An American Dream

The Beatles did it; Radiohead did it; even Duran Duran did it- although it proved to be beyond The Kinks, Oasis and Robbie Williams. The chimera of the ages for artists, that of conquering America, has occasionally infected cricket, too. A combination of dreamers, chancers and fools have, in the past, attempted to dispel the notion that the game is beyond the comprehension of Americans, and now a businessman called Jay Mir, from an organisation called the American Sports and Entertainment Group, believes he can succeed where others, including most recently Allen Stanford, have failed.

Taking his cue from the success of the Indian Premier League template, and having absorbed all the right lessons about the importance of hype over substance, Mir intends to organise an American Premier League of Twenty20 cricket in New York in October. The games will be played at the stadium of a minor league baseball team, the Staten Island Yankees, and he has signed up Sir Richard Hadlee as his principal ambassador, various retired players, including former England internationals Graeme Hick and Adam Hollioake, and some disaffected and out-of-pocket players from the struggling Indian Cricket League.

According to Mir, ‘the potential is massive’ and ‘the response so far has been phenomenal…much like our slogan “A Cricket Revolution in America”’. The response of the International Cricket Council has been much more muted, however, and based along similar lines as its reaction to the ICL: the embryonic American league remains very much outside of the official orbit and the threat of sanctions applies to anybody from within the game brave enough or foolish enough to get involved.

Only a year ago, welcoming the Stanford enterprise, Giles Clarke, the Chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, described the American market as ‘one we have to see if we can develop.’ Exploitation is fine, then, as long as the ECB or other official organisations are doing the exploiting. But, really, the ICC need not lose any sleep over Mir’s enterprise: it may catch on amongst the South Asian and Caribbean immigrant populations of New York- which are, of course, significant- but there is no chance of the game infiltrating mainstream America.

Entrepreneurs are often so dazzled by imaginings of their own brilliance that they forget to look at history and reality becomes distorted by grandiose dreams. Just four years ago, you may or, more likely, you may not remember, American Professional Cricket was launched to great fanfare and consisted of an eight team league playing- you guessed it- twenty-over cricket. Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Ramnaresh Sarwan were involved from the outset although this sprinkling of West Indian stardust failed to ignite the tournament even amongst the West Indian expatriates. The organisers announced at the start that they had three years funding up front but after a dispiriting first year of poor attendances, awful organisation and minimal media interest, the experiment quietly folded.

Whether Allen Stanford had done his homework, or whether he, too, was unhinged by his own genius remains unclear, but he fancied that he could crack America as well. Stanford spent millions on marketing in a small town called Fort Collins in Colorado, investigating whether he could generate enthusiasm for a foreign game amongst a hitherto ignorant population. Door-to-door pamphleteering, billboards booming ‘you gotta see this!’ and prime-time exposure for his Caribbean Twenty20 tournament was just a small part of the Stanford experiment, the first step, supposedly, towards domination of the American family-orientated sporting market. ‘I want to share my love for the sport with America,’ said Stanford. It was a love that went unrequited.

Entrepreneurs who look at the bottom line alone, who view sport only through dollars and cents eyewear, forget that sport is a cultural phenomenon first and foremost as well as a business. The lack of popularity of cricket in America has little to do with the length or complexity of the game- and there is always a faint whiff of anti-Americanism about the sneers that it is just too complex for them to understand- and more to do with the origins of baseball’s remarkable story. Cricket had its chance in America, but this was long before Mir, Stanford or any other sharp-eyed businessmen came along, dreaming of making millions by taking the game to new frontiers. In the nineteenth century it actually rivalled baseball for popularity and media interest and by 1850 there were cricket clubs in twenty-two states.

But baseball’s early protagonists marketed the game shrewdly as a truly American pastime invented, they said (wrongly), by a hero of the Civil War. The ultimate victory of baseball over cricket in America was part of the unstoppable tide of patriotism: a new game- democratic and classless- for a new nation. Cricket was damned by association and retreated to the margins, kept going as it has been since by Anglophiles and, more recently, those of Caribbean and Indian extraction.

By coincidence, Joseph O’Neill, the author of a fine novel partly about cricket in America, was at Lord’s on Monday night for the Cricket Society’s and MCC’s Cricket Book of the Year award, won by former Sussex captain John Barclay for his whimsical memoir. One of the themes of O’Neill’s book is the desire of one of the main characters, Chuck Ramkissoon, to develop a world class cricket stadium in New York, a place where O’Neill has played cricket for many years with the mainly South Asian and Caribbean expatriates.

O’Neill has described cricket as a metaphor for the boundaries of American perception and the abiding feeling after reading Netherland is that of the cricket and cricketers as cultural outsiders in America. ‘Do you want a taste of how it feels to be a black man in this country?’ says one of O’Neill’s characters in Netherland (before Barack Obama’s victory), ‘then put on the white clothes of a cricketer. Put on white to feel black.’