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By Peter Della Penna (on Twitter)
Following their defeat at the hands of Afghanistan which eliminated USA from further contention at the 2010 ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier, journalist Patrick Kidd from The Times of London derisively referred to the USA national team as the “Guyana Rejects XI”. After being given a controversial wild-card entry to the eight-team draw at the expense of Namibia, USA silenced some doubters with a first day upset of Scotland but losses to Ireland and Afghanistan meant USA fell short of the playoff stage and finished tied with Kenya for fifth place.
At the time, it seemed like perhaps some of the selections were wrong, that better players may have been left home. Three years later, that squad from 2010 is looking more and more like the halcyon days of USA in Twenty20 cricket.
Image (right) - Aditya Thyagarajan, seen here during his score of 72 not out against Ireland at the 2010 ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier, is one of several stalwarts currently on the outside of the national team fold. [Courtesy: ICC]
USA went into the 2010 ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier having not played any competitive matches for almost 15 months and despite that opening win over Scotland, the rustiness showed in the other two games. By the time that year’s ICC World Cricket League Division Five tournament began in Nepal later on that same tour of Asia, USA was back in rhythm and notched a thrilling win in Kathmandu against Nepal that they almost certainly wouldn’t have been able to do had the match been played three weeks earlier.
A few months later, USA toured Bermuda where they defeated a formidable Canada side by five wickets in the final of the inaugural ICC Americas Division One Twenty20 tournament. USA then rounded off a golden summer by trouncing Italy by eight wickets in the final of ICC WCL Division Four.
Those were some pretty remarkable feats for a bunch of “Guyana Rejects”. To be accurate, only a third of the playing members of that touring party to the UAE in 2010 were originally from Guyana: captain Steve Massiah, Lennox Cush, Kevin Darlington, Sudesh Dhaniram and Clain Williams. The rest of the squad packed a big punch as well: Timroy Allen, Orlando Baker, Glen Hall, Imran Awan, Rashard Marshall, Sushil Nadkarni, Aditya Thyagarajan, Usman Shuja, Saurabh Verma and Carl Wright. The team was so good that Thyagarajan, who wound up being USA’s leading scorer in 2010 in 50-over cricket and held USA's highest average in T20s, didn’t play in the win over Scotland and USA still won in a canter. The team was strong enough that Hall, the leading scorer in USACA tournaments for 2009, only ever made it onto the pitch as a substitute fielder on tour.
Fast forward to 2013. Despite the promise of professionalism from a pair of CEOs, player selection mechanisms have only become more political, more ad hoc and have increasingly destabilized the quality of the national team, not to mention eroding the faith that players, fans and a sizeable amount of stakeholders have in the selection process. It’s an extension of the way the USACA board operates as a whole.
Image (right) - Lennox Cush, who previously had featured in the Stanford Twenty20 competition in the West Indies, was a key player for USA at the 2010 ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier. [Courtesy: Daniela Zaharia/ICC]
Most disconcerting about the deterioration in on-field standards from 2011 through now though is that it has all come under the watch of USA’s first professional coach. Clayton Lambert became the fall guy for USACA after a disastrous result in January 2011 at ICC World Cricket League Division Three in Hong Kong. The reasoning laid out at the time by administrators was that USACA needed to become more professional. Lambert was only serving as coach on tour, but rarely had opportunities to work with the players in between tours both due to his own work life outside of cricket as well as the work commitments of the players. Hiring a professional coach would fix half of that equation.
Enter Robin Singh, the man long rumored to receive a five-figure sum for each tour he takes up with a USA squad. However, instead of introducing true professionalism in the form of a full-time role, the only discernible difference between Robin Singh and Clayton Lambert is that Singh cashes a much bigger paycheck than Lambert ever did for serving in an equivalent capacity. Singh essentially serves as a coach in the same way that Lambert did, more or less in a chaperone capacity, but Lambert maintained a significant intangible value because he was based out of Atlanta and had his finger on the pulse of how players were performing domestically. He always made his way to regional and national tournaments to keep on eye on talent and made the most of the limited time he had to work with them.
