By Peter Della Penna
North West celebrate their victory
The four day USA Under-19 National Tournament concluded on Monday evening at Gateway Park in Brooklyn, N.Y. and there are definitely some promising signs that cricket in America has tremendous potential to succeed at the international level. The general consensus is that the standard of play was exceptional among the eight teams.
"At this age when I used to play back home in Jamaica, I wasn't this talented," said Franklyn Rose, coach of the South West Region team. "To see the kids with so many talents in the USA, we need to do something for these kids so it's a pleasure for me to be coaching the South West team."
Several other current or former international players were in attendance at the final, which was played in front of about 500 spectators at a dedicated cricket ground a few miles away from JFK Airport. Now that the tournament, featuring over 100 players, is complete, only 14 will be selected to represent the US Under-19 team which will go to Canada later this year to try and qualify for the Under-19 World Cup in Kenya in 2010.
"There's a lot of very talented youths here," said Zamin Amin, former captain of the US national team. "I know the selectors are going to have problems picking 14 people, but that's a good thing."
USACA CEO Don Lockerbie at Under-19 Tournament Trophy Presentation from Peter Della Penna on Vimeo.
Overall, there were several very impressive batting performances in the tournament, including two impressive half-centuries from Ryan Corns (97 against S. California, 82 against Central East) of the Central West Region team and a century by Saqib Saleem (108* against Central West and 51 in the final against Atlantic) of the tournament champion North West Region team. Saqib was also successful in the bowling department with his leg spin.
Atlantic Region's Muhammad Asad Ghous took home the series MVP award at the end of the tournament for his three half-centuries despite losing the final to the North West Region. Ghous scored 75 in the first match against South East, 93 in the match against North East and 55 in the final against North West.
The tournament also witnessed sterling performances by Greg Sewdial, Lekiram Latchman, Keon Lake, Regis Burton and Casper Davis Jr. of New York; Azurdeen Mohamed, Rasheem James, Andrew Ajodhi and Zainali Sayyed of North East; Abhijeet Joshi and Saminda Siriwardena of Central East; Karthik Vittala of Central West; Steven Taylor, Mohammad Sheikh, Vaibhar Nayar, Gaston Walker and Zachary Sattaur of South East; Gurpreet Sandhu, Salman Ahmad and Mevan Fernando of South West; Henry Wardley, Charran Singh, Nisarg Chokshi, Yash Shah and Akash Pathak of Atlantic; and Saad Khan, Vinay Suri, Zulkifl Nana and Shiva Vashishat of North West.
But the players were not just cricketers. Their fielding demonstrated the athleticism they possess.
"In the tournament, the most impressive thing I've seen is the fielding and the wicketkeeping," said Clifford Hinds, the Under-19 National Tournament Director and Youth Cricket Director for the New York Cricket Region. "These kids of course at their age are very energetic, but in addition to that, you can see they are putting 100 percent effort into the tournament."
However, the young talent needs help off the field to be able to thrive on it. The biggest responsibility is on the USACA administration.
"Never before have we had so many talented players to work with," said Shelton Glasgow, the Atlantic Region's representative on the USACA board. "I have been associated with cricket in this region for a long, long time but never before have I seen so many talented players in this age group. We are on the right track."
Atlantic Region finished runner-up
As far as on the field improvements are concerned, several were already on display. Sujesh Pulikkal, coach of the tournament champion North West Region team, believes that one of the major reasons his team came out on top this year, and a key for all teams in the future, is improving fitness. The finalists played 4 matches in as many days.
"Fitness is important because it gives you concentration and focus," said Pulikkal. "We wanted to make sure whoever enters the field are super fit so that you don't get burned out. Most of these kids, only two are rotated, the rest of the nine guys played all four days." That is a big step up for many of the players involved, who usually only play one match a weekend for their local club team, but will have greater demands placed on their bodies for tournaments such as this and for the qualifying rounds in Canada for the Under-19 World Cup.
Hinds believes that greater patience and discipline are key to success down the road. "It's a 50 over game and a lot of times, the kids go out there and are batting as if it's a 20 over game," said Hinds.
Franklyn Rose took a different angle, saying that patience over the long term will also be crucial for the development of the kids. "Hopefully these kids will keep on playing club cricket and have the patience."
Shiva Vashishat hold the silverware
Another obstacle is making sure the kids who are playing cricket now stay involved and are not swayed away by the financial lure of other sports in America.
"It's very hard to influence kids," said Rose, who played 19 Tests and 27 ODIs for the West Indies. "Everyone wants to play basketball, football, baseball. Everyone wants to make the big bucks. You have to have patience. I waited for my turn before I played at the highest level for the West Indies. I understand these kids who are playing cricket in America, it's going to be hard, it's going to be tough. But I'm begging these kids, just wait. America is going to be playing at the highest level one day. These kids are good enough to compete against the best teams in the world."
The tournament was organized entirely by volunteers and on a tight budget, for which all the organizers must be commended. However, several areas need to be improved for staging similar events in the future. First, the spectator turnout was less than what was expected. "I'm a little disappointed that we didn't have more people, but of course this is a holiday weekend," said Hinds. "But at the same time, New York draws the biggest crowd in cricket."
"Normally at an event like this there are a lot more people," said Amin, who lives in Long Island. "Cricket in general in the New York area, it could be junior or senior, I have seen a lot more people at big games."
Saqib rejoices after a shot.
He was the backbone of the NW performance.
Simple record keeping and statistics are a very basic and fundamental part of keeping track of any sport. Although summary reports and live text updates were provided by this website, it was surprising to see that no detailed scorecards or statistics for the tournament were available anywhere on the internet. Tournament program with rosters were not available to media who showed up for the tournament final on Monday. Even on the USACA website, there was no published roster for one of the squads, the North East Region.
Speaking with Don Lockerbie, the newly appointed CEO of USACA, he stated that fixing this was one of his main objectives. Lockerbie wants to make it mandatory that all USACA registered leagues maintain a proper statistical database for all matches. This is crucial to ensuring that the players who are performing get the proper recognition towards achieving higher honors and a chance to represent their region or the United States in the future. Separately, DreamCricket.com has initiated a project to collect the scorecards and database them.
Another problem was the inability to have matches start as scheduled. Several players complained about matches not starting on time or being held up for various reasons.
"Yesterday we had a game with no match referee," said one player. The teams were on the field doing their warm-up by 9:30, but that energy was wasted because they had cooled down well before the match eventually started. This player's account was supported by one tournament umpire, who confirmed that a scheduling blunder meant that no umpires were there for the scheduled starting time of the match.
Vinay Suri played a key role in the final
The talent on display over the course of the Memorial Day weekend at the USACA Under-19 National Tournament confirmed what everyone in the US cricket community already knows. With more organizational bandwidth and financial resources supplementing the passion of the volunteer army that has kept cricket alive, any US team on the field will be a force to be reckoned with in the international arena.
A lot of hope and expectation has been put on Lockerbie to get these things in order. He took an opportunity at the post-match trophy presentation to deliver a message to all the players and families in attendance. He wants the USA to make it to the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand and these Under-19 players hold the key to making that dream a reality.
"You are the foundation of our future," said Lockerbie. "In six years, we hope to also be in the 2015 World Cup. In six years, you guys will be old enough to be on that team. So work hard, take this All-American opportunity, this chance to play in the finals, to win the finals, to be runner-up, go for it hard because the future of US cricket is bright and we're going places."
(Peter Della Penna can be contacted through Twitter @DPMilGaya.)