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By Peter Della Penna (on Twitter)
For anyone who has followed or witnessed Steven Taylor’s meteoric rise through junior and senior level cricket specifically within the last two years, Monday’s quotes from the 19-year-old in the Jamaica Observer should not have come as much of a surprise. Taylor spent almost the entire month of June in Jamaica ostensibly to train ahead of two tournaments in July where he’ll be not only playing but captaining USA’s U-19 and senior national teams in Canada. If only that was truly the case.
“The main reason I am in Jamaica now is to qualify myself to make the Jamaica team and to play for the West Indies,” Taylor said.
And so the countdown begins. Tick tock. Taylor’s time in a USA uniform may be running out.
Taylor’s case is just the most recent example of an increasingly frustrating Catch-22 scenario that pops out of a hole like a nuisance target at a local arcade in a game of Whac-A-Mole. Those most inconvenienced by this Catch-22 scenario are more often than not the ICC’s Associate nations.
So what is this particular Catch-22? Associate countries are continuously striving in their quest to close the competitive gap between them and the ICC’s Full Members. In order to do this, they must develop players good enough to compete with Full Members. Unfortunately, Associate teams are currently not being offered a pathway to Full Membership, even if the players themselves are closing the gap. Yet, if an Associate player becomes good enough, a Full Member may seize the opportunity to cherry pick him into their team via loopholes in the ICC’s eligibility guidelines and the player welcomes this because the playing opportunities and financial incentives are higher to play with a Full Member team at which point the Associate goes back to square one in their quest to close the competitive gap.
This creates a bit of awkward ambition for Associate administrators. They naturally want their players to become as good as possible. The problem arrives when the players become too good and then move on to greener pastures. At this point, it almost becomes more desirable to strive for mediocrity. Hope for players to become good, but not too good. What kind of hope is that?
Image (right) - Steven Taylor embodies the Associate player conundrum. USA needs him to score centuries to win matches, like he did with 162 against Nepal at 2013 ICC WCL Division Three in Bermuda, but not too many that he draws a flirtatious gaze from the West Indies. [Courtesy: Peter Della Penna/DreamCricket.com]
The alternative is a bizarre form of hubris. If you dare to overreach Associate boundaries by aspiring to develop greatness, you will be brought back down to earth by the Full Members, who will plot to take your best players. Initially, they will undermine you in subtle ways. They will more than likely refuse to schedule matches against you, claiming there isn’t enough TV money to be gained by playing you because you aren’t good enough and that they don’t want to embarrass you with a heavy defeat. This is just masking the reality that it's the Full Members who are the ones afraid of being embarrassed if they were to lose to an Associate. They are more than happy for you to carry on with your little Associate games though, well away from TV cameras, and deliver platitudes about how great it is to see cricket growing in different markets.
Like any good Hollywood villain, this is just a bluff by the Full Members to lull the Associates into a false sense of security while laying the groundwork for a sneak attack. Ultimately, the double cross is too much fun to pass up and they go on to do what they said they didn’t want to do and embarrass the Associates, not through vanquishing them in a fair fight on the field but by snatching away their best player(s) via administrative gambit. All that’s missing is a dismissive finger wag that says, “Now now. You better not get any silly ideas like trying to develop any other players who might one day beat us or this is what we’ll do.”
With the little bit of defiance they can muster, Associates play the role of the rebellious, misbehaving hostages. The only difference is that there is no escape route for cricket’s hostages, no hero dashing to the rescue. Their hands are perpetually tied behind their backs. Instead of blindfolding them though, the Full Members torture the Associates by letting them watch their former players suit up in a Full Member uniform for the whole world to see.
Taylor is not the first Associate player to want a taste of the Full Member world. He’s not the first player to state this from the USA either. Back in 2009, I did an interview with Timroy Allen and one of the questions I typically ask USA players who have migrated here is what does it mean to them to become a US citizen and play for the country. Allen said he wasn’t really interested in becoming a US citizen and/or relinquishing his Jamaican passport just in case there was an outside chance he might one day be good enough to play for the West Indies.
Some might respond to that by saying, “Well, he must have harbored ambitions to play for the West Indies because he grew up there and it was part of the culture in Jamaica.” If you think this mindset to seek out playing opportunities with Full Members lies only with people who have migrated to the USA from so-called “cricket playing countries”, think again.
