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By Peter Della Penna (on Twitter)
In 2009, USA was blessed with a truly special group of cricketers that came together to produce a series of exceptional performances resulting in qualification for the 2010 ICC U-19 World Cup. It was the second time USA had qualified for an U-19 World Cup after USA’s first appearance at the event in 2006 and USA arguably should have had three consecutive appearances in the U-19 World Cup.
From the group that traveled to Sri Lanka in 2006, five squad members were still eligible to compete for USA at the 2008 ICC U-19 World Cup in Malaysia including Akeem Dodson, Andre Kirton and Ravi Timbawala. Combine them with rising junior circuit stars like Shiva Vashishat, Saqib Saleem, Andy Mohammed and Greg Sewdial, who was named MVP of the 2007 USACA U-19 National Tournament at the age of 16, and USA would have fielded an extremely formidable squad at the 2007 ICC Americas U-19 Division One tournament… except that USA was denied the opportunity to defend their 2005 title due to USACA’s suspension in 2007 by the ICC for administrative governance problems.
The 2010 U-19 World Cup squad was talented enough to beat an Ireland team with Paul Stirling at the 2009 Global Qualifier in Canada. It has already seen nine of its 15 members represent the USA senior team. Having three consecutive U-19 cycles chock full of talent was a blessing. In the three years since that U-19 team went to New Zealand though, it’s also become somewhat of a curse because it suckered local and national administrators into believing that USA had more quality junior players coming through the pipeline than there actually were.
Image (right) - Muhammad Ghous burst onto the national scene while playing for USA U-19, including here against Australia U-19 in New Zealand in 2010. [Courtesy: Daniela Zaharia/USACA]
Going into the 2013 ICC Americas U-19 Division One Tournament, this web site’s preview stated that USA would be underdogs to repeat their undefeated title win in 2011. Rain certainly made things more difficult resulting in the tournament being cut in half from a double to single round-robin, but Canada’s championship win was a fair result and an accurate reflection of the strength and depth of both teams.
According to the most recent ICC Associate census data released in 2012, USA only has 750 registered junior players nationwide compared to 2,395 for Canada.It’s unrealistic to expect USA to consistently produce better players than Canada when Canada has a 3:1 advantage on USA in their junior player pool.
Another advantage for Canada is the availability of their players to practice and play consistently on turf wickets due to the fact that most of their core squad is based in Toronto where turf wickets are readily available. USA’s highest concentration of junior players is based in New York, participating in the PSAL high school league where there are currently zero turf wickets in use.
With the exception of Steven Taylor, there were no match-winners in the 2013 U-19 squad that went to Canada. Just as in 2012, an ICC Americas squad is due to be announced to compete in the West Indies U-19 regional competition next month. Outside of Taylor, only Shakeel Ahmad and Ryan Persaud presented compelling cases in Canada for inclusion in the ICC Americas team. Even winless Bermuda will in all likelihood have more players picked than USA in a 14-man ICC Americas squad expected to be dominated by the presence of Canadians.
Image (left) - Shakeel Ahmad to scored with 71 in 68 balls against Bermuda U-19 on the first day of the 2013 ICC Americas U-19 Division One tournament, one of the few decent individual performances by a USA player. [Courtesy: Peter Della Penna/DreamCricket.com]
As was written in a piece last year on this site following the release of the ICC Associate data survey, USA will not be truly competitive on the international stage, at junior or senior level, until there are 10,000 registered junior cricketers playing nationwide. Even that is just a modest 200 per state, but it’s better than a paltry 15 junior players per state at the moment.
It’s not just the batting and bowling skills where Canada outshined USA. Their fielders were far superior too. Many of Canada’s players were able to rocket the ball from the boundary right over the stumps to the keeper, something rarely seen out of USA’s players. Backing up throws and general reactions to the ball coming off the bat were a step behind too.
