For a multitude of cricket lovers and enthusiasts worldwide Cricket and USA does not make a serious connection. They quickly dismiss it as an exaggerated story of people who play this game for pass time in an otherwise busy professional life, driven by dreams and dollars. It’s about time they started taking note about US cricket with a refreshing mindset – US will soon be a force to reckon with in international cricket; the generous dose of talent that was displayed at the recently concluded USACA Under 19 Cricket tournament is a true testimonial to this claim. Ignore it at your own peril.
As a parent who still plays cricket as passionately and actively (more reactively now due to age) as I did when I started playing this game; we were on cloud nine when we came to know that our son Srijay Kumar Sunil has been selected to represent the prestigious Central Eastern Region. No sooner the dates and team for the tournament was announced, we decided that come what may, we will be there personally to see the games in person. To make it equally adventurous (including the adventure of saving money on air ticket??) we decided to drive from Chicago to New York (844 miles of scenic splendor each way - for those geographically minded). We decided to stay put at the Ramada Plaza JFK where all the teams were accommodated. A wonderful hotel which is blessed by every plane that approaches JFK; a real treat for those who wish to see the belly of approaching aircraft gliding majestically over the Van Wyck highway/bridge; to fulfill many a dream.
DAY 1 (22nd of May 2009): The hotel lobby was bustling with activities as young players from the 8 different regional teams were seen exchanging pleasantries and making their way to hop into their team buses to reach the Gateway Grounds for the inauguration ceremony. Not to be left behind, we raced to the ground as well and as we reached the venue we were wonder struck!! The magnitude of the event was in grand display with an ocean of players in their colored clothing grouped themselves to be introduced to Brooklyn's Commissioner of Parks and Recreation Julius Spiegel and over 8 cricketing dignitaries from USACA Cricket including Mr. Nabeel Ahmed, First Vice President and other Regional Reps. Needless to mention, the USACA executives were generous in encouraging the teams and letting the players know what they expect from them – good spirit, gentleman approach and giving their best – coz some of the best talents will be picked for the US Under 19 team. The reality started sinking in; one could see the young eyes looking at each other with an air of hope & confidence. Team photo sessions were followed by the teams departing to their respective venues in a hurry. Our first game was against North West Region.
Our Central Eastern Region team arrived at the Seaview Grounds. It was time for the team management to get into action. Masood Chik our Regional Director and Coach of the CER team swung into action straightaway. His years of expertise in physiotherapy and physical training were reflected in the way he started warming up the guys for the big event. He personally approached each player and ensured that they are prepared well and truly for the game. What I admire most about Masood is his simplicity; he has no qualms or ego of any nature. He simply gets into act and becomes one among the team so quickly that the players are able to relate to him and approach him with great ease. His ability to identify the strength and weaknesses of each player from a physical and game stand point and work around it is excellent. As Masood was giving the finishing touch to the teams warm up session our Coach N. Ramachandran was busy strategizing the game plan for the day including finalizing the playing XI. As the team was announced to the gleeful cheers of each other – one thing was clear – this team is here to deliver; and deliver they will in a most disciplined manner.
The skippers of both the teams walked to the middle and tossed the coin; our captain Abhijit Joshi called it right and elected to bat. It was Abhijit and Saminda who opened for CER, the pair was going on well when a square cut from Saminda was snapped by the gully fielder. The NWR team had a good bunch of bowlers who had spun a tight web around the CER players, not giving them the width to cut loose and thereby making run making difficult. Maybe the lack of runs forced the CER batsman to invent few shots, thereby losing some key wickets. Abhijit was out trying to pull a short ball from the spinner; Fahad, Talah, Shoaib, Jason did not contribute much either. To accelerate the run rate, the team decided to promote Moin and Srijay. Srijay started off in style with a square drive to the boundary, but tried forcing the pace and ended up holing out to deep cover. Moin played the only way he knows and that is to ensure that the spinners are kept where they deserve – beyond the boundary. What differentiates Moin is his ability to pick the ball very early, this helps him to hit the ball in the right areas. His drives and pulls are backed with great hand eye coordination. A consistent scorer in the previous year Under 19 tournament, Moin leaved up to his reputation of being Mr. Reliable in this game. CER team needs many more such innings from this middle order marauder. Saqib Saleem who later went on to win the truly deserved MVP was guided for few lofty sixers by Moin. Chanakya too had a short but promising stint at the crease including a sweep to the boundary of Saqib. Kishan contributed with the bat and he is somebody who uses very unorthodox approach while at crease, his bat swing speed helps him in his booming drives. It was lunch; but not really as the lunch had not arrived by then, the umpires decided to continue the game with only the appetite for the game left in the player’s stomach. A mobile restroom could have avoided the situation of players watering the woods. These logistic nightmares could have been avoided may be by defining a clear set of fool proof processes that will not be individual dependent. After all this is a National Level Tournament, there is so much at stake and we surely need to raise the bar.
