The rise, fall and rise again of cricket in the USA and Ireland

The rise, fall and rise again of cricket in the USA and Ireland
Groundsmen work to clear the water as rain delays play during the one-day international Tri-Nation Series final between Bangladesh and West Indies at the Malahide cricket club, in Dublin on May 17, 2019. (AFP file photo)
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Updated 30 December 2021

The rise, fall and rise again of cricket in the USA and Ireland

The rise, fall and rise again of cricket in the USA and Ireland
  • Baseball in one country and politics in the other ensured that the sport never maintained its initial popularity, but both the USA and Ireland now have ambitions to join cricket’s elite nations

While the Australian men’s cricket team has been savaging its English counterpart, across the Pacific Ocean the USA men’s cricket team caused an upset last week by beating Ireland in a T20 match. This was notable because it represents the USA’s first victory over a full member of the International Cricket Council.

Currently, neither country is a top-tier cricket playing nation, although both have antecedents. According to USA Cricket, an early reference to cricket appeared in 1709, involving British colonialists. It is noteworthy that the first international match was played between the USA and Canada in September 1844. By the mid 1800s, cricket was played in 22 states by up to a thousand clubs, with a heavy concentration in Philadelphia.

This level of popularity was not maintained, with the rise of baseball being a major factor of disruption. During the Civil War, soldiers on both sides embraced this new game, mainly because it was shorter, required less equipment and could be played on a rough patch of ground. By the early 1870s, around 2,000 clubs had sprung up, catering for 100,000 players, a quarter of a million spectators and a growing commercial support system. Cricket vainly tried to hold its place, but the UK-based Imperial Cricket Conference, formed in 1909 to govern the game, ruled that no country outside the British Empire could be a member, thus marginalising the USA.

In Ireland cricket was reported to have been the country’s largest and most popular sport by the mid 1850s, but it became a victim of the politics of national identity and social class. Gaelic football and hurling provided a focus for agrarian tenants in their struggle against upper class protestants and, frequently, absent English landowners. In 1901, The Gaelic Athletic Association imposed a ban on the playing or watching of “foreign” games such as cricket, the penalty for so doing being a ban from playing Irish games. The ban lasted for 70 years, so that cricket was obscured for much of the 20th century.

A further change in dynamic came in 1922 when the Irish Free State was formed after it seceded from the UK. Although the game of cricket itself was not anathema in Ireland, its association as the sport of the colonial English elite clashed with the spirit of Irish cultural nationalism of the time. Slowly, since 1980 and particularly since 2000, both men’s and women’s Irish cricket has been re-established to the point where ICC full member status was awarded in 2017. This came on the back of a series of impressive performances in successive World Cup ODI competitions.

The USA’s route back onto the international circuit has taken a different course. After almost plunging into obscurity, it found a lifeline in the shape of immigrants from South Asia and the Caribbean after 1945. The admittance of countries from outside of the British Commonwealth into the ICC after 1965 gave it new impetus. Despite its rather blemished governance record, which caused the expulsion of the United States of America Cricket Association by the ICC in 2017, cricket in the USA now appears to be in safer hands. Run by USA Cricket since 2018, it was readmitted to the ICC as an associate member in 2019 and is regarded as an attractive proposition to both the game’s international administrators and commercial interests.

The ICC has awarded the 2024 T20 World Cup jointly to the West Indies and the USA, which has one ICC-approved ground in Florida, geographically close to the Caribbean. How much cricket will be played there remains to be seen. A bigger ambition is the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics. After some dithering, occasioned, it seems, by political intrigue and changing personnel within its realm, the ICC has decided to mount a campaign to be included as part of the list of additional sports, which is to be considered by the Olympic Organising Committee in 2023. Time is short and a $3 million budget has been allocated to the campaign.

USA Cricket estimates that 200,000 people are playing the game in 400 local leagues. Development of T20 franchise leagues has been affected by the pandemic. It is reasonable to assume that Olympic participation would boost the game’s appeal, but that is six years away, if it happens.

Thus, US cricket seems to have a dilemma. Will enough Americans be attracted to watch first-class cricketers from the rest of the world perform locally, thereby providing a return on investment or should its limited resources be invested in developing local talent for the longer-term development of the national team? It appears that the answer is to try and pursue both pathways.

Ireland does not have this dilemma. Although it has been awarded joint hosting of the 2030 T20 World Cup with England and Scotland, it must find a way, in the intervening decade, of maintaining its playing performance status with limited financial and playing resources. As Cricket Ireland’s strategy emphasizes, this can only be achieved by investing in the grassroots for both men and women to develop home grown talent throughout the island.

The series between Ireland and the USA’s part-timers is the first in which the USA has hosted a full ICC member on home soil and comes at a fascinating time in their respective re-births into international cricket. Ireland is ahead in terms of performance ranking and would have been expected to win. Embarrassing defeat in the first T20 hit Ireland hard. In the second T20 match, Ireland recovered to secure a narrow victory.

COVID-19 has completely disrupted the three-match ODI series with all the matches having to be cancelled. It is a shame that the USA has been denied the opportunity to test its progress towards becoming a significant player on the international cricket stage and that Ireland has not been able to brush off rustiness before a series in the West Indies.