In terms of the squad selection itself, USACA patted itself on the back quite a few times for the first ever selection combine held in Florida on the first weekend in June, labeling it as one of the most comprehensive selection processes USACA has ever undertaken. Either the player pool for selection was too small or the selection process itself wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. It’s probably a little bit of both with evidence leaning more towards the former. However, it’s worth keeping in mind what was said by ICC Americas High Performance Officer Andy Pick at the 2012 ICC Americas U-18 Match Play Camp in Florida.
At the time, Pick commented that one of the things he would look for was to see how many players for each of the three U-18 teams made it through to their respective U-19 teams the following year. It would be a reflection of how well each administration was able to properly identify its best talent and then how well they were able to develop it. In his mind, the countries with better processes would demonstrate it through consistent selection.
No prizes for guessing which of Bermuda, Canada and USA had the most changes from 2012 to 2013. Ding, ding, ding. USA lopped off half their squad from 2012, making seven changes to the squad that went to Canada in 2013. Having lots of changes wasn’t entirely unexpected. USA’s squad in 2012 included the son of a national selector despite the player having no genuine cricket resume to speak of. Two other players went from playing for the USA U-18 team in 2012 to not even being included in the original 24-man invite list for the USACA U-19 selection combine.
Moving on to the matches themselves, the strategies adopted by USA in Canada once again call into question the decision by USACA to fly in Robin Singh for tournaments when he is unable to work with the players on a more extensive year-round basis. After two days of no play following flooding at Maple Leaf CC, USA wound up batting first against Canada on July 11. When the word was passed down, most people at the ground assumed Canada had won the toss and sent USA in but in fact it was USA who had chosen to take first strike on a deck that was sticky early on from the accumulated moisture over the previous days.
USA’s batsmen struggled throughout the innings. Once the openers were removed, no one looked like they knew how to approach batting except for Waqas Shah. Over the course of the next two matches, it was clear that the decision to bat him at number seven against Canada was a blunder. He was far and away USA’s most alert and aggressive runner between the wickets, whether starting on strike or off, and was capable of keeping the scoring rate going regardless of whether or not he was hitting boundaries.
Image (right) - Waqas Shah showed a sense of urgency at the crease, always looking to turn over the strike. [Courtesy: Peter Della Penna/DreamCricket.com]
The next discussion point was having Ryan Persaud as the sixth bowler used against Canada. He was USA’s best specialist spinner, and arguably USA’s best bowler period, yet a pair of part-time spinners were used ahead of him coming into the attack. Canada went into the lunch break at 34 for 1 in 8.1 overs needing 159 to win but instead of instructing the captain to have Persaud bowl the first over after play resumed, Persaud wasn’t used until the 14th over.
These may seem like minor or subtle things, but they help paint a bigger picture. The best indicator of Robin Singh’s impact comes straight from the players. Shah injected himself into a Twitter conversation this week, arguing that USA’s batsmen were better than Canada’s judging by how USA bowled out Canada for 85 in a 7-wicket win in a T20 exhibition after the conclusion of the 50-over tournament.
When countered with the fact Canada rested some of their better players in the T20 exhibition and that it was a different format than the 50-over match that counted, Shah responded in part, “It was to our disadvantage that our coach didn’t know us. Maybe that’s why we didn’t score 1st game.”
Robin Singh wasn’t a coach with the USA U-18 team last year and only spent a couple of days with the team ahead of their first match in Canada this month. It’s no wonder that in Shah’s own words, “our coach didn’t know us.” It’s just one ingredient in the mix, but an important one that prevented USA from reaching the 2014 ICC U-19 World Cup.
One of the most disappointing things about the result is that it means USA’s best ever junior player will have missed out on participating in two U-19 World Cups after playing at the 2010 ICC U-19 World Cup in New Zealand at the age of 16. Taylor’s own development and the overall development of both the U-19 and men’s national teams is stunted by USA’s failure to qualify for the 2012 and 2014 U-19 World Cups.
