Baseball's Elder Brother
Tom Melville, Cricket for Americans: Playing and Understanding the Game (Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993)
Tom Melville, The Tented Field: A History of Cricket in America (Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1998)
Throughout what used to be the British Empire, cricket is the bat-and-ball sport, a shared passion in lands as otherwise unlike as England, India, Australia, the West Indies and South Africa. The conspicuous exceptions are the former colonies, i. e., the United States and Canada, where baseball holds sway and the ancestral game is a curiosity played by immigrants and ignored by the sporting press.
Tom Melville, an Englishman transplanted to Wisconsin, surely entertains no notion that his favorite sport will reverse the tide of 150 years, but he is eager to explain cricket to Americans and possibly win enough converts to make the game visible once again in North America.
As one of the target audience for Cricket for Americans, I can testify that it is a first-rate primer. After reading it, I now know that bowling a maiden over is not salacious, how to distinguish a silly point from a frivolous argument and why it is disgraceful to make a duck. While the Daily Telegraph’s cricket columns are still not an easy read, they at least no longer seem written in Swahili.
As a teacher, Melville is clear and concise, explaining the rules of the game, its inbred vocabulary, its national and international organization, and its history. For the thoroughgoing student, he reprints the complete Laws of Cricket, as promulgated by the venerable Marylebone Cricket Club, and includes an extensive glossary.
What is lacking in this exposition is a vision of what makes cricket attractive to its devotees. The author proclaims his love of the game but is not particularly good at imparting it. He comes closest in a chapter describing the twists and turns of a one-day “limited overs” match, which conveys some feeling for the opposing strategies and shows how tension can mount as small gains and losses accumulate. He does not, however, extend the picture to multi-day matches. The out-of-place chapter on how to give cricket lessons to neophytes (aimed at a far different audience from the rest of the book) could profitably have been replaced by, say, an account of a test match.
In The Tented Field, he turns from proselytizing for cricket to describing how it came to need proselytizers. Sports histories fall, by and large, into two classes: fans’ histories - replete with memorable games, famous players, rules changes, league standings, and team and individual records - and academics’ histories, which brush aside those matters in favor of sociology, cultural analysis and politics. Here Melville writes here as an academic, with chapter titles like “The Retreat from Cosmopolitanism and the Fallacy of the Chadwick Thesis”. The upshot is a thoroughly researched volume that concentrates heavily on what Americans thought about cricket and why they did (or more often did not) take it up, with less attention to what happened on the playing field.
The main subject is a natural one: cricket’s unsuccessful rivalry with baseball. The older sport had solid foundations in pre-Civil War America but progressively gave way in the latter part of the 19th century. The Tented Field traces the peaks and valleys of its popularity from the 1830’s, when organized play first appeared, through the first decade of the 1900’s, when a final upswing failed to take hold. He has much to say about who played cricket, and when and where and why. How they played and what they did scarcely enters the picture. Save for an occasional brief anecdote and several reproductions of photographs and engravings, the game itself is a fitful presence throughout the work. As a small instance, the author has unearthed the box score (to use the baseball term) of a famous 1845 match, legendarily the first in which native Americans held their own against immigrants from England. He uses this evidence to probe the ethnic makeup of the sides but neither reprints it nor recounts any of the action.
There is nothing blameworthy, of course, about the choice to write an academic-style history, and the research is certainly prodigious. One quakes at the thought of how many yellowing newspapers and forgotten magazines were turned over to compile the 57 page list of American cricket clubs. On the other hand, the purpose of delving into this mass of material is to fish out explanatory theories, and here the book is unsatisfying. Its ultimate verdict, “Cricket failed in America because it never established an American character”, is less an answer than a restatement of the question. If cricket had become popular, its “American character” would have followed, just as golf and tennis, once equally exotic imports, have become assimilated.
The question of why cricket did not take hold in this country is well worth further study. The answer may be as simple as luck or as complex as the differences between American and English culture. Mr. Melville provides a plethora of data. Others will have to figure out what it means.