"Good shot, Mouse!" comes a voice from a small crowd of spectators under an awning at the edge of a softball field in suburban Atlanta. It's a semifinal playoff between the Tropical Sports Club and North Atlanta on a hot afternoon in early October, and a Tropical player has just lofted a ball over the fence. But this is a match, not a game; the player is a batsman, not a batter, and a ball whacked over a fence is a "six," not a home run. This may be a softball diamond, but the action on the field—sorry, the pitch—is cricket.
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At one end of the awning, a large West Indian woman is barbecuing jerk chicken in an oil drum. There's spicy fish soup and Red Stripe beer. Reggae booms out of the back of a van. Between "balls"—pitches, in baseball—the men talk politics and reminisce about life back on the island of Jamaica.
"Yes, Mouse!" the crowd roars again, as the same batsman sends another ball skyward. For a moment, the ball hangs motionless against the blue sky, before landing with a thump on the awning above the barbecue, just missing the jerk chicken lady. "Stop trying to put out the fire, man!" she bellows to the players as the crowd erupts in laughter.
Cricket—now played by millions of people in 92 countries ranging from the Caribbean to Europe to Africa to South Asia—was once the national game of, yes, these United States. And one of the first outdoor sports to be played on these shores. An 1844 cricket match between teams from the United States and Canada was the first international sporting event in the modern world, predating the revival of the Olympic Games by more than 50 years.
In a diary he kept between 1709 and 1712, William Byrd, owner of the Virginia plantation Westover, noted, "I rose at 6 o'clock and read a chapter in Hebrew. About 10 o'clock Dr. Blair, and Major and Captain Harrison came to see us. After I had given them a glass of sack we played cricket. I ate boiled beef for my dinner. Then we played at shooting with arrows...and went to cricket again till dark."
The first public report of a cricket match in North America was in 1751, when the New York Gazette and the Weekly Post Boy carried an account of a match between a London "eleven" (as cricket teams, or "sides," are called) and one from New York City. The latter side won, though it is almost certain that both teams comprised residents of New York.
The rules of the game on this side of the Atlantic were formalized in 1754, when Benjamin Franklin brought back from England a copy of the 1744 Laws, cricket’s official rule book. There is anecdotal evidence that George Washington's troops played what they called "wickets" at Valley Forge in the summer of 1778. After the Revolution, a 1786 advertisement for cricket equipment appeared in the New York Independent Journal, and newspaper reports of that time frequently mention "young gentlemen" and "men of fashion" taking up the sport. Indeed, the game came up in the debate over what to call the new nation's head of state: John Adams noted disapprovingly—and futilely—that "there are presidents of fire companies and cricket clubs."
As the country's growing population spread west and south, so too did cricket. Abe Lincoln reportedly turned out to watch Chicago play Milwaukee in 1849. By then, an estimated 10,000 Americans were playing the game, and many more were watching. But the seeds of cricket's destruction in the United States had already been sown.
Today, many Americans dismiss cricket as an elitist game played by girlie-men. That may be because the game is superficially slow. Or because the players still tend to dress in traditional whites and, during four-day international matches, break for tea. Or maybe it's because, in a sporting world that seems to have turned increasingly nasty, the game's code of sportsmanship remains rectitudinously strict. (The recent unpleasantness during Pakistan's tour of England—an umpire ruled that Pakistan had doctored the ball; Pakistan staged an after-tea protest; the umpires declared the game a forfeit—set off a crisis that made baseball's steroids scandal seem subdued.)
But in most of the former Commonwealth, cricket is a game of the masses. This is especially true in cricket-mad South Asia, where last year's match between India and Pakistan was hailed as a sign of warming in the chilly relationship between the two countries (until, that is, India suggested it would side against Pakistan in the ball-scuffing affair). And most cricketers would argue that the game is far more dynamic, and dangerous, than baseball. For starters, a cricket ball is heavier—by half an ounce—than the ball used in the American game. With a core of cork, sheathed in layers of twine and cork shavings, and wrapped in a bright red leather casing (it is sometimes called a "cherry"), a cricket ball is a fearsome projectile when launched at a batsman. Unlike in baseball, the bowler (the equivalent of the pitcher) is in full flight after sprinting for up to 30 paces before launching the ball. Nor is it usually bowled through the air; that is a "full toss" and considered easy to hit. Far more often, the ball is bounced off the ground, whose grass has usually been trimmed and rolled to a concrete-like hardness, and it may rise toward the batsman's head as a "bouncer" or "bumper." Balls have been clocked at 95 miles per hour or more (as fast as a major-league fastball); before the introduction of safety helmets, in the 1970s, it was not uncommon for batsmen to be felled, or seriously injured, by bouncers.