Willows among the redwoods: Philadelphia stronghold leads way as cricket rises again in US

The cricket oval at Exton Park – surrounded by a rolling, tranquil countryside juxtaposed by suburban housing and business developments peeking their heads over the hills – is not, inherently, an uncommon sight.

There are tents and chairs for spectators, some club-issue and some provided by the onlookers themselves. One group brought a large tent for their party of about twelve, complete with a large cooler of “something chilled” and a deli tray. There are two camera stanchions and a commentary tent, perhaps a step up from the normal village match, but low key all the same.

Just another Sunday afternoon in August at the local cricket. Nothing unusual about that at all.

What does make this scene unfamiliar, however, is the location. The “Exton” here is not the one in the County Cricket hotbeds of Somerset or Hampshire, nor is it the one in the minor market of Devon or Rutland.

This oval is in Exton, Pennsylvania, one of the many homes of the new Minor League Cricket competition that began on July 31. It is an attempt to, in earnest, get Americans interested in a sport that many here find confusing and quite alien.

On this day, it is the Philadelphians entertaining the Empire State Titans, based in New York City. For the locals, their sixth game of the season, the fourth for the visitors. Philly enters with a record of 3-2, while the Titans are 1-1 with one no result.

There are those amongst the hundred or so gathered round the outer who know this information coming in, who have followed the players and the new teams since the announcement of the league earlier this year. Indeed, the Philadelphians and Titans are but two of the 27 clubs playing in MiLC this season, spread out all over the country and playing 16 games during the regular season. All of them have their eyes on making the finals, which take place the weekend of October 3.

MiLC is the first major undertaking of a large scale national cricket league since Pro Cricket came and went after one season in 2004. As the name suggests, the Minor League Cricket is a development league feeding into the planned Major League Cricket competition, set to begin play in 2023. Six teams are planned to kick things off, allowing the MiLC markets to develop and step into the fore once expansion becomes feasible.

Many of the players have experience at the highest levels of the game. Philly’s Johnathan Carter, hailing from Barbados, has 32 ODI appearances to his name for the West Indies, has already been called up to the Barbados Royals for this CPL season. Another Philadelphian, Guyanian Jonathan Foo, has been in the Jamaican Talliwahs’ squad since 2016 and has 19 top-level T20 matches under his belt. There are others, hoping to catch the eyes of the major short-form franchise leagues, or hoping to make their mark as the first stars of Major League Cricket.

But even so, being a “star” in American cricket is very much a niche thing.

Cricket in the US is a well-hidden gem amongst all of the other sport gobbled up by the public here. Gridiron football, baseball, hockey, basketball, soccer, and countless others have millions of dollars thrown at them by those who attend games and acquire merchandise, and otherwise devote endless time and energy following the happenings thereof. To us, cricket is that weird sport with that weird language and games that take five days for some reason that always seem to end in ties. Also, what the hell is a sticky wicket?

This is my first live cricket match in nine years, and my second ever. The last time was a local match at a Hindu temple in Virginia, and I was the only spectator. Even though I had been following the sport at various volumes over the past 20 years, all of my other experience with cricket was either through YouTube, or whatever outlet isn’t geoblocked.

I take a spot under one of the tents set up by the team, camped out in a folding chair. My friends Derek, Shannon, and Theresa, all of them locals and cricket newbies, have joined me in a place where shade is at a premium on an 85F day. Shannon’s interest in cricket was piqued by the fact that players wear sweater vests while playing. She was only slightly disappointed to hear that that wouldn’t be the case today, but not enough to deflate her interest at learning something new.

There are roughly 20 of us in our one tent. There is a family of locals who are familiar with the sport and a delightful West Indian couple sits to my right, having driven down from New York to watch. The husband sits with two phones in front of him. One of the phones has the webcast of the game we’re at, complete with commentary, albeit about a ball or two behind. The other phone has the fourth day of the West Indies-Pakistan Test, as the Windies are desperately chasing down a second innings target.

“I’m retired,” he says.

“This is our life now,” his wife says. “I’m getting adjusted to it,” she rolls her eyes, but in a loving way.

I am explaining what is happening to my friends, and to another older American couple who heard about the match and made an outing out of it. The Titans have won the toss and chose to bat, sending the yellow-clad Philadelphians into the field. The questions about the game from those watching their maiden cricket match flow as quickly as the runs off of the Empire State openers’ bats. They watch as another former CPLer, Jamaican Trevon Griffith, benefits from both skilful placement and a few misfields en route to an impressive 85. The more knowledgeable of my tentmates are bantering with the Philadelphian third man and long-on stationed on the boundaries, much to the amusement of all and sundry.

Philadelphians – talking about us in the demonymic sense now and not the cricket team – have a reputation for being bad sports. We still hear it from national news and sports outlets about the time that a bunch of grumpy Eagles fans, upset that their team had won just one game all season in 1968, threw snowballs at a guy dressed as Santa Claus. Or about the night that those same Eagles won the Super Bowl 50 years later, and citizens celebrated by climbing up deliberately greased light poles in Center City and South Philadelphia.

