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An Unlikely Cricket Rivalry Between Canada and the United States

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Photo: Reuters

By Philip Barker |

Last Sunday (August 25), England’s Ben Stokes electrified the cricketing world with an astonishing innings to level the Ashes series against Australia at Leeds.

Some 5,400 kilometers away in Bermuda, Canadian batsman Ravinderpal Singh was the latest hero of an even longer-standing international cricket rivalry. His 67 from 33 balls was a major factor in his team’s victory over the United States.

The first meeting happened 175 years ago and is considered the oldest of all international fixtures.

North America had proved a fertile ground for cricket as early as 1737. George Stephens, a planter in Georgia, recorded that “many of our townsmen, freeholders, inmates and servants were assembled in the principal square at cricket and other athletick (sic) sports”.

In Canada, cricket was certainly being played in 1785 and grew with the encouragement of British soldiers.

Club cricket was developing fast and, in 1840, a party from St George’s Club of New York arrived in Toronto. They had an invitation from an individual who claimed to be George Philpotts, a representative of Canadian cricket. In fact, the Americans were victims of a hoax, for their Canadian counterparts knew nothing of the “arrangements”. They were introduced to the real Mr Philpotts and would eventually play against him.

A hasty meeting decided that “in order that the visit be made agreeable, the Toronto club would be happy to play the St George’s club in a friendly”.

Over the next few years, the contact continued at club level. A single-wicket match between a Mr Henry Groom of St Georges and Mr David Winckworth of Toronto was arranged for $100 (£82/€91) a side. Groom could only score five and Winckworth made 21 to claim victory.

In 1844 came a formal challenge for a USA v Canada match in New York. The Toronto Patriot newspaper reported that, “A spirited eleven of the Toronto club started on Saturday night to accept the challenge of the St George’s club of that city for $1000 (£822/€911). The match was to come off today. We wish the Torontowegians every success.” 

The New York Herald spoke of “this grand match, which has excited, for some time past, considerable notice of the residents of both sides of the St Lawrence was announced to commence yesterday morning at 10 o’clock”.

Before play began, a meeting decided local playing regulations. “It was agreed upon that the running should continue, no matter where the ball was driven until the judges (sic) were satisfied that it was a lost ball.” In other words, the field would have no boundary.

The US won the toss and asked Canada to bat. This “they did with evident good spirits”. A sizeable crowd “from all parts of Canada and the Union” had already gathered at the ground in Bloomingdale Road and there were estimates that over $100,000 (£82,000/€91,000) had been wagered on the result.

Play did not actually get underway until 11.40am. In those days players were notoriously slow taking the field. The minutes of the Marylebone Cricket Club in London record that Augustus Liddell proposed “after each innings the bell be rung at the expiration of five minutes in order that the players may be ready to resume the game”.

When play did start, Canada’s John Wilson had the unwanted distinction of becoming the first international batsman to be dismissed for a duck.

Meanwhile, his opening partner Winckworth “was very cautious and steady; he appeared determined not to give a chance away”. He reached 12 before he was run out. Number three batsman Charles Birch “was much admired, although his stay was brief. He was capitally caught” by Robert Bage.

No player made more than 12 runs as “Extras” top scored and Canada were all out for 82.

The players returned to the field after an hour for lunch. The crowd had now swelled to an estimated 5,000 to see the American reply. Opener James Turner “was beautiful and steady”. The first 12 balls brought eight runs.

But the wickets fell regularly. No player had yet made double figures when Groom made his way to the wicket. “Expectation was great that he would in some degree retrieve the leeway of his party; but, alas, it was only expectation, as he was caught without making a single run.”

Only captain and wicket-keeper Robert Tinson played well. He stayed at the crease for an hour and a quarter and his batting was described as “very cautious”. Tinson was club President of St George’s and his 14 was the highest individual score of the match so far.

By close of play the US had lost nine wickets and odds had shifted firmly in favour of Canada.

