A sport with colonial roots may have been wiped from America's memory long ago, but it is now finding a new life among immigrant communities in the U.S.
Cricket was first introduced to America by the British in the eighteenth century. Abraham Lincoln was said to have been a fan. The U.S. would often play against Canada in tournaments. But by the Civil War there was a new sport in town—baseball. Easier to learn and shorter in duration than cricket, baseball was better suited to wartime America, and was quickly anointed the “national pastime.” The country had moved on, and cricket was just a memory.
Today, however, New York's outer boroughs reveal a possible resurgence, fueled by the influx of immigrants who bring with them a love of the game. In the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island, where cultures from all over the world collide, cricket is having a moment and creating communities for many struggling to find one.
Ajith Bhaskar Shetty is an IT professional from Bangalore, India who first came to New York in 2007 on a year-long professional assignment that was extended indefinitely. With no family or friends around, he felt alienated.
“I was lonely and stayed at home a lot. The only people I knew were my coworkers," said Shetty. "I was convinced that I would complete my assignment and return home because I did not know anyone and life here was very different from what I knew.”
In India, Shetty had played cricket consistently since he was in school. In New York, he tried to play occasionally on baseball fields with the few friends he had made. In 2010, a friend told him about New York’s Commonwealth Cricket League, the country’s largest cricket league with more than 100 teams. He signed up for the weekly matches and never looked back.
“It was the turning point in my life in New York," said Shetty. “That one game on Sunday means everything to me. The only thing keeping me here is cricket."
From Makeshift Fields to a League of Their Own
As South Asian and Caribbean immigrants arrived in New York in the late twentieth century, many from former Commonwealth countries, they brought with them a love of the game and a desire to continue playing it. Finding spaces to do so was the challenge.
The city’s long and harsh winter made it impossible to play the game for six months of the year. Open spaces were hard to come by and when they did, the ground was not primed for cricket matches. The gentleman’s game, as it is popularly known, did not have much of a chance for survival.
Still, its newly-arrived fans persisted, holding makeshift matches wherever they could until the baseball players showed up and drove them away. Players pooled their money to rent indoor spaces during winter. They lugged around bats, equipment, and even a long, jute mat to use as a "pitch" (the central strip of land where the pitching and batting takes place), nailing it down before each game and rolling it up afterwards.
Over time, more players joined. Slowly, their numbers grew. Eventually, they formed teams, clubs and leagues. These days, weekend subway cars and buses to Marine Park in Brooklyn or Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx are packed with players en route to games.
The names of New York’s cricket teams—like the Bronx Tigers, Atlantis, Millennium, Sunrise—hardly do justice to the staggering diversity of languages, cultures, religions and nationalities they contain. In New York, players from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and South Africa all play together. On the sidelines, snippets of conversation in Bengali, Urdu, Punjabi and Hindi can be heard.
Sam Thomas, who plays cricket every weekend at Cunningham Park in Queens, says the language barrier is less of a problem than most think.
“The language of cricket is the same everywhere," said Thomas. “On the field we understand each other perfectly well.”
Lesly Lowe, originally from Guyana, is now President of the Commonwealth Cricket League. In the 1980's, he organized goodwill games between the Indian and Pakistani cricket teams in New York. They played at Randall’s Island Park and drew a crowd of nineteen thousand fans.
American cricket culture, Lowe says, has had its up and downs.
“Earlier, I would get very frustrated as our efforts to play would go in vain. The Parks Department didn't know what a cricket field looked like or how large it was meant to be," said Lowe. "We [kept playing] for the love of the game, and because it brought so many communities together.”
Lowe says the game is now coming of age. Cricket is now played alongside baseball in the annual Mayor’s Cup. Former Mayor Bloomberg invited players over to dinner at Gracie Mansion in 2010. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation last year inaugurated a new cricket complex with ten fields in the Bronx.
Across the country, there are now 30,000 players playing in local leagues, many of them from former British colonies. This year, for the first time ever, teams competed in a season-long American Cricket Champions League and crowned a national champion.
“Today there is much more recognition for the game," said Lowe. "It’s a huge change."