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By Peter Della Penna (on Twitter)
Farce, sham, disgrace. They are the first three words that spring to mind but if one opens up a thesaurus there are plenty of others that could be found to encapsulate this situation. There is no sugarcoating how abominable the process has been regarding the evaluation and selection of the 14-man USA squad announced on Sunday by USACA that will compete later this month at the 2013 ICC World Cricket League Division Three tournament in Bermuda. A slice of Swiss cheese has fewer holes in it than this selection process.
The problem is not the team or the players. The problem is the process. There are good players in this 14-man squad. However, do not fall under any illusions that USACA is sending its best 14 to represent the country in Bermuda. This is not USA’s best 14 and falling short of that represents a failure by the selectors and the administration that oversees them.
There is no possible way that this could be USACA’s best 14-man squad with Aditya Thyagarajan and Usman Shuja missing from the list. They are two titans, pillars in the modern era of the US national team. Thyagarajan is USA’s third highest scorer of all-time in limited overs cricket with 897 runs in live competition at an average of 39.00. Among USA’s top ten scorers, only Steve Massiah (40.44) and Sushil Nadkarni (55.77) have a higher average and more runs overall than Thyagarajan. Shuja is USA’s second highest wicket-taker in the format, with 45 wickets at an average of 15.40. The next best average for any bowler in the top 10 wicket-takers list for USA is Kevin Darlington, who took 32 at an average of 17.19. How could anyone conceivably leave them out of the team going to Bermuda?
The stage was set for this folly in February when the USACA administration, specifically the five-man USACA selection panel headed by Selwyn Caesar, began soliciting availability for the core group of national team players for the 2013 ICC Americas Division One Twenty20 tournament followed by a three-match 50-over series against Bermuda which would be used for preparation ahead of ICC WCL Division Three in Bermuda. Because the two tours were scrunched so close together, it presented an issue whereby many players could not get enough vacation time from work to be able to play in both tournaments. Some of USA’s key players could get one week off to go to Florida, but not two, ahead of the time off they would also require for the tour to Bermuda.
If the first-choice players had their way, they would have much preferred playing in the ICC Americas Division One Twenty20 tournament, not the three-match 50-over series against Bermuda, ahead of the tour to Bermuda for the simple reason that the ICC Americas tournament and ICC WCL Division Three are part of the pathway for ICC World Twenty20 and World Cup qualification and had much more at stake whereas the three 50-over matches against Bermuda were classed as unofficial practice matches by USACA and counted for nothing. However, players were all made aware that in order to be considered for ICC WCL Division Three in Bermuda, they must participate in the three-match 50-over practice series so that they could be evaluated for selection going into the tour to Bermuda.
USACA announced a 14-man squad for the Twenty20 tournament and originally announced a 17-man squad for the 50-over series to follow. In an email on February 26, a USACA spokesperson stated that the 17-man 50-over squad was not formally announced in a press release because the three-match 50-over series against Bermuda was a “practice series” and because “we want the flexibility to bring in players from the Twenty20 tournament who may impress.”
Image (right) - Aditya Thyagarajan running between the wickets in the first 50-over practice match against Bermuda. [Courtesy: Peter Della Penna/DreamCricket.com]
Just one player, Akeem Dodson, stayed on for week two after originally being scheduled to fly home at the conclusion of the Twenty20 tournament while three other players – Orlando Baker, Nicholas Standford and Saqib Saleem – flew home after the Twenty20s as planned. Adil Bhatti, who replaced the injured Karan Ganesh midway through the tournament, also stayed on for the second week. Observers may have been puzzled to discover though that Neil McGarrell, Hemant Punoo and Josh Dascombe appeared in Florida for the 50-over series when they did not impress anyone in the Twenty20 tournament… because they didn’t play in it. It resulted in USA having 21 players competing for 14 spots while only 11 could play at any given time during the 50-over matches.
