The dust has settled on the U-19 World Cup, and it's about time that we started looking critically at where we are, and what we need to do.
By Rohan Chandran
The dust has settled on the U-19 World Cup, and it’s about time that we started looking critically at where we are, and what we need to do.
What went wrong in New Zealand?
It doesn’t take any great cricketing understanding to deem the tournament a failure for the USA U-19 squad. It was indeed a failure, and an abject one at that, but the failure is less on the part of the young boys who went out to New Zealand and so much more a reflection on the older men who are responsible for their cricket, and for cricket in the US as a whole. It is they who must hold up their hands and accept responsibility, and there is little doubt that it will be they who most pointedly do not do so.
The fault lies not just with the players, but with what was around them. It should have been no surprise to anyone that batting was the biggest technical problem in New Zealand. That is, quite brutally, the nature of the game. A mediocre bowler can bowl one long hop every over, and you can still keep the opposition under 300. A batsman is finished the first time anything goes wrong. That the coaching staff failed to consider this simple reality ahead of time, indicates that they were not worthy of their positions, plain and simple.
The fact of the matter is that our 19 year olds are lacking cricketing experience and acumen that their peers in Australia possess. What the boys needed was to be guided along a path that would compensate for the cricketing nous and experience that we simply don’t and can’t have in our environment.
Tactics, physical readiness, mental approach to the game – we’re not going to become Test cricketers overnight, but we can certainly learn to approach and play the game the right way, and give ourselves a chance to showcase our natural talent.
So what do we need to do? Here are my thoughts:
Thinking long term is always going to be fundamental to achieving something in our cricket. We tend to tie our hopes and expectations to the players we know and love – the ones we play with every Sunday. That mentality needs to be shed, and shed fast. If we’re going to do something sustainable for our cricket, then it is going to be the next generation and the one after that who get the glory, not us. A false dawn here and there, and we’ll keep coming back to square one.
The USA U-19 coach went on the record saying that he went to New Zealand expecting to win a few games against the bigger nations. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with a coach thinking positive and being optimistic. The problem is that when you abandon realism, you fail to prepare for what you are actually going to confront. Until we realize and acknowledge the level of our cricket, and the yawning chasms that we have to cross, we are unlikely to put anything in place that helps us raise that standard.
Our administration, top-down and bottom-up, is an unmitigated disaster, and continues to be so in so many ways. There are flickers of hope that sporadically shine across the country, but we are dominated by an environment of self-aggrandizing ego-fuelled politics, and that’s being generous.
Quite simply, too few people are honestly thinking about cricket and its long term future, and too many people are thinking about how themselves, and their nearest and dearest, can benefit.
Unfortunately, with the current global interest in the US as a cricketing destination and minor cricketing power, the incentive to operate in this manner has only increased.
We desperately need to get professional and get accountability into the mix. Transparency of operation is paramount – every appointment, every decision, should be open to public scrutiny and able to withstand that analysis. This is easier said than done, but if we’re serious about this, we have to start with a clean slate. Bring in people who have relevant experience, professional skills that can be leveraged, and crucially, where possible, no direct skin in the game.
Infrastructure and Development
This is really the bottom line when it comes to putting cricket, or indeed any sport, on the road to long term success. Quite simply we have no infrastructure and no path for cricket development, and we need to focus strongly on setting that straight.
We will give ourselves a chance for success when we’re able to identify a talented 13 year old and groom him so that not only does he do a job at the age group level, but most importantly, he develops to a peak in his mid to late twenties and becomes a long-term contributor at the senior national level. When we can point to a few players who have followed that path, then we can point to a system that nurtures and develops cricketing talent.
Instead what we have is two separate and distinct cricketing worlds. One of them is for U-19 cricket, and the other for so-called adult cricket. The composition of the senior national squad tells a story. It doesn’t matter so much that none of the players were born in this country – we are after all a nation of immigrants.
What is telling is that not one of the players was developed in this country. And not one of the players from the 2006 U-19 team is in the picture, and really, nothing more need be said to illustrate the problem.
Our U19 squads, both regional and national, should be playing together through the year, every year. The opposition doesn’t have to be other international teams, as the objective is to have them learn how to play the game. At 19 and 20, we aren’t going to create cricketing talent out of nowhere, but what we can do is help them evolve into thinking cricketers, for as you go up the ladder, it is in the mind (with temperament, strategy and tactics) that games will be won and lost.
I would actually advocate the creation of a national U-23 squad that should play against the national senior team and against regional senior teams every year. This would help keep our U-19s in the game beyond their U-19 days, and with the right guidance and mentorship hopefully help turn them into cricketers that can serve the country for a long time.
