Sunday, December 21, 2014

How's that? Cricket's quest to grow in America takes root in Philadelphia

Internationally-renowned West Indies batsman Shivnarine Chanderpaul played for a club team from Sarasota, Fla., in the championship game of the 2013 Philadelphia Cricket Festival at the Philadelphia Cricket Club. (Jonathan Tannenwald/Philly.com)
Internationally-renowned West Indies batsman Shivnarine Chanderpaul played for a club team from Sarasota, Fla., in the championship game of the 2013 Philadelphia Cricket Festival at the Philadelphia Cricket Club. (Jonathan Tannenwald/Philly.com)
Internationally-renowned West Indies batsman Shivnarine Chanderpaul played for a club team from Sarasota, Fla., in the championship game of the 2013 Philadelphia Cricket Festival at the Philadelphia Cricket Club. (Jonathan Tannenwald/Philly.com) Gallery: How's that? Cricket's quest to grow in America takes root in Philadelphia

On Sunday afternoon, most of Philadelphia's attention was turned towards the Phillies game at Citizens Bank Park.

At the other end of the city, there was another sporting contest that featured bats, balls, and an impeccably-manicured lawn. But it only drew a small cluster of spectators.

The annual Philadelphia Cricket Festival is a rare opportunity for the world's second-most-popular sport to gain attention in the United States. Now in its 21st year, the event is a five-day tournament featuring clubs from across the country and sometimes beyond.

The championship game is held at the Philadelphia Cricket Club, which opens its prestigious gates to the public for a Sunday afternoon of good fun and good competition. Earlier rounds take place at Haverford College and the Evansburg Cricket Ground in Collegeville, as well as the Germantown, Philadelphia and Merion Cricket clubs.

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If the last of those names sounds familiar, this might be why: the Merion Cricket Club built the golf course that will host this year's U.S. Open. The Merion Golf Club, which now runs the course, split from the Cricket Club in 1941. The Cricket Club is just east of Lancaster Avenue, and the Golf Club is about two miles west. Haverford College sits between the two.

Philadelphia's cricket history at those venues and others dates back to the early 1800's. The region's ties to the sport remain strong at Haverford, home of the C.C. Morris Cricket Library - a treasure trove of artifacts and records detailing America's cricketing roots.

"During the Civil War, most towns in America had cricket teams, [but] because of the sheer carnage of the war, those teams didn't exist afterward," Morris Library president Paul Hensley explained. "And in the first World War, our soldiers played baseball in their camps, and came home ingrained with that as what they wanted to do."

Ever since then, baseball and cricket have gone in separate directions. There once was a time when games at the Philadelphia Cricket Club attracted five-figure crowds. Now, those fans are packing Citizens Bank Park.

"The club was set up in 1854 for cricket, and [it] stopped in 1922," Cricket Festival chairman Tom Culp explained. "According to the minutes of the club, it stopped because the pace of life was too fast for cricket. So they made the cricket pitch into lawn tennis courts."

A Yardley native, Culp was introduced to the sport by former Philadelphia Cricket Club tennis pro Ian Crookenden. Now the head men's tennis coach at Saint Joseph's, Crookenden came to the club in 1997. He asked Culp why no one was playing the sport for which the club was named.

Culp didn't even know what cricket was.

"I said, you teach us cricket and I'll organize it," Culp explained. Crookenden did just that, and Culp fell in love with the game.

On Sunday, just a few hundred people made the trip to West Willow Grove Avenue in Chestnut Hill. Most of them were friends or relatives of the players. But there were a few newcomers, as well as passers-by outside the club's gates.

So for them, and for you, here's a quick explanation of how cricket works.

Take a big, round swath of grass and carve out a dirt rectangle in the middle. Put three wooden sticks (the "stumps") at each end, and rest two small pieces of wood  (the "bails") across the ensuing gaps.

Each team gets 11 players. The fielding team has a bowler (the pitcher) and a wicketkeeper (the catcher), and everyone else has to cover the rest of the field. The batting team sends a player to each set of stumps, with the aim of running back and forth after the ball is hit.

From there, the bowler bowls and the batsman (as the hitter is known) bats, and the ball is live no matter where it goes once it's hit. There's no foul territory, just a boundary that formalizes the end of the field.

If the ball clears the boundary on the ground, it's four runs, and if it goes by air it's six runs. Each player bats until he or she is out. That happens in one of four ways: a swing and a miss at a ball that hits the stumps; a caught fly ball; knocking off the bails with a live ball; or blocking the stumps with a leg instead of the bat.

Still confused? Read this crib sheet put together by Sports Illustrated a few years ago.

If it seems straightforward, well, there's a catch (no pun intended). The biggest turn-off when Americans encounter cricket has always been that matches take a long time. In the traditional "test" format of cricket, both teams bat all the way through their lineups twice. That takes up to five days, and sports fans on this side of the Atlantic don't have that much patience.

In recent years, though, a shorter format has surged in popularity around the world. Known as Twenty20, it allows each team just 20 "overs" - a set of six bowled balls - to score as many runs as possible. Games take just over three hours to complete, similar to baseball.

Twenty20 leagues have taken hold in three of the world's most cricket-mad countries: England, Australia and above all India. The Indian Premier League features all the glitz and glamor of the NFL, with salaries and television rights fees to match. No wonder NBA commissioner David Stern watched a match in Mumbai during a recent trip there.

