If modern cricket is dated from the 1780s, when the Laws of Cricket which still rule the sport today were first formalized in England, North America would have to be considered a major participant in the world cricket scene for two-thirds of the time that modern cricket has been around.
The first cricket clubs in the USA were established in the 1700s, not long after they made their first appearance in England. Originally played by officers of the British Army with local landed gentry predisposed to be Anglophiles, cricket became a major recreation of American gentlemen of leisure....and indeed, several Founding Fathers of the United States were known to be avid cricketers - -John Adams among them, who stated in the US Congress in the 1780s that if leaders of cricket clubs could be called "presidents", there was no reason why the leader of the new nation could not be called the same!
Eastern Canada had developed cricket clubs as well, shortly after the US clubs had made their initial appearance. Both US and Canadian cricket clubs roamed far and wide in search of competitive cricket, as was the custom in those times. Soon, an animated cross-border traffic developed, and it was out of that friendly rivalry that the first international cricket developed in the modern world.
The first annual Canada v. USA cricket match in 1844 was attended by 10,000 spectators at Bloomingdale Park in New York. The USA v Canada cricket match is the oldest international sporting event in the modern world, predating even today's Olympic Games by nearly 50 years. Touring teams from the West Indies, England and Australia were playing in the USA and Canada until the 1920s. In one of the last such established tours, the Australian team with Don Bradman among them played in Canada and the USA, leading to the naming of Stanley Park in Vancouver, BC as his "favourite cricket ground" by the great Sir Don himself.
The USA also sent touring sides abroad. It achieved its greatest success when a national USA side defeated the West Indies by nine wickets in an international match in British Guyana in the 1880s.
Cricket declined in the USA in the 20th century because in the late 1800s it had remained a strictly amateur elite sport at the same time that England, then Australia, were developing a professional system that allowed full-time players to participate. In the halcyon days of amateur cricket, talented North Americans could sometimes hold their own on the field with the best the world had to offer. But as cricket standards improved elsewhere in the world by becoming semi-professional and then fully professional, many North American cricket clubs stayed stubbornly elitist ... abandoning cricket, they converted their facilities to recreations like golf and tennis.
Then, there was this urban (and local) recreation originally called "townball", which had developed out of cricket. Unlike cricket, townball could be played in small city squares and compact urban spaces, rather than spacious cricket parks. Some city cricket clubs, viewing it as an auxiliary entertainment, had even sponsored the first "baseball" teams, as they came to be called. After 1900, baseball took over the American scene, created its independent mythology, and obviated the sport that gave it birth. In a few decades, cricket in America had become only a memory.
The eclipse of American cricket was aided and abetted by developments in the British Empire. The British, it appears, were not at all enthusiastic about US participation in world cricket. The Imperial Cricket Conference, which was formed in 1909 to coordinate the worldwide development of the sport, specifically excluded countries from outside the British Empire from any role in the proceedings. This exclusionary policy certainly undercut any momentum to professionalize cricket in the USA, although whether the momentum would have developed even in the presence of a more open ICC remains a question.
After a near-total eclipse in the 1930s, US cricket began its long climb up from obscurity when first British and later, Caribbean and South Asian immigrants began entering North America is substantial numbers after World War II.
Unlike the US cricketers of the 19th century, these cricketers were a new breed. Rather than being gentlemen of leisure, many of these newcomers were small businessmen, salaried professionals and working-class cricket enthusiasts who made up in dedication what they may have lacked in civility. They brought with them a steadfast commitment to the "new" cricket they had learned to play at home - a fierce sport where many of the genteel norms of the early British era had gradually been discarded, to be replaced by a raucous community ethos which kept folks in good spirits through good times and bad. Cricket-playing urban enclaves developed around these communities, spreading by osmosis into the American heartland as the immigrant populations dispersed themselves through America's body politic.
Meanwhile, a different and less pleasant "rediscovery" of American cricket made its appearance in the 1970s. As cricket-loving immigrant populations grew in number in North America, their potential as a wealthy captive audience and a source of profit dawned on entrepreneurs, corporations, and organizations wanting in on the good thing. Even Disney and the ICC have been dancing around the issues in search of opportunities to make money off cricket in America.
The dilemma this creates for US cricket in the 21st century is obvious. Should American cricket-lovers spend their money to see first-class cricketers from the rest of the world perform in local venues? Or should they invest their cash in developing local talent, eschewing the spectacle of first-class exhibitions for a gradual development of indigenous cricket? These options may not be mutually exclusive, but given the limited resources available for cricket in the USA in the first place, some difficult choices lie ahead.
Meanwhile, the face of world cricket is changing. With the new International Cricket Conference, there has been an expansion of cricket into countries that were never part of the British Empire. Countries like Argentina, Holland and the Arab Emirates are now able to play in world cricket, and this may well be the biggest change that has occurred in the sport in modern times. Perhaps the USA can recover its century-old memories of preeminence in the cricket scene, and become a major participant in world cricket in the 21st century.
Important dates in US cricket
1709 William Byrd of Westover, Virginia, playing cricket with his friends
1737 Mention of cricket in Georgia
1742 Highland Scots celebrate St Andrew's Day in Savannah (Georgia) - founded only nine years before - by playing cricket
1751 A match recorded between New York and a London XI. played "according to the London method"; i.e. presumably in accordance with the 1744 rules
1785 Canadians playing in Montreal
1838 Mexican CC in existence
1844 First match between Canada and the USA
First known century scored in North America - 120 by J. Turner
1859 First touring team to leave England (captain, George Parr) visit the USA and Canada. Their matches drew large crowds and, together with their general experiences on the tour, were well-described by their scorer, Fred Lillywhite, in the first book in the long catalogue of "touring literature"
1874 First team from USA to visit England: team of baseballers who also played cricket
1878 The Australian team visits America on their way back from England
1880 First team from Canada visited England: not representative and the tour terminated prematurely
1884 First Gentlemen of Philadelphia team to visit England
1896 Haverford College toured and played English Public Schools
1903 Kent visit USA
1905 First MCC team visited USA and Canada; captain E. W. Mann
1961 United States Cricket Association founded
1963 Revival of USA v Canada match, last played in 1912
1965 United States elected to associate membership of ICC
1968 Canada elected to associate membership of ICC
Deb K Das is cricket coordinator of Wisden Cricinfo's USA site