''Americans play cricket?" On a July day chilled by the wind, fragments of blue sky threatening to break through a blanket of cloud - in short, a stereotypical day for English cricket - I sit in a stand in Castleford, better known as a bastion of Rugby League. An hour to the west, England are restoring some lost pride by thrashing Zimbabwe in a limited-overs encounter. In London, Yorkshire are defending northern pride in a top-of-the-table clash with Surrey. Arguably, however, the match of the day is being played before me and 30 other spectators. With three balls to spare, a 19-year-old batsman called Steve Massiah cracks a boundary to square leg and the US national side defeats an MCC Select XI by four wickets.
"Americans play cricket?"
All week long, friends, acquaintances and even strangers had been sounding the refrain. England might have gifted its national game to the empire, but the original colonists had corrupted the sport into baseball and a "World Series" encompassing the US, Toronto and Montreal. Cricket's gentlemen wear whites and shake hands; America's finest swagger, while their mouths chomp on gum or spit tobacco juice. I shook my head at the caricature, and then constructed my own: a squad of Ivy Leaguers, paying homage to aristocratic forebears and having a nice tour of the English countryside.
The rebuttal was in the scoreboard. "All-American" names such as Johnson and Denny were juxtaposed with Ali, Amin, Islam, Awan, Rizvi and De Silva. And my chastening was in the field. Imran Awan (Pakistan and Washington DC), who bears a passing resemblance to Wasim Akram, not only in physique, but also in pace, opened with Nasir Islam (Pakistan and Washington DC) to reduce the MCC to 13 for two after five overs. Mark Johnson (Jamaica and Miami) and Nezam Hafiz (Pakistan and New York) put on 60 for the first US wicket, while Massiah (Guyana and New York) batted more than two hours for his 71 not out.
Almost all of the American tourists are first-generation immigrants, men who came to the US in their teens. Inshan Ali moved from Trinidad to New York when he was 13. Nirosh De Silva joined his mother after she had spent more than a decade in San Francisco, and became a wine taster in the Napa Valley. Johnson left the Young Jamaica team for Brooklyn College and "soccer", before taking up cricket again at the age of 27. The dressing room and lunch table feature a melange of dialects and languages, overseen by the team manager, Kamran Khan (18 years with the US national side as a player), and the coach, Sew Shivnarine, a former international for the West Indies.
The end product defies classification. Only the most foolhardy after a day's observation would write off this squad, playing eight matches in two weeks, as American yokels. The US is in the International Cricket Council's second tier of nations, alongside the likes of Scotland, Ireland, Holland and Denmark, which do not play Tests, but participate in international one-day competitions.
Next year's ICC Trophy is in Toronto; the American ambition is to be one of the qualifiers for the 2003 World Cup. They have a chance: Jim Love, ex-Yorkshire and England and now Scotland's coach, spied on them, undercover as Number 3 for the MCC, and assessed the competition with dour understatement as "pretty useful" after his dismissal for one. The previous day, the US - despite a late-innings wobble - had defeated Yorkshire's second eleven by one wicket.
Despite the nature of the personnel, this is not simply a "south Asian" or "West Indian" squad under a foreign flag. The "US" label is not only on the manager's blazer, but also in the mannerisms and traits that defy cricket's conventions. For the toss of the coin, the MCC captain is dressed in whites and a jumper with club colours; his counterpart is in a white windcheater and blue sweatpants. The MCC squad is on the ground in a team huddle, doing light callisthenics; the Americans are scattered in twos and threes throughout the stand.
During their innings, the MCC eleven are casual, swapping small talk and a couple of jokes. When they are batting, the US team (before most members retreat from the July cold and watch through the windows of the dressing room) are subdued and fidgety. Only when a couple of local youngsters approach for autographs is there any relaxation, with players requesting $10 for a signature and bidding goodbye with "God bless you and God bless America". Two team members leave to walk the boundary and take photographs; a local entrepreneur approaches to tout cricket bats, made at a factory near the ground.
The Americans opt for a curious mix of intensity and awkwardness that transcends cricket's code of restraint. Johnson, who crafted 116 against Yorkshire and launched the innings against the MCC with a quick 37, assesses his hopes of making the final US team for the ICC Trophy, and then looks out at an attractive but unimposing ground: "When I thought of England, this is what I dreamt of."
Dismissed MCC batsmen observe the formality of walking up the steps of the stand to polite applause. The US batsmen do the same but, at the top of the flight, they exchange a greeting of affirmation, discreetly touching fists with a dreadlocked scorer in sunglasses.
