Those of you who are only aware of US cricket through their abject display in the 2004 ICC Champions Trophy will perhaps be surprised to learn that sides from the USA were once capable of beating the best in the world. In particular, Philadelphia produced some of the finest players the non-test world has ever known. The star amongst these players is without a doubt Bart King, regarded by many as the best player never to play Test cricket.
The Philadelphians had first class status up until the First World War, and played many matches against touring sides from England, and several against the full Australian side. Three of those went the way of the Americans.
In late September and into October 1893, following on from a four month tour of England, Australia visited North America. The first match of the tour was a first-class three-day encounter against Philadelphia at the Belmont ground.
The home team won the toss and elected to bat. Captain George Patterson got them off to a great start with 56, and at the close of play on day one, the Philadelphians were on top at 297/4. Francis Bohlen (who would later play for the MCC and for WG Grace's London County) was on 83, and William Noble was on 73.
Noble was bowled for 77 by Hugh Trumble early on day two, but Bohlen stayed in, eventually going for 118. The lower order batsman also chipped in, the last three wickets putting on almost 200 runs between them, Henry Brown making an unbeaten 59, his only first-class half century,as the Philadelphians reached 525 from 169 five ball overs.
Australia were perhaps looking forward to taking advantage of the fast pitch and short boundary as the home team did, but they ran into the developing swing bowling of Bart King. King bowled 25 of the 50 overs in the Australian first innings, taking 5/78 in the process. Only George Giffen offered any real resistance with an innings of 62.
There was an improvement in the Australian batting in their second innings as Alec Bannerman carried his bat for 79 and Harry Trott scored 58. But they were still no match for the Philadelphian bowlers. The wickets this time were more spread out amongst the bowlers as they were dismissed for 258, giving Philadelphia a win by an innings and 68 runs.
The year after this match, Philadelphian captain George Patterson was to score 271 in a first-class match. To this day, this remains the highest first-class score by a player from one of the current non-test nations. It has only recently been challenged. Kenya's Ravindu Shah scored 247 in 2004, as did David Hemp for Bermuda in 2006. Ryan ten Doeschate then came as close as anyone has managed so far with an unbeaten 259 for the Netherlands in a 2006 Intercontinental Cup game against Canada.
Philadelphia beat Australia by an innings and 68 runs
Belmont Ground, Philadelphia, 29 September-2 October 1893
Philadelphia: 525 (169.1 overs, F Bohlen 118, W Noble 77, H Brown 59*, W Bruce 3/100)
Australia: 199 (49.4 overs, G Giffen 62, JB King 5/78) & 258 (94.3 overs, A Bannerman 79*, G Trott 58, W Scott 3/41)
In 1896, against after a four month tour of England, Australia visited Philadelphia for a three match series of three-day first-class games. Showing no signs of wear and tear from their tour, they won the first two games relatively easily, including an innings victory in the second.
But the third game at Merion Cricket Club saw the Philadelphian bowlers hit top form. In their first innings, the Australians were bundled out for 121 in just 45 overs. Bart King and Percy Clark took five wickets each with their usual high quality swing bowling.
Skipper George Patterson and former Derbyshire player Arthur Wood then cruised to 65 without loss at the close of the first day's play. Wood went on to make 50, but Ernie Jones took 5/82 to restrict to the home team to 282.
The Philadelphian bowlers were in even better from in the second Australian innings. Bart King bowled 22 of the 43 overs, taking 3/47. Percy Clark chipped in with one wicket from his nine overs, but pick of the bowlers was Percy's brother Edward who ripped through the Australian batting line-up with 6/24, dismissing them for just 101. Philadelphia thus won the match by an innings and 60 runs.
Philadelphia beat Australia by an innings and 60 runs
Merion Cricket Club, Philadelphia, 2-5 October 1896
Australia: 121 (45 overs, JB King 5/43, P Clark 5/49) & 101 (43 overs, G Giffen 47, E Clark 6/24, JB King 3/47)
Philadelphia: 282 (122 overs, A Wood 50, H Brown 48*, W Noble 43, E Jones 5/82, G Giffen 3/61)
Australia would next tour in 1912, though in the interim years, an important event took place that was to have a significant impact on American cricket.
In 1909, the ICC was formed. As opposed to today, when the organisation is known as the International Cricket Council, it was then given the rather grandiose name of the Imperial Cricket Conference. Most significantly for American cricket was the decision to restrict membership to members of what we today call the British Commonwealth, a policy that was only reversed in 1965. Whether this undercut any momentum to professionalise cricket in the USA is a matter for debate, but it certainly can't have helped.
The tour by Australia in 1912 followed what was the first (and up until 1999 the only) Test triangular tournament. The tournament was considered a poor one, blighted by terrible summer weather and the Australians would have been hoping for a rest in the USA. They didn't get in the first of two three-day matches against Philadelphia.
Philadelphia batted first and despite a fine 57 from William Newhall, they were bowled out for 185 by the Australians, Jimmy Matthews taking 5/65, including a hat-trick. But Bart King, three weeks short of his 39th birthday, was his usual brilliant self and took 5/40 in Australia's 1st innings, restricting them to 122.
Philadelphia's batting let them down in their second innings and Sid Emery took 5/38 as the home side were bowled out for just 74, Samuel Mifflen the only batsman to reach double figures. This set the Aussies a target of 138. They fell three runs short, as Bart King took 4/38, giving Philadelphia the two run win despite Harold Webster's 54.
Philadelphia beat Australia by 2 runs
Germantown Cricket Club, Manheim, Philadelphia, 27-30 September 1912
Philadelphia: 185 (58.2 overs, W Newhall 57, W O'Neill 36, T Matthews 5/65) & 74 (25.5 overs, S Emery 5/38, W Whitty 4/23)
Australia: 122 (48.3 overs, JB King 5/40, F Greene 4/27) & 135 (49 overs, H Webster 54, JB King, 4/38, P Clark 3/40)
Australia finished off the tour with a win in the second match, and hopped over to Bermuda to beat their national side before returning home. The Australians would return the following year for one final first-class tour, which was to be the last time first-class cricket was played in the USA until the USA played Canada in Florida in 2004, when John Davison took 17 wickets for the Canadians.
In these days, when the USA side is made up entirely of immigrants from major cricket playing nations, it is perhaps worth pointing out that all but a handful of American cricketers in the pre-World War I days were born and bred Americans.
Bart King eventually passed away in his native Philadelphia two days before his 92nd birthday in 1965. He lived to see the USA gain the membership of the ICC that was denied to them when King was playing. He, along with other great Philadelphian cricketers such as Christie Morris, John Lester, Percy Clark and George Patterson, remains Test cricket's greatest missed oppurtunity.