Almost 12 years ago, a group of us entered a restaurant in the Murray Hill locality of New York, though it was well past closing time. The owner, a Bangladeshi, waited until his establishment had filled up, before delivering an admonishment. Previous nights had witnessed much raucous behaviour and this, he warned, had attracted the attention of the ‘NYPD, FBI, CIA.’
The reason for our presence there was that restaurant, part of Manhattan’s Curry Hill, had turned into a base for subcontinentals collectively viewing live cricket World Cup matches. But the proprietor needn’t have been concerned with noise that early spring night since the mostly Indian viewers sat through in stumped silence, and just about the only security threat around was that faced by the Indian bowlers against the Australian line-up.
As early morning strollers passed by they stared at us, yawning into that dawn. This, of course, is the core contingent of those who sacrifice their circadian rhythm for the sport, as they are doing, once again for this edition of the World Cup. If India progresses deep into the tournament, the zombie infestation will migrate from Hollywood to Northern California, as thousands of sleep-deprived denizens of Silicon Valley will shamble into their cubicles.
Over three million viewers are expected to watch the matches in North America, via cable, satellite connection or online, and US residents account for the largest number of likes for the World Cup’s Facebook page outside India. But as a rising immigrant population drives those numbers up, the game’s footprint across the region is shrinking, despite its history.
After all, the first international, between the US and Canada, was played in New York in 1844, and the game was already being played here for a century. In his excellent documentary, Pitch of Dreams: Cricket in America, Washington-based television journalist Rohit Kulkarni, reveals that cricket was once played on the White House lawns. In recent years, Brian Lara even got left-handed American President Barack Obama to hold a cricket bat, though conservatives took that as more proof of the American president’s leftist tendencies.
But what is left is really just history. The Philadelphia Cricket Club, for instance, founded in 1854, now advertises itself as ‘The Perfect Destination for your Wedding’ and doesn’t shy away from sports either, as it offers ‘A Classic Location for a Golf Outing.’ A club historian points out, “The game of cricket was disbanded in 1924 but was revitalised in 1998 by the director of Tennis who grew up in New Zealand where cricket is popular.”
In effect, even as cricket’s global footprint shrinks in countries where it had taken baby steps, like the US and Canada, it hasn’t quite managed to crawl much beyond the Commonwealth core. The natives are about as immersed in the sport as Indians are likely to be in American football. In media reports, bulletins about World Cup matches occupy spaces briefer than those about curling, the Winter Olympics sport, or even hair treatment. And when ESPN tries to promote the World Cup with a documentary on Sachin Tendulkar, The Little Master, the sonorous commentary by Deepak Chopra only adds to the soporific appeal of the game, which comedian Robin Williams once described as “baseball on Valium.” Outside of the 200,000 weekend players originating from South Asia, South Africa, the Caribbean or Australia, the response among mainstream sports fans can be defined by an appropriate Americanism, ‘Crickets.’
Shortly after that World Cup 12 years ago, I had gone to the Bear Stearns building in midtown Manhattan for a meeting over coffee with a vice-president of that financial institution. As the conversation progressed, he spoke enthusiastically about establishing a franchise model Major League Cricket in North America. A dozen years later, that storied brokerage firm no longer exists, nor do plans for such a competitive venture, as cricket’s mainstream popularity remains just a few notches above, say, Benjamin Netanyahu’s in the White House.
Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs. The views expressed by the author are personal