In the final ten overs, with the US batsmen in sight of victory, but bogged down, the suave and unruffled manner of the manager, Khan, gives way to anguished shouts of "Two! Take two!", while the coach, Shivnarine, berates someone: "Run! C'mon, what's wrong with you?"
A lot of ink could be spilt writing about the fabled melting pot of ethnic groups that enrich an "American" culture. Khan talks fervently about establishing cricket beyond the immigrant communities, mentioning a programme taking the game into Los Angeles schools. There is also the hope that New York City will build a dedicated stadium.
I'm not optimistic about this. At the highest levels, it's television money that calls the shots, and US broadcasters wouldn't put eight hours of airtime into a one-day match (even if America was assured of vanquishing the Rest of the World); at the grass roots, "soccer moms" aren't likely to become "cricket moms". Yet I don't think it matters too much: if the game is serving individual communities, as with New York City's 250 teams, the main benefit of going national is in the appeal to corporate sponsorship, rather than in any development of local programmes.
No, this tour says less about the Americans on exhibit than it does about the English who hear about them. Some may innocently claim that cricket is only a game; to me, it is still the theatre of empire. My friends, with their merry notions of a cricket-playing Yank as a sideshow, could not envisage cricket as an established pastime among certain ethnic groups in the biggest US cities. We could not, because we are still captive spectators of the staging of America - the colonials who broke away - as an Anglo-Saxon equal of England. The "special relationship", in which the US is the powerful but bumbling younger brother, carries the imprint of white-on-white in business, politics and leisure. Those Americans who are not of the Caucasian persuasion get swept up in the catch-all of the "inner city", unless they establish a celebrity in a peculiarly US sport such as basketball. They remain to be brought into the transatlantic fold.
Every six months or so, the BBC blows the imperial trumpet. It runs an item on kind-hearted English ambassadors taking cricket to the deprived areas of a US city, such as the Bronx in New York or Watts in Los Angeles, or on a US side of "disadvantaged" youth, sponsored by a patron such as Prince Edward, coming to Britain. That widespread community leagues already exist is never mentioned; instead, the tale is of the poor minorities trading in their guns for cricket bats handed down from on high.
To be fair, neither Castleford Cricket Club nor the MCC exhibited such an attitude on the day. For them, the US visit - like that of the Zimbabwe tourists in May - was part of a far different story. The MCC, to broaden the base for cricket, and no doubt to counter its image of elitism, is working with local councils to develop facilities throughout the country. Castleford, a former colliery ground bordered by the narrow shafts of poplar trees on one side and a mix of stone and brick terraced housing on another, is the pilot project.
Still, empire is never absent. Early in the proceedings, the MCC's representative falls into the seat beside me, doubled with laughter. He tells me that a local fan has been chatting earnestly about the MCC's earlier match with "Zambezi". "I'm not sure why I find that so funny," he says as he wipes his eye.
Then I learn of the opening match of the US tour. Before the MCC, before the second elevens of the counties, there was The Royal Household in the grounds of Windsor Castle. The contest was a bit of a bust: locals had to be recruited after only six members of the household showed up to play, and rain washed out proceedings with the Americans on 110 for two. But as Khan says with a smile: "The Queen stopped by for a couple of minutes."
Imperial glory is no longer defended with musketry, but with willow. English angst, its complexities all too apparent - remember the West Indian "blackwash" of 1984? - is disrupted by moments of hope. Mike Atherton and Alec Stewart deflate "fat" Shane Warne and the Australian upstarts at Edgbaston in 1997. A year later, Robert Croft and Angus Fraser withstand a South African siege for two hours to earn a heroic draw. And last month, down-and-out England skittle Brian Lara and the West Indians for 54 at Lord's.
It is consoling for English sensibilities that, in this never-ending melodrama, a "white" US - whatever else it might dominate in this world - remains a bystander. But the West Indian roots of Raymond Denny and Richard Staple, the names of Masood Mohammed, Abbas Rizvi, Nasir Javed, Zamin Amin - these only disrupt the cosiness of a common Anglo-American heritage. It was not by chance that Norman Tebbit's cricket test of 1990 - "Which side do they cheer for?" - was issued not in Britain, but in the Los Angeles Times. His target was not only Brixton and Balsall Heath; it was a US society that was supposedly threatened by immigration from the "third world", diluting American culture and the special relationship.
The US team barely have time for handshakes with the MCC players before boarding the coach for Lutterworth Cricket Club and the next day's match with Leicestershire's second eleven. As Johnson notes: "The only sightseeing on this trip is done through the window." The new bats are packed, the Welsh driver closes the doors, and the coach rattles past the Hightown and Black Bull pubs on its way to the M62. For now, Castleford's encounter with the "other" America is over.
The writer is head of American and Canadian studies at the University of Birmingham