Now competition is a good thing and certainly the more the merrier within reason. Flying in a 19-year-old US citizen from Queensland after a novel recruiting process initiated by new USACA CEO Darren Beazley was not a bad idea. Yet for an organization that could not afford to hold any proper tournaments in 2012, the remotest hint of a return to the ways of profligate spending last seen when more than $60,000 went to fund a USA women’s team camp to Barbados in 2011 certainly raised a few eyebrows among USA fans following online. More to the point, if a cash-strapped organization is going to pay to fly someone halfway around the world to be evaluated, they better get the most out of that plane ticket.
For some bizarre reason, Dascombe did not suit up for USA in the first 50-over match. Instead, he bowled in a net session, something he could have done for free back in Australia. In the second match, he bowled but didn’t bat while in the third game he bowled and batted. So USACA paid for Dascombe to fly halfway around the world to watch him bat once and bowl a total of 13 overs, not to mention the fact that he was trying out for a tournament he was not even eligible to participate in according to ICC eligibility criteria because he hasn’t fulfilled any developmental benchmarks on US soil.
As for the 20 players present who were eligible, the message was apparently sent out that everyone had to compete for their spot. For a team that was recently promoted from ICC WCL Division Four in Malaysia, does it make any sense to tear up the team sheet and start from scratch with just three matches to evaluate everyone on? A reasonable assumption is that eight to 10 players who participated in the tour to Malaysia were clearly going to make up the core group of the squad heading to Bermuda. After finishing as the Division Four tournament’s leading scorer, what did Sushil Nadkarni have to prove by going out to bat in Florida?
Nadkarni sat out the first 50-over match, then opened USA’s chase in the second game. He raced to his 50 off 38 balls in the ninth over with the score 58 for 0. Several people who were at the ground assumed he would retire at that point, especially since USA only needed to chase 186 to win and certainly other players warranted a closer examination for selection. Instead, Nadkarni was instructed to bat on. The situation only managed to get more ridiculous when he started to cramp up at the end of the 23rd over and needed some treatment on the field for his legs. By this point he was on 89 and USA needed 53 to win. Why risk losing your best batsman to a muscle tear or other injury in a practice match?
However, Nadkarni was allowed to continue and he duly raised his century at the end of the 32nd over with the score on 166. At this point, USA needed 20 runs to win and they might as well have let him continue batting until the end. What did any of the remaining batsmen have to gain by going in with 20 runs left to win? In another head-scratcher, Thyagarajan was sent in and scored 6 not out. Seeing as he wasn’t selected for the tour, that 6 not out clearly did not help his cause.
The only possible thing Thyagarajan or anyone else could have achieved by going out to bat in that situation was hurting one’s own chances of selection by getting out. If anyone should have gone in there, it should have been Dascombe for two reasons. He wasn’t going to hurt his chances of selection for Bermuda since he wasn’t even eligible, but more importantly no one in the USA setup had ever seen him bat before and this would have provided the selectors a brief glimpse to see what he could do.
Instead, Thyagarajan went in. The message was clear that the selectors were looking for reasons to cut him loose, hoping he would have gotten out. Nadkarni could sense it because when he was asked if this USA team could be declared favorites for Division Three with the way they were playing, he stated that USA had many players who have experience playing in Bermuda but hedged his answer by saying, “We’ll just have to wait and see how it turns out.”
The list of curious decisions only grew on Friday at the start of the third match. Nadkarni was left out again as was Rashard Marshall. In essence, it meant that two players who could not get enough time off work to play in the Twenty20 tournament the previous week were flown to Florida and forced to take an entire week off work to make themselves eligible for selection to Bermuda and subsequently played or batted in just one match. It’s disrespectful to Nadkarni and Marshall, two senior players who are definitely in USA’s best 14, to make them burn up five days of vacation time from work just to play or bat once in an unofficial game. Nadkarni was named vice-captain once again in the Division Three squad announcement on Sunday, underscoring his value. So therefore was it even necessary to bring him to Florida in the first place for the 50-over practice matches? The answer is no.
