When one thinks of American cricket, the first thing that comes to mind for the modern cricket fan is often the rather pathetic team that came to England for the ICC Champions Trophy in 2004. It is perhaps surprising to learn that not only was cricket one of the most popular sports in the US, but that their cricket team was amongst the world's best, and that less than a century ago, single cities were capable of beating a full strength Australian national side.
Most remarkable of all is that they produced a bowler who was regarded in his day, and after his career ended, as one of the best to ever bowl a cricket ball. A bowler who invented many of the strategies and techniques still used by fast bowlers to this very day. Before he came along, fast bowlers almost never bowled swing, saving swing bowling for slow medium pacers. After him, almost every fast bowler bowled swing. Without him, we may never have seen the likes of Glenn McGrath, Wasim Akram or Waqar Younis.
The bowler in question is John Barton King, better known as Bart King.
King was born in Philadelphia in 1873. Unlike most Philadelphian cricketers of the time, King was not from one of the local aristocratic and wealthy families of the area, and came from a middle-class family that worked in the linen trade. He later worked in the insurance industry, a job that was set-up by his team-mates to allow him to play cricket.
He started his sporting life as a baseball pitcher, but moved to cricket at Tioga Cricket Club in 1888 at the age of 15, as a batsman. The following year, he was tried out as a bowler due to his physique (even at 15 he was over six feet tall) and took 37 wickets at an average of 2.37, an obvious sign of his potential. Philadelphian club cricket of the time was probably just above the standards of minor counties cricket today.
A remnant of his baseball upbringing remained in his bowling action, as he held the ball in both hands above his head in the manner of a pitcher before entering the final strides of his run-up. King was never accused of throwing though, unlike many fast bowlers of the day.
Three years later, King made his debut for the US national side in their annual encounter against Canada. He took 3-6 in the first innings, and 2-15 in the second as the USA won by an innings. He followed this by his first appearance for Philadelphia in a three match series against Ireland, taking 22 wickets at an average of exactly 13.
The following year saw King brought to the attention of the wider cricketing world when he made his first-class debut for Philadelphia against Australia. In a three-day match at Belmont Cricket Club at the end of September, Philadelphia scored 525 and King then led the bowling in the Australian 1st innings with 5-78. He took two more wickets in the second innings as Philadelphia beat the Australian test side by an innings. Australia won the second match of the series, with King only picking up two wickets, but performed credibly enough for Australian captain Jack Blackham to remark that America's cricketers were on a par with England's best.
King continued to play for the US national side and for Philadelphia, demolishing batting line-ups locally. One, probably apocryphal, story has it that he often preferred to try and take the final wicket with just himself on the field. There was another visit by the Australians in 1896, and King took two five-wicket hauls in the three match series, leading Philadelphia to another innings win in the last match.
Philadelphia toured England the following year, playing first-class matches. Whilst the tour attracted some initial curiosity, the interest really took off after Philadelphia met a full strength Sussex team in the middle of June. King took 7-13 in the Sussex first innings and 6-102 as Philadelphia won by an innings. The team could only manage one more win on the tour though. King's performances, taking 72 wickets at just over 24, impressed many. Counties were keen to secure his services, but assuming that, perhaps incorrectly, he was unwilling to play as a professional, attempted to find alternative means of remuneration. One county allegedly offered to arrange a marriage with a widow who had an annual income of £7,000!
King returned to England with the Philadelphians in 1903, a tour on which two performances stand out. Against Lancashire he took 5-46 in the first innings, and was almost unplayable in the second. With a strong wind behind him, in his first over after the lunch break on day two of the match, he yorked one of Lancashire's opening batsmen and his replacement with successive balls. He clean bowled two more batsmen in his second over, and bowled a stump out of the ground in the third. In 3 overs, he had taken 5 wickets for 7 runs.
After this performance, King had to be rested in the field. One more wicket was taken before King returned to take 4 more wickets, ending the innings with 9 for 62. King took 93 wickets at an average of 14.91 over the 16 matches of the tour. Against Surrey later in the tour, he starred with the bat, scoring 98 before being run out in the first innings, and 113 not out in the second. These were his highest first-class scores with the bat, though he has a triple century in Philadelphian club cricket, the score of 344 still being the record in North America.
Various tours to the US from English first-class teams continued over the next few years, while King continued to dominate local cricket, winning the best batsman award three times and the bowling award four times between 1904 and 1908.
1908 also saw King's finest tour of England. Despite being in his mid-30s, King took 87 wickets in ten first-class matches at an average of 11.01, topping the English bowling averages for the season. The mark was not bettered (for a bowler with a significant amount of bowling) until 1958, when Les Jackson of Derbyshire had an average of 10.99.
King's international career began to wind down after the tour of England, but he still found time for the occasional appearance for the USA or Philadelphia. In 1909, he pulled off his best innings bowling in first-class cricket, taking all ten for Philadelphia against Ireland in a first-class match, also bowling not-out batsman George Morrow with a no-ball. He took a hat-trick in the second innings. He took 11 wickets in the second match of the series, also passing 2,000 first-class runs in the same match.
His international career ended in 1912. After a final appearance for the US national side against Canada, in which he took 5-15 in the 1st innings as Canada were bowled out for 40, he played in a two-match first-class series against Australia. The series was drawn 1-1 and King, despite being just short of his 39th birthday, took 17 wickets at an average of 8.94.
Those two matches were his final first-class matches, finishing his career with 2134 runs at an average of 20.51, and 415 wickets at the phenomenal average of 15.65. He took 41 wickets at 15 against Australia, but his favourite opponents were obviously the Irish, against whom he took 58 wickets at an average of 8.12.
King continued playing Philadelphian club cricket until July 1916, when he retired from cricket at the age of 42. He had got married in 1913, the marriage lasting until his wife passed away in 1963. King himself died in a Philadelphian nursing home two years later just two days short of his 92nd birthday.
He lived just long enough to see the USA gain membership of the ICC, which had been denied to them during his career due to the ICC then restricting membership solely to what is now the Commonwealth. A more open ICC would probably have seen the USA (or even Philadelphia alone) gain Test status. As it is King remains the greatest missed opportunity for Test cricket, and is by a long way the best bowler to have never played Test cricket, and probably would still make it into the top ten bowlers of all time to this day.