The local papers praised the efforts of Mr. Freeling in the field. “We never saw a man display so much agility; he was like a harlequin, here, there, and everywhere when required,” the reports said.

Day two began under grey skies with a piercing wind. Play was once again delayed because the umpires were absent.

When it did start, the USA added only three runs before the last man was out, conceding a first innings lead of 18.

Only Winckworth and George Philpotts made double figures in the Canadian second innings, which caused the betting to swing back in favour of the US. Only 82 needed to win.

Turner and John Syme opened the batting and started well. Both made double figures, but no-one else made more than eight.

The Americans were further handicapped because George Wheatcroft was unavailable to bat. “By some unaccountable means or other Mr. Wheatcroft did not make his appearance until twenty minutes after play was over.”

Canada had won the first international.

“Well done, the spirited eleven of Toronto cricketers!” said the papers.

The fixture was repeated the following year in Montreal, but in 1846 came an incident which threatened to derail the fixture. American Samuel Dudson and the Canadian John Helliwell collided in the middle of the wicket. The ill-feeling was such that the match was suspended until 1853.

Cricket remained popular in both countries and, in 1859, a party of 12 English players set out from Liverpool on board the Nova Scotia, bound for Quebec. The tourists were most often opposed by 22 from local teams, but even with the odds against them they usually won.

After the American Civil War, baseball became a more popular sport in America. In 1874, an unusual tour featured matches in both baseball and cricket. Players included Albert Spalding, later to lead the way in the manufacture of baseball equipment. Other American cricketers who came to England included the “Philadelphians”, who visited five times before the First World War.

Although ice hockey and lacrosse were growing in popularity in Canada, Prime Minister Sir John Macdonald insisted that cricket was a national sport. In the 1870s, Australian and England teams both visited Canada, then in 1880 the Canadians came to England. They were captained by a gifted cricketer called Thomas Jordan, but he hid a dark secret. He was, in fact, Thomas Dale, who had deserted the army while serving in Canada and had fled to the US

He also deserted not one, but at least two wives. One wrote to alert the authorities in England and he was arrested leaving the field after the match in Leicester. Newspapers round the world gleefully reported his trial and imprisonment, concluding that he was a victim of “too much matrimony”. Without him, the Canadian team were decisively weakened and the tour fizzled out.

The US continued to meet Canada on a regular basis until 1912. No suitable dates were found in 1913, and in 1914 war had broken out. Many would-be participants had already enlisted. There were attempts to revive the fixture, but the full international did not resume until the early sixties.

Canada did play against an all-star Australian team in 1932. This included Don Bradman, still considered the greatest player Australia ever produced. In one match on tour he struck 260. 

After the Second World War, Canada played an international against Pakistan at Lord’s. The Pakistanis also visited the US later in the decade to try and energise the game. Meanwhile, moves to revive “the international” against the USA were afoot and it was resumed in 1963, thanks to the efforts of officials John Marder and Donald King.

In the early seventies, the ICC gave the green light for a World Cup competition. In 1979, an ICC Trophy formalised the qualification process for non-test-playing nations. Both the US and Canada took part. The US lost only to Sri Lanka, but did not advance to the knockout stages. The Canadians reached the final, played at the picturesque New Road ground in Worcester. They lost to the Sri Lankans, but both teams qualified for the Prudential Cup.

They lost all three matches. Curiously, they were drawn in the same group as England, Australia and Pakistan, the three test-playing nations which had previously faced the Canadians.

Canada qualified again in 2003 and this time recorded an historic first victory, convincingly beating Bangladesh in Durban. A further victory over Kenya came at their most recent men’s World Cup appearance in 2011.

The ICC remain enthusiastic about pushing for an Olympic place, which would no doubt help elevate the profile of cricket in North America, especially looking towards Los Angeles 2028.

Back in 2012, USA Cricket chief John Thickett told the prestigious Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack: “We would reach a lot more people just because so many watch the Olympics.”

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.

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