The second thing that should have jumped out to anyone who saw the USA team sheet for Friday’s 50-over match was that both Danial Ahmed and Ryan Corns were left out for the third match in a row. Going back to the point about USACA not holding any tournaments in 2012, stakeholders are led to believe that USACA is pinching pennies yet a week’s worth of stipends and hotel room costs were covered for two players who never took the field for the 50-over practice games. It’s understood though that Corns sustained a minor back injury after being hit by a ball during a net session that occurred on Tuesday for players who weren’t taking part in the first 50-over match and that’s what prevented him from playing in the following two games.
One would assume that neither Corns nor Ahmed would have any shot at being included in the squad for Bermuda if they were not evaluated by USACA selectors Selwyn Caesar and Barney Jones in a 50-over match, especially since the pair of selectors were only present for the 50-over matches and not for the Twenty20 tournament.
Meanwhile, it was the third match in a row for Massiah, Shuja and Thyagarajan. The indication was that all three players still needed to justify their spots in the team. Massiah went out and scored 12, dismissed by a 15-year-old spinner for the second time in three matches to wrap up his week with 58 runs at an average of 29.
Thyagarajan did what he does best: build partnerships to stabilize after a flurry of wickets or an early collapse. In the first 50-over match, USA went from 83 for 0 to 96 for 3 in the space of 4.2 overs. Thyagarajan followed it by building a 71-run stand with Marshall before getting out for 33. On Friday, the dismissal of Massiah put USA back at 45 for 3.
Batting with a rookie, Thyagarajan calmly guided USA out of early trouble by constructing a 50-run stand with Dascombe. Thyagarajan and Dascombe set the platform that allowed Barrington Bartley to go off on a boundary spree later in the innings. Thyagarajan eventually got out for 47 to give him 86 runs on the week at an average of 43. While neither Massiah nor Thyagarajan should be judged solely on last week’s matches, if that was the criteria then Massiah did not merit a spot as a batsman on the team ahead of Thyagarajan, let alone as captain. Apparently the context of Thyagarajan’s runs by way of the partnerships he built was also lost on the selectors.
Past members of USACA selection panels have been seen sleeping at national tournaments and other times on the verge of passing out while nursing a bottle of alcohol in a brown paper bag under a tree outside the boundary. So those at home might have been forgiven for wondering if two of the current selectors present in Florida were actually even watching the matches. The answer would be sometimes, but not all the time. After posting 284 for 6 in the first innings on Friday, Barney Jones was surprised to learn that USA had lost because he left during the second innings to go take someone to the airport. This would be the same innings during which Shuja was supposed to be judged in the field as to whether or not he deserved to keep his spot in the team. USA's players are essentially volunteers, not professionals, yet so much is expected of the players in terms of preparation and performance to meet high standards demanded on the field by the coaching staff and selectors. Unfortunately, the bar has been set pretty low for what is expected of USA's volunteer selectors regarding the approach they take to carrying out the task assigned to them.
Even when they were present at the grounds, the selectors generally could be observed to only be half paying attention to the matches in front of them. It was only when USACA CEO Darren Beazley was present sitting in the same space with them that both men sat up straight with eyes fixed straight ahead.
The 14-man squad for ICC WCL Division Three was released on Sunday by USACA and in the announcement on the USACA web site, Selwyn Caesar was quoted, “Due to the importance of the ICC tournament in Bermuda, the national selectors wanted to ensure that the selection process was thorough and that players from all over America were give every opportunity to impress. I am delighted that USACA supported our request and provided 21 players with the opportunity to stake their claim to represent their country.” DreamCricket.com attempted to contact Caesar to ask a few questions about how the squad was picked but a voicemail message left for him went unreturned. Several aspects of this squad raise serious doubts as to the process in which players were evaluated prior to being selected.
Twenty20 captain Baker was not among the 21 players evaluated during the three-match 50-over series but miraculously found his way into the 14-man squad to Bermuda. Make no mistake that Baker should be in the squad to Bermuda because he is among USA’s best 14 players, but according to the process that was laid out, how was it possible for him to be selected? Why was he given a pass and not forced to take part in the 50-over trial matches like everyone else yet still handed a spot in the team?
