The growth of USA cricket August 29, 2008

How premier inter-leagues took over USA

Official matches between the 23 cricket leagues in the USA, called "inter-league matches" by cricketers in the country, have increased from 11 to more than 40 in just three years - from 2005 when the term first began to be noticed, to today when almost every US cricketer knows what it is supposed to mean.

Until recently, an "inter-league" event in US cricket was simply a fixture that was off the regular-season league schedules of competitive matches, but described some non-cricket tradition of a local kind. A country fair in Idaho with hayrides and cowbells, where local South Asians are regularly invited to showcase their "exotic" curries, saris and cricket skills. An Indo-Pakistani Independence Day where South Asians from neighbouring cricket leagues meet in conviviality to celebrate what they have in common.

Or "international" matches with neighbouring cross-border leagues, which always means Canada; Mexico does not count because Mexicans have not learnt to play cricket. Showcase events to honour (some would say "placate") a sponsor with deep pockets, so as to keep his subsidies flowing. The "inter-league" aspect of these events was an indirect way to emphasize that cricket was not just a matter of hard fighting, head-to-head confrontation and win-or-lose attitudes - there was room for people to reach across league boundaries in fellowship and fun-and-games that was just--well, cricket.

Adding "premier" to "inter-league" adds a peculiarly American meaning to the word. The two terms used together make special sense in this country, because of the way cricket has developed in the United States.

It all goes back to the USA Cricket Association, or USACA, which wrote itself a constitution and got it approved by the International Cricket Council (ICC). For the first time, definitions were applied and standards were set, and enforced; A cricket league had to have at least eight teams to call itself a "recognized US league". The number of cricket associations in the USA went from a "probable" 600 to a "recognized" 200 as the constitution took hold - the "unrecognized" leagues did not disappear, of course, they merely refused to file the papers required by the USACA to "prove" their bona fides, and went on playing cricket on their own terms.

The "recognizability" issue was to have an unfortunate consequence in US cricket. It marked the beginnings of a caste system, with an elite group of cricketers occupying the upper tier, and a much larger number who lived in the same neighborhoods in isolated clusters which were subdivided along linguistic or familial lines. For example, I came across a cricket team where all the players were named "Mathur", and lived next to a team of "Patels"; the Mathurs were Hindi-speaking, the Patels spoke Gujarati, and they played each other with a gusto that must have rivalled the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys in the Kentucky Highlands of the USA - though, fortunately, with a lot less bloodshed.

The elite cricketers wasted no time in getting things under control. Carrying the banner of the USACA ("we represent an All-American organization, you know"), they talked to local and city officials, found grounds large enough to meet the needs of competitive cricket, helped out with laying pitches and setting up tents for makeshift pavilions, and even brought lawnmowers and rollers from their gardens to supplement the resources of the Park maintenance crews. This was not always as easy as it sounds; there was opposition from Little League, co-ed and recreational softball, and soccer folks who felt their spaces were being encroached upon, and were very vocal in their opposition at City Council meetings. In the end, though, most of the elite cricketers were able to reach a modus vivendi with their new neighbours, who accepted them as fellow-citizens of an exotic variety.

Here is when, and where, the term "premier" came into common use, and began to produce dividends for US Cricket.

As explained earlier, the 1991 USACA Constitution had made it possible, for the first time, to compare cricket leagues across the USA by standards of performance. The word "premier" was the key to the process.

How it works is best illustrated by the following example.

Suppose you are looking at two cricket leagues, one a 15-team league in Wyoming and the other a 50-team one in Connecticut.

The Wyoming league, with 15 teams, could call a team officially drawn from its 15-member clubs its "premier" team.

Let us say that the Connecticut league has four divisions, each with 12 teams. A team drawn mostly from its top division but containing the best players from the lower divisions would be called Connecticut's "premier" team.

The theory is that the best "premier" players from Wyoming could be as good as the best from Connecticut. This has been found to be true to a surprising degree in US cricket - some of the best players in Team USA hail from the unlikeliest small leagues in the country.

But why are "premier inter-league" players becoming so important now, in 2008? What makes them so important today?

The simple answer is that, in 2008, "premier inter-league cricket" is the only game in town. The official USA team, having been unceremoniously shoved out of international cricket in Jersey, can do little except cool its heels in the Associate Member basement for now. The top Team USA players, like Steve Massiah of New York and Niraj Shah or Sushil Nadkarni of Texas, could give up on the USACA altogether, and switch to alternatives like CricketAmerica, knowing that they would be called back when, and where, a national USA team can take to the field again.

But most of the lesser members of the erstwhile USA team, being less sure of their places, want to hang around the ICC arenas of international cricket, hoping for a renewed use of their talents. Meanwhile, if they are to stay within the USACA-defined zone of ICC-sanctioned cricket, "Premier inter-league cricket" provides the best, in fact the only, current opportunity.

But, once fully established, could "premier inter-league cricket" end up excluding itself, or being excluded from, playing against countries without recognized "premier leagues"? Cayman Islands, for example, or St Kitts and Nevis, do not yet have premier leagues as USACA and ICC have defined them. Many Affiliate members in the Caribbean have simply not established premier leagues of their own. Shouldn't the USA be playing such teams anyway, with the hope of encouraging them?

There is another danger lurking in the wings of US cricket. It too involves the use of the "premier inter-league cricket" concept, but in a negative and sinister way.

As Martin Williamson, Executive Editor of Cricinfo, has been pointing out for some time, a lot of money will be coming into the USA to promote domestic cricket. Opportunists (called "carpetbaggers" in an earlier era) are already hovering around to take advantage of this bonanza. "Premier inter-league cricket" could become the talking point around which the deals and the trade-offs will be argued. Fortunes could be won or lost on which interpretation will be promoted by adept lawyers, and "premier inter-league cricket"; could become an official orthodoxy, setting the tone for US Cricket for the next decade.

Not bad, one might say, for a term which had been first used to describe US Cricket's search of extended meanings. It successfully brought together what had been a haphazard assortment of cricket - playing clusters, and gave them a uniquely American shape and identity.

One day, it may even be said that a truly American cricket had been born out of the transplanted seeds brought in by expatriates, and the next generation of US cricketers is already looking at world cricket with homegrown eyes. If this is indeed the case. "Premier inter-league cricket" could well be the unifying theme for today's US cricket, and it is likely to become more so in the years ahead.

Deb K Das is Cricinfo's correspondent in the USA