Ben Franklin,  History,  Minor League Cricket

Philadelphia Cricket from King to Kumar

The eyes of the baseball world were firmly on Philadelphia this fall as the Phillies marched through the playoffs and into the World Series. But while The City of Brotherly Love can claim to have a rich baseball history, its cricket history may be even richer. Throughout the nineteenth century and into the early part of the twentieth century, cricket was probably this country's most popular sport and no place embraced the game more than Philadelphia. The owners of Minor League Cricket's Philadelphians understand this connection to the past, but they're firmly focused on the future.

Of course, just about any road through history and Philadelphia goes straight through Benjamin Franklin. And cricket is no different. In addition to doing mundane things like inventing the bifocal lens, working to harness the power of electricity, charting the gulf stream, and helping to found the United States, Franklin was instrumental in the evolution of cricket on this side of the world. Among the souvenirs he returned to Philadelphia with after attending King George III's coronation in England in 1760 was the latest 1755 version of The Laws of Cricket.

But cricket playing the States actually pre-dated Franklin's return by several decades. References exist of versions of cricket played here as early as 1710. The game was popular among upper-class British living in the colonies and eventually caught on with American-born colonists who wanted to be more like their seemingly more sophisticated European counterparts. The game grew in popularity in major cities like New York and Boston, but it was in Philadelphia where the game prospered the most and attracted the largest number of American-born players. The Philadelphia Cricket Club, the Germantown Cricket Club, the Young America Cricket Club, and the Merion Cricket Club all formed and thrived in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Philadelphians in England 700

By the latter half of the nineteenth century, top Philadelphia XIs not only hosted matches against touring teams from England, Australia, and Ireland (and played against legends like W.G. Grace and Ranjitsinhji), but also toured England and played at Lord's as The Gentlemen of Philadelphia. And as far as the cricket versus baseball debate went, Philadelphia's Haverford College's president Isaac Sharpless stated in the late 1880s that "the noble game of baseball has degenerated into a victim of gamblers and a trysting-place for all kinds of immorality" and that "cricket alone seems to remain on the high ground."

Philadelphia was also the home of Bart King -- probably the greatest American cricketer of all time. A fast bowler with a background in baseball, King created a breaking-ball-inspired delivery called "the Angler" which ushered in the era of swing bowling. King's international career lasted over twenty years. Unfortunately, his retirement in 1913 coincided with the decline of cricket in the area and the country.

Cricket never regained its footing in the US after World War I. In the 1920s, radio broadcasts that brought the game into people's living rooms and larger-than-life players like Babe Ruth helped turn baseball into America's favorite sport. Cricket couldn't compete and slowly became less relevant. Even in Philadelphia.

Fast-forward sixty-or-so years.

"I arrived in this nation in late 1980 and I thought that was the end of my cricket career because who the hell comes to America and expects to play cricket again? I didn't even bring any of my gear with me," says Ernie Precious, British ex-pat and one of the co-owners of The Philadelphians. "In 1986, I went to a cocktail party in one of the boathouses on the Schuylkill River here. And this fellow comes up to me and -- with a Yorkshire accent -- says 'Hey, do you play a cricket?'" Precious soon found himself as part of a group resurrecting the British Officers Cricket Club -- a club made up of British officers stationed here that was originally formed in 1929. It was disbanded in 1939 after World War II broke out and members all returned to Europe. "So that's how I was reintroduced to cricket. These three guys were opening up the club again and reviving it. There were 15 of us back in 1986 and the average age was about 55."

Santhosh Kandasamy, another Philadelphians owner, took a different route to Philadelphia cricket. "My passion was cricket all along. I came from a very, very remote village back in India where we don't have access to the highest of facilities or the best of equipment, but we made the best use of what we had. I went on to graduate in a city where cricket was more accessible, so I was able to play cricket for my university. I then worked in a technology company and they said, 'Okay, you are now being immigrated into America for work purpose.' So I ended up being in Philly"


Despite the differing backgrounds, both had similar goals. "When I came to Philadelphia, Ernie was already a leader in the area where he was running a league and was the secretary of the league. We had very similar aspirations. We wanted to grow cricket. We want to make sure that our next generations want to take up the sport in the country as a mainstream sport. So, me and Ernie and a couple of other partners all had the same motivation of giving back to the community by growing the sport in America."

And Precious saw Minor League Cricket as a way to do just that. "When the minor league was created, we obviously had an interest. Philadelphia has a unique history of cricket. The board of USA Cricket came and spent three or four hours with us to learn all about Philadelphia cricket. And I think one of the most important things that happened that night -- other than us being offered the franchise -- was that the board became aware of what Philadelphia Cricket meant. It really opened their eyes into how much cricket had been played in Philadelphia…how George Washington played at Valley Forge and all that type of thing. We wanted people to know that there is a very deep history of cricket in the Philadelphia area. And we wanted to promote that."

And promotions is where The Philadelphians stand out. The team's website -- with its amazingly cool meteor-turning-into-a-cricket-ball-getting-slammed-into-Independence-Hall animated opening -- is the best in the league. And it's only going to get better according to Kandasamy. "Our marketing team carries our brand with more pride than anybody else in the minor league. We are hustling in this off-season to get everything up before the next season. You will see our shop in our website coming up -- merchandise, signed memorabilia, NFTs. By the first week of April, we should have everything up."

The team has also gotten sponsorship from nearby Parx Casino, which has helped spread the word about The Philadelphians. The team is hoping to have a few exhibition matches near the casino to help introduce even more locals to the game.

With a team that's a solid mix of experience and youth -- anchored by international stars Liam Plunkett and Milind Kumar -- ownership is excited about the squad that will take the field in the upcoming season. "We are very optimistic that we will go into the championship weekend in Morrisville (NC) or anywhere else that it's going to be held in 2023. Our leadership group is very confident about the growth of the franchise for the last two years," says Kandasamy.

And despite Philadelphia's deep cricketing history, when he talks about the 2023 season, he references Philadelphia's 2008 World Series victory in that other bat-and-ball sport. "I tell these guys that Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Jimmy Rollins are Jonathan Foo, Liam Plunkett, and Milind Kumar. So we should get ready for the South Broad Street parade."

© Steinberg 2022

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