Ahmed and Corns also played the same amount of 50-over matches that Baker did last week: zero. Yet Ahmed was named in the 14-man squad while Corns was given a proverbial kick in the nuts by being left out after being USA’s leading wicket-taker in the Twenty20 tournament as well as one of only three players on the team to notch a half-century during USA’s first week in Florida.
Image (left) - Ryan Corns, bowling here in the second Twenty20 match against Bermuda, was USA's leading wicket-taker in the 2013 ICC Americas Division One Twenty20 tournament but found himself out of the team for the tour to Bermuda. [Courtesy: Peter Della Penna/DreamCricket.com]
USACA has touted its newly signed partnership with the CricHQ statistical registry and is actively encouraging all USACA leagues to take advantage of it. One of CricHQ’s mechanisms for measuring a player’s worth is their MVP points system. According to the CricHQ MVP points system for the ICC Americas Division One Twenty20 tournament, Corns was fourth in MVP points behind Tournament MVP Janeiro Tucker of Bermuda, fellow USA teammate Steven Taylor and Sauid Drepaul of Suriname. Other USA players in the top 20 were Bartley at eight, Dodson at 9, Ahmed at 11 and Baker at 18. All six of USA’s players who were ranked in the top 20 for the Twenty20 tournament belonged in USA’s best 14 to go on tour to Bermuda. Corns was ranked ahead of four of them yet he has inexplicably been left out. Why has USACA signed up to use CricHQ’s software and data mechanisms if the selectors show no interest in utilizing the valuable analysis it provides?
The pivotal moment in the loss to Bermuda on Friday occurred when Timothy Surujbally grassed a straightforward chance at deep midwicket off the bowling of Shuja, a chance that selector Jones was not present to see. As a result, Lionel Cann went on to hit two sixes in the subsequent overs to propel Bermuda toward their eventual win. Considering that USA missed no less than 19 catching or run out chances during the Twenty20 tournament, this journalist commented to CEO Beazley, “I wonder how much of an emphasis the selectors are going to put on fielding in regards to squad selection.” The CEO responded that the selectors had a lengthy conversation the previous night on that very topic and that fielding was a definite point of emphasis.
By dropping Thyagarajan and Shuja, USA has lost their two most reliable catching fielders on the boundary. One only had to see the difficult catch that Thyagarajan took on Friday coming in from the long on boundary compared to the alarmingly simple drop by Surujbally at deep midwicket to realize the former’s value in that department. USA’s fielding was woeful in Malaysia, racking up 23 missed chances in six games. Shuja had four chances missed off his bowling in the round-robin loss to Nepal. However, Thyagarajan was one of the few players turned away at the door from entering The All Thumbs Club because he safely pouched the three chances that came his way on tour.
Corns is no slouch in the field either and took a spectacular catch to get rid of Tucker in the first win over Bermuda during the Twenty20 tournament. If USA’s bowlers weren’t already in the habit of crossing their fingers when the ball is in the air, it’s safe to say they’ll be doing it now with three of USA’s best catching fielders absent on tour.
The biggest error of all though is that the selectors have ignored the long established pedigree of Thyagarajan and Shuja with bat and ball respectively. The first consideration when picking this squad should have been form against the opponents USA would be facing. Shuja’s record against Nepal, Italy and Oman in 50-over cricket is sterling. In eight matches against Nepal, Shuja has 15 wickets in 63 overs at an average of 16.07 and an economy rate of 3.83. Against Italy, he has four wickets in three games at an average of 18.75 and an economy rate of 3.13. Shuja has claimed two Man of the Match awards against Oman. He returned figures of 2 for 22 in nine overs paired with a career high 43 not out in a two-wicket win at Division Three in Hong Kong while he suffocated their batsmen at the last ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier with a four-over spell of 1 for 9 in his other encounter against them.
The second consideration when picking this squad should have been form in the conditions USA will encounter on tour. At the 2010 ICC Americas Division One 50-over tournament in Bermuda three years ago, Thyagarajan was USA’s leading scorer with 250 runs including a career high 159 in a match against Argentina.