After returning from New Zealand, few people would have believed that Taylor wouldn’t return to play in an U-19 World Cup with two more opportunities to do so, but that is exactly what has happened and USACA’s habitual neglect of proper grassroots development was a significant factor.
Because of the lack of depth in USA’s lineup, Taylor was always under pressure to score lots of runs. The same pressure wasn’t on Canada U-19 captain Nitish Kumar because of other capable batsmen like Nikhil Dutta and Armaan Kapoor. Putting the pressure aspect aside along with the supporting casts of each team, Taylor is also way more physically gifted than any other player at the tournament.
Image (right) - Nikhil Dutta accepts one of three tournament awards for his superlative effort to take Canada to the tournament title. [Courtesy: Peter Della Penna/DreamCricket.com]
Unlike Taylor though, Dutta and Kumar have consistently put a higher price on their wicket going all the way back to U-15 level. The same can’t be said for Taylor who, despite his skills and experience with the senior team, rarely gets out to a magic ball. Instead, Taylor finds easy ways give his wicket away. The major awards had his name all but written on them ahead of the tournament, but by the end of the week it was Dutta who walked away with the Best Batsman, Best Bowler and Tournament MVP honors.
Seeing Dutta sweep the awards wasn’t the most humbling thing to happen to Taylor on the week though. His involvement in a breach of team protocols resulted in him being stripped of the senior team captaincy for the Auty Cup tour from July 25-28 and a benching for the two-day match that starts the tour.
There are a string of events that have taken place over the last few years that may have led Taylor to believe such behavior would be allowed to pass without consequences. Many in leadership positions for USA’s squads haven’t exactly acted in a proper manner, yet never received any punishment or reprimand.
In 2009 and in 2011, it was a common sight to see U-19 tour management drinking around the players. Those present at these events will remember several embarrassing episodes, including a coach who was drinking in a pavilion bar while a tournament match was still in progress. USACA U-15 National Tournament officials were okay with parents and/or management of certain teams drinking out of brown paper bags behind team benches at matches in 2011.
The lack of discipline associated with these incidents may make it seem remarkable that USACA took such swift action to strip Taylor of the senior team captaincy for the Auty Cup along with slapping a one-match ban on him.
It’s not that there are double standards regarding off field conduct. There were never any standards period prior to this incident with Taylor and Trevis Ross.
It may take some time for players both at junior and senior level to adjust to the way chief executive Darren Beazley is policing them now, but at least some measure of accountability has finally been established in this area.
Hopefully it will be a wake-up call to Taylor that no matter how good he is, he shouldn’t take his spot in the team for granted. Athletes with outstanding physical talents are a dime a dozen, but the great ones have a desire to outwork and outhustle their peers at every opportunity. It’s what made Jerry Rice one of the greatest NFL players of all-time, setting the all-time receiving yardage and touchdown record, able to record a 1,000 yard receiving season at the age of 40 and play until he was 42. The same goes for Michael Jordan, who was fiercely competitive whether it came to basketball, golf or poker with his teammates. On the other end of the spectrum are people like Jamarcus Russell, drafted first overall in 2007 and signed to a megabucks contract only to be out of the NFL three years later. Or Kwame Brown, the first high school basketball player taken first overall in the NBA Draft by Jordan with the Washington Wizards in 2001 only for Jordan to hound him for being lazy. Brown’s career scoring average is a meager 6.6 per game.
Taylor is still young, but bad habits developed early become hard to break later on. His lackluster approach to a post-match training session on July 12 after the win against Bermuda U-19 left some of his teammates less than impressed and they openly chastised him for not participating in conditioning drills with them yet less than 12 hours later he was out and about with Ross after hours. He needs to decide what kind of player he wants to become. Taylor's public apology demonstrates he is keen to truly change his behavior. He would be betraying his talent if he didn't.
Meanwhile, USACA has to come up with a plan for growing the volume of the player talent pool in order to arrest their slide at junior level and get them back into a position to reach future ICC U-19 World Cups, beginning with the 2016 event in Bangladesh.
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