We love hustle and passion and if you leave your hearts on the field/court/rink, we’ll gladly give you ours. The crowd at Exton Park, regardless of experience in watching cricket, recognizes power and hustle: they cheer and marvel when Griffith smashes one of his 11 boundaries. My friend Derek is highly impressed by the play of Foo, who scrambles to stop a boundary attempt by Akeem Dodson, then gets up and throws a stunning return to wicketkeeper Francis Mendonca to pick Dodson off while trying for a second run.

“Bryce Harper would’ve appreciated that throw,” Derek says, referring to the $350 million right fielder for the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team.

The Titans innings rambles on, and they build up a score of 189 for nine, a tally that our retired West Indian fan is confident that the Philadelphian batsmen can achieve. “They put up 213 yesterday,” he reminds us, alluding to the team’s win over the New England Eagles the day before.

As the interval nears, Murali Kailashnath, one of the Philadelphians’ six co-owners, comes over to thank us for coming out, and to inform us that there are snacks and free T-shirts available at one of the other tents. He asks how we heard about the team and the match today, and tells us that they have three more home games left that he will hopefully see us attend.

All of this potential for renewed passion for cricket here is promising. But despite the rarity of this cricket oval in the context of the sporting landscape, cricket is no stranger to this part of the world.

A long time ago, in a land an ocean and metaphorical world away from its creation, the game of cricket ruled Philadelphia.

It seems strange that a city known for being the birthplace of freedom from British oppression would harbour that country’s signature sport. A city and an area that had been at the centre of a war for independence of land and identity still clung to the upper class attraction of leather-on-willow, even as the days of ash-on-horsehide put it to pasture.

From the time of the American Civil War until the outbreak of the First World War, the Quaker City was home to some of the finest purveyors of the game anywhere in the world, even in the commonwealth countries where the long-term popularity and sustainability of the game was taking hold. And for sure, there were other fine clubs around the country, located mostly on the east coast; in places like New York and Boston, where the first points of entry for new Americans rippled with the keeping of old-world traditions.

But Philadelphia had four of the best clubs in the country for the better part of 50 years. And every once in a while, they would come together as the Philadelphians, bristling with the talent of locals who were pretty handy with bat and ball. From John Lester, a professorial and steady batsman, to George Patterson, whose 271 is still the highest first Test score by a non-test nation cricketer, to the colourful Bart King, who was known as much for his wit as for arguably being one of the best bowlers of all time.

Eleven decades have passed since the Philadelphians of Lester, King, Patterson et al played their last match – a two-day draw against Australia in June 1913. The sport has changed, the world has changed, and the Venn diagram nucleus of those two entities has changed as well. Cricket, an amateur sport, was left behind as baseball, attracting the best of those who heaved lumber at wound cork, was big business.

But the heartbeat of the game is still in Philadelphia, where three of those once mighty clubs – Philadelphia, Merion, and Germantown – still exist. Where a local league of 16 teams , the Greater Philadelphia Cricket League, rumbles along each weekend with teams stretching from the Lehigh Valley, an hour’s drive north of the city, down to the states of New Jersey and Delaware. These are the local aficionados.

One of those involved in both the local and burgeoning professional scene is Ernie Precious, another co-owner of these new Philadelphians and board member of the GPCL’s British Officers Cricket Club. I encounter Ernie as I’m leaving the ground, from his perch on a hill near the parking lot square of the pitch. He is decked in Philadelphians gear, smiling broadly, and shaking the hand of just about everyone on the way out, enraptured at the prospect of area sports fans becoming cricket fans.

“We think we have something big here,” he tells me over the cheers of the Philadelphians’ enterprising run chase. “I know a lot of people are fed up with baseball and some of the other sports out there. We offer something accessible and exciting, and we feel Philly sports fans would love cricket if they saw it.”

100 meters away from where we are standing, Empire State use early spin to induce two wickets, which wobble Philly’s run chase. For the second dismissal, Griffith shows his all-round status as makes a circus catch at deep midwicket; arguably the best play of the young MiLC season.

The innings trudges on, as my retired friend bemoans the inevitable West Indian collapse at Sabina Park. Foo and Mendonca construct a steady partnership of 122 runs before the former has to go on 90. The stand has been sturdy but not swift enough; needing 48 runs from 19 balls following Foo’s wicket, the home team can only manage a run a ball and end up falling by 26 runs.

With a level record of three wins and three losses and ten games to go, the Philadelphians sit in a fourth place tie in the Atlantic Division. Only the top two in each division advance to the finals in roughly six weeks’ time.

But what is being built here and now is just as important. The social media presence has been active and intense, and it portrays a team that is dedicated to growing themselves as a family, and to their team as a pillar of the sporting community. Carter, who is en route to join Daniel Vettori and the Royals in St Kitts, gives an inspiring farewell speech. My friends enjoyed themselves, and they’ll be back when the team returns home at the end of the month for a two-game set.

It’s a small seed that everyone involved hopes grows into a mighty willow amongst the redwoods of the American sporting landscape.

And that? That’s just cricket.

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