The NWR team teed off in style with Vinay Suri and Zee who played some breathtaking strokes; a moment of concentration loss saw Vinay losing his wicket. Shiva their captain came good with the bat and ensured that the score of 198 put up by CER was scored in just about 30 overs. The CER bowlers bowled their heart out well backed by their fielders who never dropped a catch or missed a fielding opportunity, what magnifies this achievement is the quality of the strangely uneven outfield. However the NWR team ensured that there were no setbacks in their journey. What I liked most of the two teams was the way they conducted themselves on and off the field – true to the nature of this game – the two teams filled with teenagers were real gentlemen – hats of guys!!
CER lost the game, but surely not their confidence. A team meeting was called for in the hotel. The Coach and Manager ensured that a liberal dose of positive reinforcement was supplied to the team. The team was also supported and encouraged to take the positives from the game and look forward to beating the teams in the next games. And as time ticked the boys joined the banquet at the backyard. Will the CER team bounce back??
Day 2 (23rd of May 2009): A New Day A New Beginning
Our second game was scheduled at the picturesque Gateway ground. A wonderful ground with elevated pitch with slopes all sides to the boundary which was fenced. The buildings, the greenery and the bustling Belt Pkwy just adds zing to whatever happens on the ground; one could simply not ignore the planes passing overhead. In all this was a poetic justice to cricket as these are the grounds where cricket at this level needs to be played. It will inspire even the ignorant. The CER team descended on the ground at about 8.00 am with their batteries fully charged. The stretching, warming up and strategizing sessions followed as per plans. The opponents Central West Regional team (CWR) had arrived by then buoyed with the joy of having beaten the South West Regional (SWR) team. CWR won the toss and rightly invited CER to bat – I am sure they did their homework about CER’s previous match. Abhijit and Fahad opened the proceedings. Fahad ticked off fine, but an uppish cut trying to clear the inner circle on the offside was his undoing. Saminda, rightly nicked name Lankan Sachin walked into the middle. Both Abhijit and Saminda started stroking the ball well and finding the gaps. As time went by and both the batsmen had started to see the ball well, there was no looking back. Abhijit matched Saminda stroke to stroke and it was a class act on display between two of the most promising youngsters. The uplift, the bat swing and the timing were all inoculate. The sight of the leather being sent to the boundaries was a treat for our eyes. If Abhijit’s cover drives intersected the fielders, Saminda’s strokes square of the wicket left the fielders gasping for a solution. Saminda’s ability to quickly transfer the body weight into the leaning drives on the square makes it an exquisite treat to watch. His square cut too comes with great bat power that sends the ball packed with power. One other stroke that I admire of Saminda was his flick, he sees the ball early that helps him to stand tall on his toes and as he uncorks his wrists to send the ball down on leg side. All this charm in batting, topped with a temperament to build large innings makes him truly special. It’s undoubtedly true that Sri Lanka’s loss in America’s gain. A quick single bought Saminda’s innings to an end with the fielder finding Saminda short of crease. But by then the team had scored 111 (nelson) and Saminda a masterly 65. The commentators who were brought in to this game were effusive in their praise of these two men who were artists when at crease and in full flow. Our only left handed batsman in the team, Srijay replaced Saminda at the wicket. The CWR team was sensing an opportunity here as Ryan Corns and the left handed spinner Bhakta got together quickly with their team to see how they can seize it. Srijay’s first few balls were played of safely. The second over of Ryans to Srijay saw him start sedately (unusually!); and before we could ask why, Srijay sent Ryan up and over the boundary well into the woods, his sheer power coupled with the 3+ pound bat that he wields helps him send those sixers into and beyond the stands. Abhi continued his act and played some delightful strokes, when an attempted straight drive was pouched by Ryan Corns. Srijay and Chanakya continued the good work done by Abhi and Saminda. Srijay started playing the wait and whip game, he swatted two more sixes out of the ground and a few powerful hit to the boundaries when a clever ball foxed him and was bowled. What impressed the commentators and others watching the game was Srijay’s uncanny ability to switch gears and accelerate. He rightly mixed aggression with caution. Moin got out uncharacteristically playing a half hearted pull that found the fielder. Kishan our Ishanth walked in tall. A quick look at him and one would ask can this boy even hit a ball – I am sure this thought crossed the minds of the CWR teams when they started. But our tall and lanky Kishan had different plans, stepping out in long strides he messed up the length of the bowlers and sent them all over the park for what was a very very useful 31. Chankya too played some crispy drives that scorched the carpet. Jason showed some very clever hitting through gaps and was all power and precision in his approach. In all CER made a historic 275 in their allotted 49 overs and few balls.
