The greatest American cricketer, a witty but tough Philadelphian named J. Barton King, was one of the fastest bowlers of his generation, and on a 1908 tour of England he set bowling records that stood for more than 40 years. One of the first athletes to take his physical condition seriously, King developed special exercises to strengthen his wrist and fingers (legend has it that he could send a cricket ball up to a second-story window with the snap of his fingers), and he analyzed his technique with scientific acumen. In his memoir, The Angler and How I Bowled It, King writes, "Pitchers were beginning to learn to throw what is called the 'hook,' that is, a ball that travels with very little curve until the last ten or twelve feet.... I began to experiment in order to develop the same kind of ball in cricket."
By the time King put away his bat, after the first decade of the 20th century, cricket had all but perished in the United States. While baseball's exact origins remain clouded in a romantic haze, and are still hotly debated, it seems fairly certain that it evolved from rounders, a game played by British schoolgirls. A year before the Civil War broke out, Beadle's Dime Base-Ball Player, published in New York City, sold 50,000 copies in the United States. Soldiers from both sides of the conflict carried it, and both North and South embraced the new game. It was faster than cricket, easier to learn and required little in the way of equipment: just a bat (simpler to make than a cricket bat, which requires sophisticated joinery), a ball and four gunnysacks thrown on a patch of ground, and you're ready to play.
Within a few years, baseball had swept all before it. By the early 1870s, there were 2,000 baseball clubs, 100,000 players, 250,000 spectators and, perhaps most important, a sound commercial structure.
Yet cricket went down swinging: in 1878, some 15,000 people in Philadelphia watched a local eleven hold the Australians, already emerging as a cricketing powerhouse, to a draw. Fifteen years later, Philadelphia—then, as now, the crucible of North American cricket—beat the Aussies. "In its heyday, Philadelphia had more than 100 cricket clubs," says John Douglas, acting director of athletics at Pennsylvania's Haverford College, the only U.S. college or university that still has a varsity cricket team. "Every neighborhood in Philadelphia had a cricket team, and all the teams supplied players for the famous Gentlemen of Philadelphia who toured England in the 19th century."
Built in 1904, the Haverford pavilion—cricket for locker room—smells of old wood and sweat. Sepia-tinted photographs of American players in white trousers hang on the walls. With names such as Ashbridge, Comfort and Congdon, Wood, Starr and Scattergood, the young men sport handlebar mustaches, blazers and striped caps. Douglas nods toward a picture of the 1873 team. "J. M. Fox was the captain of the cricket team, and he's also credited with bringing golf to America," he says.
Sitting at a long wooden table in Haverford's C. C. Morris Cricket Library, the largest collection of cricket literature and memorabilia in the Western Hemisphere, Alfred Reeves, 81, is dressed in an immaculate blue blazer. Reeves immigrated to the United States from his native Yorkshire in 1978 and eventually settled in Philadelphia. "I went for a walk one evening near the Merion Cricket Club [near Philadelphia], and I was sure I heard a cricket ball and bat," he recalls. "So I put my whites on and climbed over the wall of this famous cricket club, dropped on the other side and said, 'I just arrived from England. Do you mind if I join in?'"
No one minded. Reeves, who had loved the game since childhood—"more than 60 years of weekend cricket" is how he describes his marriage—was soon playing for Merion, one of America's oldest and best-known clubs. But by the time Reeves joined, cricket's golden age had long since given way to baseball, tennis and golf. The British themselves may have provided the coup de grâce for cricket in the United States when, in 1909, the Imperial Cricket Conference was founded to govern the game and ruled that no country outside the British Empire could belong.
Now, improbably, North American cricket is bouncing back, thanks in no small part to the huge influx of immigrants from countries such as India, Pakistan and those of the Caribbean. An estimated 30,000 people play or watch cricket in the United States each year. In 2005, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg announced plans to build a $1.5 million cricket pitch at St. Albans Park, Queens. In Philadelphia, Alfred Reeves has helped revive the famous British Officers' Cricket Club, which now competes against about 20 clubs in and around the city, including one—the Philadelphia Cricket Club—whose roster includes a two-thirds majority of U.S.-born players.
"I had always been interested in the game," says Chris Spaeth, 36, a Philadelphia Cricket Club regular who was exposed to it at Colorado State University, where there was a large contingent of Indian students. "When I moved back to Philly, I played soccer. But there wasn't the camaraderie I was looking for, the sporting element. So I found my way to cricket."
So did Doug Genna, a jovial, 22-year-old Haverford graduate. Genna was a wrestler and a lacrosse goalie in high school. When he took up cricket at Haverford, he naturally gravitated toward wicket keeper, the position closest to goalie and roughly analogous to a catcher in baseball. For Genna, the most difficult adjustment was the length of time each cricket match takes. As with baseball, there is no time limit and no clock. "Wrestling takes six minutes," he says. "Now I have to play in a match that can last for six hours. It's a big challenge to keep myself mentally focused."