The third consideration should have been recent form. Thyagarajan did okay, not great in Florida. He looked shaky in Malaysia, especially in regards to his fitness as he looked to protect his right knee in his first tournament back after missing almost two years with the knee dislocation he suffered at Division Three in Hong Kong. But anyone who saw him in Malaysia and compared that performance to what was on display in Florida would know that Thyagarajan was in much better condition last week. In November, he scored 109 not out at the USACA 50-over national championship. The only other player to cross 50 from either team was Orlando Baker and Thyagarajan didn’t fail in any of last week’s matches either.
Thyagarajan may never have a six-pack stomach, but his weight is not an issue. In Shuja’s case, being too thin was a problem. He lost 10 pounds from his playing weight while dealing with pneumonia from over the winter and had yet to put it back on. He didn’t look to be bowling at full pace in the three 50-over games last week and was sapped for energy, but it was nothing that couldn’t have been put right over the course of the next four weeks. Shuja has always been USA’s fittest player on tour.
Image (right) - Usman Shuja, in action at the 2012 ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier, is USA's second highest wicket-taker in 50-over cricket. [Courtesy: ICC/Barry Chambers]
If two players with the resumes of Thyagarajan and Shuja are being pushed out of the team, it better be by players who have left no doubt by scoring a century or taking five wickets. Barrington Bartley earned his spot in USA’s 14-man squad ahead of Thyagarajan, but the same can’t be said for some of the other batsmen who squeezed ahead of Thyagarajan and the same goes for Shuja’s place as well.
Above all else, the selectors should have asked themselves what every opponent USA is playing against would be pondering ahead of the tournament: would I feel more comfortable facing a USA team with Thyagarajan and Shuja in it or one without them? Bermuda, Italy, Nepal, Oman and Uganda are all high-fiving each other with the knowledge that they won’t have to face up to either player in Bermuda.
Shuja’s aggression leading the fast bowling unit will be missed greatly, but Thyagarajan’s absence will sting exponentially more. Former USA coach Clayton Lambert referred to Thyagarajan as “USA’s Insurance Policy” after the number of times he rescued his teammates following disastrous top order collapses. Against Ireland at the 2010 ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier, USA was 11 for 5 after the first 20 balls chasing Ireland's first innings 202 and well on their way to total humiliation. USA still lost the game, but Thyagarajan scored 72 not out and along with Baker preserved a small slice of dignity for their team by establishing a world record partnership for the seventh wicket of 99*, a world record in Twenty20 cricket that still stands today.
USA was four down after 11 balls against Argentina at ICC WCL Division Four in 2010 and in the fifth over it became 17 for 5 when Thyagarajan entered. He stayed at the crease for the final 45.3 overs in sweltering 85 degree heat with 90% humidity at the Ovale di Rastignano outside Bologna, Italy. Three hours of batting in sticky Mediterranean conditions with a wine vineyard in the backdrop meant his USA jersey had been sweat soaked into a darker shade of blue. When Rashard Marshall walked off with him after both made unbeaten centuries, half the team swarmed Marshall while the other half booked it to be first in line at the lunch buffet. Thyagarajan walked across the boundary to no applause, no pats on the back. Everyone took for granted another cool knock from “The Ice Man”.
As good as some other players around the country are, USA only has four genuine match-winners: Steven Taylor, Sushil Nadkarni, Timroy Allen and Aditya Thyagarajan. What sets Thyagarajan apart from the others though is that he provided the backbone for the team in times of crisis. USACA has now created a spectacular one by leaving out the best person suited to save the team in such a scenario. One can only hope it doesn’t come to that during USA’s six matches in Bermuda.
Not having Thyagarajan and Shuja in the squad doesn’t make this a bad USA team. USA still has some very solid players. However, heading into USA’s most important qualification tournament since the 2004 ICC Six Nations Challenge without Thyagarajan and Shuja in the squad robs USA of putting their best possible 14-man squad on the plane to Bermuda. That makes it an atrocious selection process.
[Views expressed in this article are those of the author who was present at all of the team's matches last month in Florida. If you have differing views or opinions, we respect those views and urge you to provide your feedback - both positive and negative - in the comments section.]