In early July of 2011, I sat down to do an interview with Cameron Mirza, a USA U-19 player who earlier in the year had scored an unbeaten 118 against Argentina at the ICC Americas U-19 tournament in Florida, a then record score for a USA junior player. During our conversation, Mirza declared that he had been accepted at a university in England and was moving there with the intention to establish residency to one day achieve his dream of playing Test cricket for England.
Mirza’s mom is an Irish-American woman from New York while his dad was originally from Pakistan. How does an American with Irish & Pakistani lineage decide he wants to play for England? Simple. USA is restricted from participating in what Mirza believes to be the highest standard of cricket available, Test cricket. Meanwhile, England has a documented history of drafting in anyone who fulfills their four-year residency requirement, whether or not they’ve previously played for another country.
Unfortunately for both players, the path isn’t as easy as they might have envisioned. Allen announced last month after USA’s failure to finish in the top two at ICC WCL Division Three in Bermuda that he was retiring from international cricket at age 26 to focus on his young family and his business as an exterminator. Mirza’s confidence took a beating at the hands of the West Indies U-19 squad in a four-match series in Florida ahead of the 2011 ICC U-19 World Cup Qualifier in Ireland. The plan was to feature his quotes about wanting to go play for England in a packaged story after he achieved a significant batting milestone in the U-19 Qualifier, but he wound up with 104 runs in nine innings and has practically fallen off the radar since.
Regardless of the success or failure of the stated missions of these players, there are deeper issues behind their wandering eyes. Ask any of these players, or any other player who has represented USA over the last five years at junior or senior level, who their cricketing idols are and they typically blurt out Sachin Tendulkar, Shane Warne, Ricky Ponting, Chris Gayle, Wasim Akram and Saqlain Mushtaq. At no point have I ever heard anyone say they idolized Zamin Amin, Sew Shivnarine, Faoud Bacchus, Kamran Khan, Richard Staple, Steve Massiah or anyone else who has ever captained USA. People know who Don Bradman is. Far fewer know about Bart King, the American who Bradman labeled “America’s greatest cricketing son.”
The USA played the first ever international cricket match against Canada in 1844. George Washington’s troops played cricket while fighting for America’s independence and there is a tremendous history of the sport in the USA. There are quite a few relics of cricket’s American heyday, many of which are stored in the C.C. Morris Library in Philadelphia, but don’t be fooled into thinking USA has tradition. The New York Yankees have tradition on the baseball field. The USA national team does not have tradition on the cricket field. With the absence of tradition, there is not much pride in wearing a red, white and blue USA cricket shirt.
The fans don’t engender jingoistic fervor either. There is not a traveling band of supporters ready to shout themselves hoarse for every wicket USA takes or every boundary they score, unlike fans of Afghanistan, Ireland, Nepal or any of the Full Members. Win or lose, no one is going to be waiting for USA’s cricketers in the international arrivals area at JFK Airport waving signs and flags to welcome them home.
In whose footsteps does Taylor want to follow? Are there any US legends he’s looked up to growing up? He has just been named USA U-19 and USA men’s captain, but already his mind is wandering to the prospect of perhaps one day fetching a maroon West Indies cap. Only twice have I witnessed players bursting at the seams with emotion, breaking out into a spontaneous “U-S-A! U-S-A!” chant: after beating Nepal amid crowd riots in the final round robin match in Kathmandu at ICC WCL Division Five in 2010 to clinch a spot in Division Four and after outlasting Singapore following a Malaysian monsoon at 2012 ICC WCL Division Four to gain promotion back to Division Three.
Yet, more than once over the last several years, men’s and women’s players have played a game of Chicken with the USACA administration over money they should receive for going on tour. It’s a foolish game for the players to play because it’s one they’ll never win. If they agree to play for a substandard fee, USACA maintains leverage in future negotiations. If they don’t agree to play, someone will gladly take their spot and they’ll sit at home instead, the success of the USA team be damned. Some fans may have sympathy for them, but other fans will view them as mercenaries instead of comrades ready to bleed red, white and blue.