It was surely a jaw opener for those who had attempted to write off CER in the past. I would be doing injustice to my writing if don’t comment on two aspects that truly caught my attention. If the first one was the diplomatic way the two teams conducted themselves on and off the ground, the next was a more individual display of team spirit and attitude. Yes, I was surprised to see Abhijit (our captain) running in with water to pep up Srijay, Chanakya and others who were batting. Now this is not something we get to see every day; my camera lenses which usually capture the victors returning from the crease with a bat held high and other actions on the field, for the first time captured an individual with two empty water bottles and tons of positive attitudes – keep it up Abhi.
The lunch was on time and other logistics were in place this enabled the players to stay focused on the game. CWR started its batting and it was in the second over of their innings when their left handed opening batsman tried to pull Moin over midwicket. To the utter shock of the batsmen and absolute delight of the CER team, Srijay who was positioned at shortish mid wicket pouched the ball one handed – an absolute blinder. Few over later a square cut from the CWR batsman flew to the left of Srijay who was then at slips, threw himself full stretched and bought out another one handed diving effort – the batsman was totally perplexed but Moin was not complaining. It was soccer like celebrations with everybody literally jumping over Srijay to express their happiness; it’s rightly said that catches win matches. Ryan Corns entered the stage and within no time he made everyone know why he is considered very dangerous customer at this level. His trade mark cut shots, pull shots and long handled swats spoke of his class. He sent the CER bowlers all over the park and beyond and well beyond. Suddenly the target of 275 looked attainable. Most of the CER bowlers had to face the wrath of Ryan’s blade and he was merciless. Not to be undone by this one-man show our quick thinking captain introduced Saminda into attack. An unusual run up to the crease and a whippy swing of his arm would be the right way to describe the bowling stride of Saminda. He is so gentle when he starts off and very dangerous when he delivers. It reminds me of the way people describe Mohammed Ali, he flies like a butterfly and stings like a bee. I am sure Ryan would agree 100% with my observation, as a ball that pitched on or around the middle and off stump spun gently forcing Ryan to play square resulting in a neat edge to our every agile wicket keeper Jason fox. The celebrations that followed showed how important this wicket was for CER in this tournament. Moin, Talah, Kishan and Hasan bowled their spells well containing the CWR batsmen and were also among wickets. Kishan needs a special mention as he generated good pace and carry in this and the previous game. Moin worked his way to claim 3, but it was Abhijit who with his 2 wickets went on to prove why is he is considered a high-utility player. Suddenly the wickets of CWR fell in a hurry with Srijay bringing up another wonderful catch this time off a Talah full toss which was swatted by the batsman full blooded into Srijay’s safe hands at short mid-on. Soon CWR found themselves in a hole with 9 wickets falling for 127. However the last wicket pair of CWR decided to not let it go without a fight and they battled it out in the middle for a 60+ run partnership. Maybe few quick bowling changes or trying different bowlers including Fahad, Chanakya or Srijay may have helped to unsettle the tailenders. Nevertheless Talah delivered the killer punch and it was all over for CWR. The CER team once again huddled and jointly left out a war cry. It was to the credit of the CER team that three of our players Abhi, Saminda and Srijay were contenders for MVP along with Ryan Corns. However it was Saminda who was rightfully awarded the MVP award by former US Captain Zamin Amin.
While there were many factors for this great CER win, I would like to highlight a silent hero whose job it was to set this up for the team. Yes, it was none other than our coach Ram. A man of few words, words which translate into tons of action. He is a silent strategist with a clever cricketing acumen, somebody who does not hesitate to bounce his thoughts with others. An avid listener he would give patient hearing to all ideas generously forced into his ear (including from yours truly) which he thoroughly analyses before execution. Simple but strict, sober but sound, friendly but frank, these are some of the words that I can use to describe our coach who like a mystic magician motivated the team from its loss to go and win this game.
Victory for CER and loss for NWR in their second game suddenly sprung life into the Western Conference. The calculators were out and teams were busy computing their current NRR, the team management was busy arriving at various hypothetical permutation and combinations that can keep the other team out of the tournament. But the million dollar question is who will be the finalist??
Day 3(24th of May 2009):
Fresh from their victory beating CWR comprehensively, the CER team arrived once again to the Seaview ground fuelled by confidence & optimism and driven by a desire to reach the final. The mood in the camp was great. The teams reached well in time for this all crucial encounter. However, the late arrival of an umpire delayed the start by 40 minutes. Field 1 at Seaview was totally under prepared for this game – with glass pieces strewn all over and an equally uneven outfield, our only hope and prayers were that may the young players from both the team walk out uninjured. It will be a good idea for representatives across regions to visit the proposed grounds and agree on establishing certain minimum standards for facilities with absolutely no compromise to player safety for tournaments of this stature.
