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The oldest international contest of them all

And no, it isn't England v Australia

Martin Williamson

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A drawing of the world's first international match between USA and Canada in New York in September 1844 © NYC

It is one of cricket's curiosities that the oldest international rivalry is not, as many assume, England against Australia. That started in 1877, some 33 years after a side representing USA met a team from Canada at Bloomingdale Park in Manhattan. It is believed that it is the world's oldest international sporting rivalry, pre-dating the Americas Cup by seven years.

There are some who dispute the validity of the claim that the game was an international. It was advertised locally as a meeting between USA and Canada even though the players were, in the main, drawn from two clubs. While the first contemporary reference to the sides being from USA and Canada did not come until 1853, it is generally acknowledged to have been an international.

The encounter could actually have happened four years earlier. The St George's Club received an invitation from a Mr Phillpotts to travel to play a game against Toronto at a ground on the shores of Lake Ontario. A squad of 18 New Yorkers made a gruelling journey only to find on arrival on August 28 that the bemused Toronto club knew nothing about the proposal. St George's had been the victim of a hoax. Nevertheless, Toronto raised a side to play for a stake of $250 a side, and in front of a decent crowd, St George's won by ten wickets.

The relationship had been established and four years later a genuine invitation was sent to Toronto, who accepted. The stake had been upped to $1000 and the venue was to be the grounds of the St George's Club (around East 31 Street and First Avenue, at the time a rural setting) with two days - September 24 and 25 - put aside for the game.

The trip south for the Canadians was exhausting. They travelled by boat up the St Lawrence and across Lake Ontario before boarding a train on the burgeoning rail network on the American side. The trains had no buffet cars and so food had to be snatched at the irregular stops.

A large crowd, around 5000, was present on the first day and, as was customary, betting was to the fore. It is estimated that as much as $100,000 was bet on the match, close to $2 million in modern money. The game was scheduled to start at 10am but the teams were in no hurry and it eventually got underway at 11.40am.

Canada batted and were bowled out midway through the afternoon for 82. Given the state of pitches at the time, it was a respectable score, although contemporary accounts refer to the poor fielding of the USA. David Winckworth joint top-scored with 12, while Yorkshire-born Sam Wright and Harry Groom shared the wickets between them.

Winckworth is an interesting character and he can claim to be the first dual international. He appeared for Canada in the first three games against USA (there were two in 1845) and then, on moving to Detroit, he turned out for USA in 1846.

It is estimated that as much as $100,000 was bet on the match, close to $2 million in modern money

After an hour's break for a late lunch, USA batted, and although their innings extended into a second day, they conceded a first-innings lead of 18. What should have been the second day was in fact washed out and it was agreed that the match would resume on September 26. When Canada batted again Winckworth, who had taken four wickets with some quick bowling, again top-scored with 14 as Canada made 63.

USA were set a target of 82, although they had an immediate problem in that their No. 3, George Wheatcroft, had not turned up. James Turner and John Syme gave them a good start, but from 25 for 0 they lost six wickets for 11 runs once George Sharpe came on. The tail wagged slightly but USA only managed 58, losing by 23 runs. Earlier in the year Turner had scored 120 in a club match, believed to be the first three-figure score on US soil.

Some 20 minutes after the last wicket fell, Wheatcroft arrived. A heated but brief argument ensued as USA tried to insist he was entitled to bat, but the Canadians were having none of it.

In 1845 the sides met again home and away - Canada winning by 61 runs in Montreal at the end of July and by two wickets in New York a month later - and then in Harlem, New York in August 1846. USA finally broke their duck at the fourth time of asking, but in highly controversial circumstances and the fixture was suspended for seven years.

"Cricket was by far the biggest sport [in the USA] in this period," Tim Lockley, an expert in American history at Warwick University, told the Guardian in 1999. "Then the civil war started in 1861, just when it was reaching its peak of popularity. The sport became a victim of that war."

The USA-Canada contest continued intermittently. They last met in 2004 in the ICC Intercontinental Cup in Florida, the only occasion that the two have faced off in a first-class match.

Is there an incident from the past you would like to know more about? Email us with your comments and suggestions.

Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo

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