IPL matches are streamed online in the United States, a boon to South Asian expats on the East and West Coasts. It's also increasingly easy to watch games in England, Australia and the Caribbean, as well as major international tournaments. In recent years, ESPN and Willow TV have bought rights to the world's biggest competitions.

Getting Americans to watch cricket is one thing, but getting them to play the sport and genuinely care about it is another.

The latter battles are being waged on a few fronts. Perhaps the most prominent is a major effort to get cricket into American schools, especially on the east coast. Jamie Harrison, the Baltimore-based president of the U.S. Youth Cricket Association, has led that effort over the last few years.

"The USYCA can supply the cricket sets, but we can't create individuals who are willing to do the ground work," Harrison said. "To the extent that we have people who are willing to do the ground work, cricket will spread far and fast."

That's a pretty good boast, but Harrison has evidence to back it up.

"We've never gone into a school and demonstrated cricket and not have had children fall head-over-heels for the game," he said. "Once you reach children, you'll begin to build up a fan base."

Harrison and the USYCA have done a fair amount of work in Philadelphia so far, donating equipment across multiple school districts. This summer, Pope John Paul II High School in Royersford will debut a one-week camp devoted to the sport.

Those who want to grow cricket in America often use soccer's rise over the last 30 years as a model. Soccer has certainly grown at grassroots level, but it also had a major catalyst in terms of money and exposure when the U.S. hosted the 1994 World Cup.

That put the sport on televisions across the country, and brought major American companies into the game as sponsors.

But the World Cup could simply be dropped into NFL stadiums. so hosting the tournament was easy. The unique dimensions of a cricket oval mean that the sport can't be played on baseball or football field. Right now, there's just one facility in the entire country that can host international cricket. A World Cup - or any other major event - would require at least a half-dozen.

Perhaps the biggest thing holding back cricket's growth in America is the lack of a proper national governing body for the sport. The United States of America Cricket Association is officially recognized by the International Cricket Council, the sport's governing body, but it has been poorly-run and beset by corruption for years.

Recently, a new organization - the American Cricket Federation - has sought to clean up the sport, and eventually take over the USACA's sanction. That is likely to be a long and difficult process, but the ACF has started to make some headway. Among its moves so far has been a formal partnership with the USYCA to help fund grassroots youth cricket.

The United States national team, overseen by the USACA has only played in one major tournament in the modern era: the 2004 ICC Champions Trophy. It was routed by New Zealand and Australia, and was eliminated in the group stage.

If the U.S. was to qualify for another ICC tournament some day, that could be a true breakthrough for the sport. National teams from other North American countries have regularly played in the World Cup in recent years, and the confederation of Caribbean islands known as the West Indies has long been one of the sport's top teams.

It so happened that one of the teams in Sunday's game featured one of the West Indies' top players. Shivnarine Chanderpaul took the weekend off from his English professional team, Derbyshire, to play for a club team he works with Sarasota, Fla. Although Chanderpaul is a native of Guyana, he spends part of the year living in south Florida.

In addition to playing with the Sarasota club, Chanderpaul's grassroots work includes helping an organization that runs a national championship for American college cricket teams. The tournament's trophy bears Chanderpaul's name.

Chanderpaul is a pretty big celebrity at home and abroad, but he was almost anonymous here. In fact, Cricket Festival organizers didn't know he was coming until a few days before the event.

It was good that he made it, though. Chanderpaul's global perspective and local ties give him a unique view on cricket's lack of success in America. He said he'd like to see some international contests played in the U.S., and he also criticized the lack of a strong governing body for the sport here.

"If we can get it organized and get it right, it will grow like soccer has," he said. "It would make a big difference."

Chanderpaul wasn't the only international star in town Sunday. Former South Africa national team captain Shaun Pollock was the Cricket Festival's featured guest. He presented the trophy to Sarasota after it beat West Haven, Conn., in the title game.

Once one of the world's top bowlers, Pollock faced Chanderpaul in international competitions many times. The two men also briefly played together for English club team Durham in 2008.

Though his trip to America this month was just the second of his life, Pollock has noticed that cricket is growing in this country. He said he appreciates the sport's history here - especially in Philadelphia.

"There were games taking place here in the 1800's, probably before they were taking place in South Africa," Pollock said. "It's a culture that died with the advent of baseball and got put into second place, and in some places stopped altogether. I think now, in the modern world, with expats coming from different parts of the world to settle here, there's an interest in cricket. "

And like Chanderpaul, Pollock can only wonder why America can't organize a proper national cricket team.

"I know there have been a few issues, but it does surprise me that in a country this big, they can't sit down and get it all sorted and produce a team that can compete," Pollock said. "Canada and Bermuda have played in World Cups before - I don't see any reason why the United States can't."

Culp expressed a hope that the new American Cricket Federation can do something about that.

"We have an emerging cricket body that has the potential to make a difference," he said. "We need somebody to step up and say 'We're in charge, we know what we're doing.' "

It might also help get the sport better exposure in Philadelphia if the region's venues tried to get more attention for their cricket events. Culp acknowledged that, but added that there's a chicken-and-egg element to the process. Though most of the Philadelphia Cricket Club's games are open to the public, not many people have showed up to watch them.

"I think we'd consider it more often if we had activities that were interest of activities to the public," he said. "We play cricket for six weeks in the spring and six weeks in the fall, generally Saturdays and Sundays. People see those matches going on and sometimes they come on to the grounds, sometimes they stand outside the fence and watch."

In a literal and proverbial sense, cricket's next big challenge is to bring Americans inside that fence.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
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