In parallel, we need to focus on cricketing fundamentals at the grass roots levels. Forget about trying to jazz up the game with white balls and colored clothing – let’s look at getting cricketers to play the basic game properly in the first place. The party stuff can come later, or elsewhere. Yes, we absolutely need proper pitches and outfields, but we also need cricket balls that swing, and bowlers and batsmen who can learn to deal with that. We need to have youngsters understand that a properly compiled 30 may actually set you on the way to a far better cricketing career than the slogged 50, and we need to follow through on that.
Selection is going to be controversial at the best of times, and it’s even harder in our environment. Once again, short-termism and politics are controlling how we pick our teams, and we simply plan to worry about tomorrow if and when the sun rises again.
The first thing we need to address in our selection, particularly at the senior level, is the objective of a team. It’s very easy for an established cricketing nation to simply select the best team to win each game or tournament as it comes. For one that is seeking to establish itself on the world stage, the challenges are a lot greater. It’s not sufficient to simply try and win today, because you need to prepare to win tomorrow and the day after to maintain a certain standing in the game.
This may be my most controversial contention, but I submit that the US needs to be willing to dare to make some short term sacrifices in order to reap the long term rewards.
Peter Della Penna nailed this one too in his aforementioned article. Our stated objective today is to make it to the 2015 Cricket World Cup. In my eyes, the objective really should be to ensure that we can make it to the 2019, 2023 and 2027 World Cups without having to worry about it unduly as we get closer to those events.
Doing that, however, starts today. It starts with everything else I’ve talked about, but it also starts with picking players with an eye to the future. Just as a quite random example, taking Saqib Saleem to Nepal would have done a lot more for US cricket than taking Sudesh Dhaniram, regardless of how good Dhaniram is.
There’s plenty of experience in the team in the form of the likes of Massiah, Thyagarajan, Usman Shuja and others. Take a few thirty year olds to lead on the field, surround them with the exuberance of youth, and all of a sudden, you’ll not only be developing those individuals, you’ll be showing every cricket playing youngster in the country that there is something to strive for. You will naturally create a pipeline, and that pipeline will keep flowing. No longer will you have to pray weekly that a few more good cricketers leave India, Pakistan and the Caribbean and come to the US to seek their fame and fortune. You’ll already have them.
The second thing we need to radically alter in our selection, this time particularly at the youth level, is the type of player we select. We need to recognize the substantial difference between cricket in our local leagues, and cricket at a higher level. We have to learn to look beyond the statistics, and look at the sort of cricketer who is worth the long term investment. Often times we’ll find that the guy scoring thirties every week is actually going to be a better performer at a higher level than the one bludgeoning his way to big scores on a cow pasture with the aid of sloppy fielding and short boundaries. We need to look at how players think, how strong they are mentally in both comfortable and challenging situations. In short, we need to look at their core cricketing skills – but I’m not even sure that today, we understand what core cricketing skills are!
The thing to understand is that positive cricket does not equate to slogging or bowling bouncers galore. It means playing with intelligence, it means applying pressure throughout, it means bowling to take wickets, and batting to score runs. Sounds simple in writing, but it can only be put into practice when youngsters are given the appropriate foundation. Coaches in local leagues need to start teaching our youngsters how to bowl for wickets, how to field aggressively, and how to bat assertively without losing your head.
We need to be able to identify young talent around the country. We need coaches and cricketing mentors who can train them in how to play the game. Instead of celebrating small achievements with excessive hyperbole, we need to make sure the youngsters understand that they have a long road ahead of them, and then guide them along the way. We need proper coaches who can actually resolve technical flaws at an early stage. We need proper coaches and leaders who can help cricketers understand how to play the game. As I keep saying, it’s a mental game when you step up a level, and that is where we are sorely lacking.
There is a long, long way for US cricket to go, but for the first time, even if it might be for all the wrong reasons, we have a global vested interest in our success. Opportunity is knocking, and if we have the guts to do so, we can take full advantage of it. Build something sustainable, and our epitaphs will read “left a lasting legacy that allowed cricket to flourish in the USA” rather than “had a drink at Lord’s with Clive Lloyd and Sunil Gavaskar.” I hope I’m not alone in thinking that it’s the first one that reads better.
An unedited version of this article was originally published on the author's FourthUmpire blog.
[The author captained Hong Kong U-19 from 1990-1992, and played with the senior squad in 1991-92 before moving to the US, where he has played with Stanford CC ever since. He was also the first person to join Simon King in running CricInfo back in early 1993, traveling the world as a journalist and commentator.]