Revealed: cricket's early days as America's favourite sport

Babe Ruth, the legendary baseball star, might easily have spent his career hitting sixes instead of home runs. Yesterday, the first academic conference ever devoted to cricket was told that it, rather than baseball, was the first love of Americans.

Babe Ruth, the legendary baseball star, might easily have spent his career hitting sixes instead of home runs. Yesterday, the first academic conference ever devoted to cricket was told that it, rather than baseball, was the first love of Americans.

It was attracting huge crowds by the middle of the 19th century and, had it not been for the American Civil War in the 1860s, Joe DiMaggio and co might have hit their way into sporting history alongside the likes of Len Hutton and Denis Compton.

"Cricket was the most popular team sport in North America in the 1850s," said Tim Lockley, an expert in American history at Warwick University, where the conference took place.

He said Americans and Canadians were playing organised cricket long before the Australians - in fact, the first international sporting event was a match between the USA and Canada in 1844.

"Cricket was by far the biggest sport in this period," Dr Lockley went on. "Then the civil war started in 1861, just when it was reaching its peak of popularity. The sport became a victim of that war."

He said there had been an English tour of North America in 1859, led by cricketing legends John Lillywhite and John Wisden, who went on to found the hallowed Wisden Cricketers' Almanac.

For one game of that tour, against the Canadians in Montreal, more than 25,000 spectators turned up to watch the English thrash the opposition by eight wickets.

"Crowds this size were almost unheard of for a sporting event in the 19th century anywhere in the world," Dr Lockley said. "This was a testament to the amazing popularity of cricket on the North American continent. There was nothing that could compete with it as a crowd-puller."

In fact, Dr Lockley said, the Americans had serious designs on becoming a world force in cricket themselves. It was they who funded the 1859 tour, paying the English players generous sums of money to tour their country.

Dr Lockley said: "Such was the competitive nature and popularity of cricket in North America, the Canadians and Americans were prepared to pay substantial sums of money in order to play the best in the world.

"They had real cricketing ambitions and there was a very real desire to learn from the best in the world."

Unfortunately, it appears, they weren't up to scratch. The English team, despite sportingly allowing them to field 22 players to their 11, were victorious in every single match, often with more than an innings to spare.

The Civil War appears to have killed off the American enthusiasm for cricket, which was overtaken by the previously obscure sport of baseball - not least because so many of their young cricket players were killed.

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