain’s running mate, you know that there is one more to add to the cast of thousands in this country- and I count myself amongst that number- who have not the faintest idea about that vast swathe of America that, come election day, will no doubt be painted red again. There exists a cultural divide as wide and as deep as the Grand Canyon. Two nations divided by much more than a common language.

Allen Stanford, the Texan billionaire currently bankrolling the Stanford Super Series in Antigua, which climaxes today with a $20m match between his Superstars and England, must be feeling a little like the bemused Guardian readers right now. For his concern Stanford has stumped up $100m over five years, paid for four teams and their wives to enjoy themselves for a week in the sun and has put on a superbly-organised tournament. He is being portrayed as, in his own words, a bit of a ‘skunk.’

From the moment the deal between Stanford and English cricket was signed, it was clear that both parties suffered from complete mutual ignorance. At Lord’s, a symbol of old England if ever there was one, Stanford arrived in a gold-plated, personalised helicopter, trailing a Perspex box stuffed full of money. Imagine tipping up to greet JR Ewing at Southfork in a black cab, dressed in a pin-striped suit, bowler hat and carrying a black leather briefcase and you’ll get the idea of how grating a sight it was. It is possible, of course, to be more in tune with your hosts- Andre Agassi managed it at Wimbledon when he wore all white- but you need a better antenna than Stanford, or at least better advisors.

Once Stanford emerged from his helicopter, descending the steps, waving to unknowns in the crowd in mock recognition, the embarrassing clash of cultures was all too apparent. English cricket officials held out a stiff hand in greeting, Stanford wanted the full bear hug and a kind of cringing chest bump ensued. Just prior to the ensuing press conference, Stanford came out on stage, waved and clearly expected a round of applause. He was met with cynical silence.

Now, in Antigua, it is English cricket that has looked completely out of kilter. At what is billed as a festival of cricket, England has looked on with the kind of distaste a grandmother might exhibit at a teenage rave. Whilst Stanford wanders around his ground, high-fiving and back-slapping, and occasionally canoodling with good-looking girls, Kevin Pietersen, England’s captain, said his team ‘just want to get it over with.’

His players let it be known (although not obviously face to face with the man paying the bill) that Stanford’s presence in the dressing room was not welcome. But locker rooms in America are open to all- journalists as well as owners welcome to mingle with the grafters. And whilst the West Indian cricketers have played with a joyful indifference this week, happy to grab the life-changing amounts on offer, England has become all angst-ridden. Pietersen urged his players to respect the fragile state of the economy and not clown around should they win.

In sport, the biggest difference between over there and over here is that Americans just don’t get international competition. Its sporting culture is insular. It holds a World Series, of course, but it is a World Series only in the sense that many Americans have a world view- the world on their doorstep. The only international competition it does play regularly is the Ryder Cup and Tiger Woods, the best player on the planet, hates it.

Without international competition cricket is nothing. The game was nurtured and nourished, changed and improved upon out of an interaction between England and its former colonies. Stanford doesn’t really get this fierce rivalry. His event is about entertainment, only- a cricketing version of the World Wrestling Federation.

Stanford doesn’t get cricket. America doesn’t get cricket. ‘The New York Cricket Club was a splendid idea,’ says one of the minor characters in Joseph O’Neil’s booker-nominated novel Netherland. ‘But would the project have worked? No, there is a limit to what Americans understand. The limit is cricket.’