Overall, being in an Associate country for a player is not a very desirable position to be in. The feelings of inferiority can cut both ways from player toward administrator and vice versa. To be fair this is not an issue exclusive to USA in cricket. Denmark batsman Freddie Klokker arrived late to Division Four in Malaysia, then left in the middle of the tournament to go play club cricket in the Netherlands, which arguably cost Denmark a chance at promotion. Dirk Nannes, Ryan ten Doeschate and Alexei Kervezee have all played for the Netherlands when it suited them before other conquests caught their attention. Eoin Morgan made it abundantly clear during his time with Ireland that he had England on his mind.
Why is their attention divided though? Why are players like Nannes, Morgan, Boyd Rankin and Steven Taylor not chomping at the bit to play for the national team they start their international career with? Because of the Associate stigma, the belief that the elite level of playing international cricket for an Associate is not really elite at all because it’s a step below the opportunities available to Full Members. Those opportunities are routinely denied to Associate members courtesy of the ICC's Future Tours Program, for Full Members only.
Image (left) - It may only be a matter of time before Taylor takes his booming shots from the red, white and blue of the USA to the maroon uniform of the West Indies. [Courtesy: Peter Della Penna/DreamCricket.com]
Instead of national teams being dedicated solely to picking players based on citizenship and leaving the business of earning big bucks to a club or franchise in a sport like basketball, Full Member national teams are the de facto professional franchises in cricket. Samir Chopra identified an even better word for this phenomenon when he described the Full Members’ method of operation at the ICC level as a “cartel”. From the cartel’s point of view, there’s no sense in trying to include more teams in order to make the pie grow bigger if it means the slices cut are proportionately smaller. The Associates can satisfy themselves with any crumbs that fall off the plate and onto the floor.
Durina a conversation I once had with former Test player, the topic of England and their cosmopolitan squad came up. “It’s not fair that they get to pick all these guys who move from South Africa and pick players from Scotland or Ireland,” he said. I didn’t have time to tell him whether I agreed or disagreed on the matter before he continued his thought bubble out loud. “If England gets to pick all of these guys, then Pakistan should be allowed to pick players from Afghanistan. I know Nepal has some good players and they should be allowed to play for India. Wouldn’t it be great too if the USA had a couple of really good players come along…” wait for it, “who then got picked to play for the West Indies?!” His smile beamed from ear to ear.
This is how some people in high places think. Associates are supposed to act as a farm system for the Full Members. For so long, the ICC has talked about wanting to develop the US market, but in what sense? Having a couple of supremely talented players spring up in the USA wouldn’t be great for making a case to include more teams in a World Cup nor give USA a team competitive enough to play multi-day cricket nor be tangible evidence that an authentic cricket market is growing in the country. According to this former Test player, it would only be great if it meant these Americans could play for the West Indies.
Steven Taylor wants to compete at the highest level possible. In any other sport, that would mean he’d be desperate to make a USA national team and possibly play for the USA in the Olympics. Cricket in the Olympics? That’s just not possible thanks in large part to the Full Member cartel. When Taylor says he wants to play for the West Indies, it’s not that he doesn’t want to play for the USA. He just wants to play as often as he can at the highest standard that he can. It’s not just aspiring to play for the West Indies, it’s about who he might get to play against. Taylor can’t dream about facing up to Dale Steyn or Graeme Swann if he’s playing for USA.
When asked in 2009 if New Zealand had any plans to play matches against USA after announcing the initial plan by New Zealand Cricket and USACA to establish a business partnership that would eventually become Cricket Holdings America, then NZC CEO Justin Vaughan politely rejected the quaint notion. There is no money to be had playing against USA, only money to be made for New Zealand playing in the USA if the right Full Member opponent can be found to sell tickets.
Do not begrudge Steven Taylor for his ambitions. Fans should savor every moment he plays for the USA, whether he ever makes it into a West Indies XI or not. It will be beneficial for USA for him to be playing with Jamaica outside of his USA commitments and doing so would not make him ineligible for USA. Allrounder Lennox Cush was playing for Guyana in the Caribbean T20 competition and subsequently the Champions League T20 as recently as 2010 while also representing the USA. The fault is not with Taylor and others for wanting to better their skills and earn a living by having opportunities to play with and against the best competition possible. The system, the ICC's archaic governance model, is to blame for restricting the vast majority of those opportunities to an entitled group of 10 Full Members.
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