The presence of Gladstone Dainty, President USACA at the ground added color, importance and seriousness to the event. Abhi and Salman went out to toss which rolled in our favor. The CER team decided to bowl first, surely to take away the advantage from SWR to pace their innings. A brilliant run out by Yasin saw the opener back in the pavilion quickly. A few quick wickets ensued; however Salman stood tall and scored a timely 75 before a tame sweep-pull ended his valuable innings. Abhi stuck to them like thorn in flesh and bowled with subtle variations which deprived the SWR team any opportunity to free their arms. Abhi (3 Wkts) was well supported by the spin trio of Talah, Hasan and Saminda. The quadrant ensured that SWR team did not run away with the game – SWR ended up their quota of 50 overs with 227 for 9. Thankfully the organizers did well to ensure that the learning from 1st game was quickly implemented, the lunch was on time and a mobile stall was available for the players. Even before the CER team had padded up, the NWR team which was playing in Field 2 had piled up a massive 328 in 50 overs including a wonderful and only century in the tournament by Saqib Saleem. This meant that CER had to score these runs in 3.3 overs (talk about impossibilities) and hope that CWR get as close to the NWR’s total as possible. The team debated its strategy and finally agreed that we will play positive cricket and win the game, if we can accelerate we will do so, else we will focus on achieving this win. There was no point in going for a non-existing target and loosing the opportunity to win the current game and I totally agree.
Abhi and Fahad opened the proceedings for CER. From the word go, both these players proved why they are so highly rated in the circuit. They were negotiating the wily and crafty bowling by Hamad and Salman and selecting their strokes very sensibly. As they got their eyes in, they opened up, all cricketing strokes. Delicate flicks, elegant drives, crisp cuts and powerful pulls were in abundant display. Fahad was at absolute ease playing the spinners while pacers were dispatched to the fence time and again with great elegance that is so unique to Fahad – a star of last year finals. On the other end was a craftsman who knew exactly what to do with each type of bowler and each type of delivery. Abhi was all class and his batting in this game soared to a new level. In these days of quick brand cricket, Abhi’s batting was a treat to the eyes of the connoisseurs, it was an artistic display of batsman-ship which I am sure would have made the purist sit back and watch with awe. Fahad was out LBW; Saminda went in and got out to a good catch. Srijay walked in and sent the bowlers across the boundary a few time before an ambitious drive did him in. Moin was strangely dismissed early for the second time in the tournament. This left Chanakya and Abhi at the crease. Chanakya was batting pretty well when an umpiring blip cost Chanakya his wicket. A dejected Chanakya treaded back slowly and Jason joined Abhi. The anticipation in the crowd was building by the minute to see the CER team win and importantly see Abhi get to his hundred. The team needed 4 to win of which 3 for Abhi to complete his century. But as is certain about the uncertainty of this glorious game and to add a melodramatic twist to this tale, Abhi was out against the run of play for 97, so close yet so far. There was an air of silence in the ground, the joy of winning notwithstanding the CER wanted Abhi to get to his ton, but that was not to be – coz he is destined for something much bigger and much better. The team and Abhi overcame their emotions very quickly and started pushing for Jason and Kishan. It was only a matter of time by when CER team beat SWR comprehensively.
Sealing this win was the only right response to seal the otherwise few selective loose chatters of SWR team who could have done better focusing in the game and improving it by staying competitive. The problem with letting sledging continue at this level is that it will become epidemic and if left unchecked this exception will soon become rule. We need to nip it at bud coz this is a gentleman’s game and we need to live as true ambassadors at all levels.
The CER team which won 2 out of 3 games once again proved that form is temporary and class is permanent. Their two comprehensive wins against CWR and SWR went on to prove that no opposition can take them lightly and before it is too late we will have our hands on this trophy soon. Our Youth Development Director Chidambar Joshi’s zealous effort to work closely with the available talent and pool them into a bunch of warriors had much to do with the final outcome. The encouragement and support by Massod Chik and his personal involvement in ensuring that each player plays to his fullest potential was another key factor. I am glad that the members of USACA have shown great commitment for upliftment of Youth Cricket in this region. Their presence during all the games, the ceremonies and prize distribution was a great reflection of their serious effort to take this game to next level.
With the tournament behind us we look forward with eager enthusiasm as to the set of players from CER who will make it to the US Squad and I am sure there are few worthy contenders who have put their claim strongly. And before I depart let me congratulate the NWR team for their well deserved win and their Coach Sujesh for guiding the team to play in the right spirit and being great ambassadors. 3 Cheers!!
About the Author: The author is an avid cricket enthusiast who plays in the Midwest Cricket Conference and ICMC League in Illinois; Sunil is a freelance writer and passionate photographer. Kindly send your comments on this article to email@example.com.