Cricket Battles to Stay Alive In the U.S.

Haverford College and Merion Cricket Club will help host the 150th Philadelphia International Cricket Festival from May 3-7.

Courtesy of Haverford College

Paul Hensley likes to recall the reaction of a certain legendary cricketer at the Philadelphia International Cricket Festival. “You guys are serious about cricket,” said Sir Garfield Sobers, possibly the sport’s greatest modern-day all-rounder, as he gazed one May upon the Merion Cricket Club grounds.

“People have told me that our facilities are as good as those at Lord’s in London,” says Hensley, the longtime president of the C.C. Morris Cricket Library Association and U.S. Cricket Museum at Haverford College.

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Haverford boasts the nation’s only intercollegiate varsity cricket team. This year marks the 150th anniversary of regular cricket competition at the college, one of 18 teams in the charity festival. Like Merion, the school helps to host the event, which runs May 3-7 and celebrates its 25th anniversary this month. Both milestones solidify the region as the cradle of American cricket. The area’s major clubs remain Germantown and Philadelphia, each founded in 1854, and Merion, established in 1865.

“We can take guests to one club, and they’re impressed, but when we take them to two or three others, they’re wowed,” says Tom Culp, who chairs the festival’s organizing committee and savors his long association with the Philadelphia club.

But making impressions with the outside world isn’t as easy. “There’s always a celebrity comparable to a top baseball player, but it just doesn’t attract people,” Culp says. “Mostly, it’s for players, and it still fits our purposes. People are pushing to grow, but growing in some grand manor is very difficult—but those who play, play with a passion.”

At elite levels, Test cricket lasts for days. Twenty20, or T20, play—the short version of the game that limits overs—gives cricket a chance of catching on in this country.

The festival guarantees teams six matches over three days at five local venues. It will host more than 200 players from 12 traditional teams—including a newly formed U.S. women’s national team—and six international squads. The finalists meet in Sunday’s Trophy Cup match, held on the emerald green lawns at the Philadelphia club. Saturday night includes a banquet at Merion, and there’s a brunch at Philadelphia on Sunday. England’s legendary fast bowler Devon Malcolm will be this year’s featured cricket celeb.

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“During festival time, my kids get thrown out of their bedrooms, so there’s bunking for cricket out-of-towners,” says Broomall’s Vikram Dravid, an interventional radiologist at Bryn Mawr Hospital who’s played at Merion for the past decade. “We’re all congenial and collegial, and I’ve made more friends at the festival because we share the common love of the game.”

Fifteen years ago, the nonprofit library association and cricket museum merged with festival organizers to help raise charitable funds, which now feed the sport’s youth-development programs. “If it helps cricket, we’ll find a way to help, and it’s not always with money, but maybe access to people who can help,” Hensley says. “We are serious about this—about having a complete cricket ecosystem.”

Cricket has been at Haverford College longer than anywhere in the United States—since 1834, the school’s second year. The game was imported from England by gardener William Carvill, who was hired to landscape the college’s grounds. Matches were played irregularly.

In 1863, members of the so-called Dorian club became the college team, though the Civil War was disruptive. Among the first American intercollegiate contests was a match between Haverford and the University of Pennsylvania in 1864. Since 1877, intercollegiate cricket has been played at the school. “It depends where you put the stake,” says Hensley about documenting the sesquicentennial.

Haverford sent the first American undergraduate XI to England in 1896 under senior captain John A. Lester, the namesake of the school’s pavilion. The 1900 squad included a young Charles Christopher “Christie” Morris, who became captain in 1904. He played locally and toured for 40 years.

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In all, Haverford has sponsored six touring teams. In 1990, the modern squad went undefeated in England and Scotland, repeating the feat in England in 1996. It would like to get back to that level.

To that end, coach Kamran Khan’s co-captains, David White and Raghav Bali, have initiated preseason workouts, a lifting-conditioning schedule, and batting-cage sessions. When Khan began coaching in the early 1970s, athletes from cricket-playing nations were plentiful. Last year’s team included only two from abroad. “Now, I take what I get and turn them into cricket players,” he says.

Khan arrived at Villanova University from Pakistan as an 18-year-old graduate student in international relations. He first came to Haverford to see the Duck Pond, then discovered the college also played cricket, his native sport. Howard Comfort, the coach, asked Khan if he could play. The next year, Comfort asked him to help coach. “I told him some players were older than I was, but he said none could play as well,” recalls Khan, who played on the U.S. national team for 20 years, half of them as co-captain or captain. In the late ’70s, he also played on the World XI team.

White, a converted baseball catcher, is such an adapted cricketer that he’ll play for the U.S. at the Maccabiah Games in Israel this July, then begin teaching elementary school in Philadelphia. The city is a breeding ground for future players, with the help of the U.S. Youth Cricket Association, which aggressively supplies Kwik Cricket equipment kits.

Bali grew up playing in New Delhi. A junior, he says cricket remains an enigma. “Yet it’s so rooted, we have to keep the spirit of cricket alive,” he says.

Despite breathtaking politics within the USA Cricket Association and the International Cricket Council, sources say there’s a renewed effort to promote the sport. Last fall saw the formation of the women’s national team, and there’s a push to add women’s cricket as an Olympic sport. 

Still, Haverford’s eight- to 10-game spring and fall schedules depend on playing club teams. Khan says it’s difficult to ask—or expect—other schools to add cricket. Promoting it at Haverford is challenging enough.

At Merion, only 15-20 members play cricket, yet the club “feels it’s an identity that it wants to remain,” Dravid says. “Cricket is in the local clubs’ names. They started as cricket clubs. They’ve done it for so long that it’s revered.”

There are 25 local teams and 40-50 leagues scattered across the country, mostly on the East and West coasts and in Chicago, Kansas, Texas and Colorado. Some 600-800 teams total play cricket. “But a club plays, and 10 people watch,” admits Hensley.

Another reality: American teams win less at the Philly festival. “I can’t remember the last time a local team was even in the final,” Culp says. “But we’re good hosts.”

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