Conversely, USACA has invested far more financially into Singh and gotten a negligible return on that investment. Paying such a high price for perceived quality should have been tied to direct targets: reaching the U-19 World Cup, reaching the 50-over World Cup Qualifier, reaching the World Twenty20. Instead of reaching these targets under Singh’s stewardship, USA has fallen calamitously short. Worryingly, USA has not closed the gap with teams like Ireland and Afghanistan since that 2010 Qualifier. During a time period when more money has been spent towards improving on-field performance, money which can ill afford to be wasted given the precarious state of USACA’s finances, the result has been that the disparity between USA and top tier Associates has only grown wider.
Singh was coaching by conference call for USA during WCL Division Three in Bermuda while he was working in India for the Mumbai Indians at the IPL but it was Singh’s proxy, assistant coach Thiru Kumaran, who was thrown under the bus for USA’s third place finish and failure to make the World Cup Qualifier in New Zealand. Kumaran has quietly disappeared from the national team setup in the months since that Bermuda debacle yet Singh is still employed by USACA, tournament by tournament, and keeps cashing in.
USA finished 12th out of 16 teams at the 2012 ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier, when Robin Singh was a “technical consultant”. It’s hard to see USA doing better than that next month when they head back to the UAE. In reality, they will probably fare worse. When this year’s tournament groupings were officially unveiled in August, an article was written on DreamCricket which stated that USA had a favorable draw.
Indeed, the opponents USA has in 2013 have gotten weaker, presenting an opportunity for USA to improve on their final standing from 2012. That article was written under the assumption that USA would pick the best 15 players in the country to represent them in the qualifier with a chance to advance to the main event in Bangladesh early next year. That was wishful thinking of course.
Some players are unavailable due to work or school commitments, some players are unavailable because they don’t want to make themselves available, other players have been cast aside or just plain ignored. In the last two years, USACA has fractured their relationships with some of their most visible members and volunteers. First and foremost are the 32 member leagues that were denied the right to vote ahead of the 2012 USACA general election. Like the disenfranchised leagues, similar treatment has been dished out to numerous national team players this year. USACA hasn’t burned bridges. They’ve napalmed them.
At the end of the day, USA is venturing back to the UAE without their top two scorers from the group stage in 2010 – Carl Wright and Aditya Thyagarajan – and their top two scorers from the group stage in 2012 – Aditya Mishra and Sushil Nadkarni. They’re heading back to the UAE without their joint leading wicket-taker from the same tournament in 2012, Abhimanyu Rajp, and their joint leading pace-bowler, Usman Shuja. They also head there without Rashard Marshall, whose gutsy innings against Oman at Division Three earlier this year kept USA in the hunt for a chance at advancing to the World Cup Qualifier.
Image (left) - Aditya Mishra won't be around to provide a match-winning for USA knock like he did in this innings against Scotland at the 2012 ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier. [Courtesy: Peter Della Penna/DreamCricket.com]
Only four players passed 100 runs for USA in the group stage at this event last year – Mishra, Nadkarni, Orlando Baker and Steven Taylor – and none of them reached 200. Ireland’s fifth highest scorer at the tournament, Kevin O’Brien with 188 runs, still managed to finish above USA’s best, Nadkarni with 187. The only team in the 2012 qualifier who had a definitively weaker team batting performance that USA was Oman, who only had two players cross 100 runs. Subtract Nadkarni and Mishra from that and picture how brittle USA’s batting is shaping up to be.
Hong Kong had just three players cross 100 runs at the 2012 qualifier, but one of those passed 200 runs and a third, captain Jamie Atkinson, scored more than 300 runs in the tournament. Uganda had four players score 100 runs or more while Nepal, Denmark and Kenya all had four players score 100 runs or more with at least one of those four finishing with more than 200 runs. Every other team had at least five players notch 100 runs or more while Papua New Guinea and Italy had six players accomplish it.
USA was bowled out or restricted to 100 or less on three occasions at last year’s qualifier, more than any other team at the event. Oman and Nepal had it happen twice during the group stage. Namibia, who went undefeated in the group stage, had it happen to them in their two playoff matches against Ireland and Afghanistan. USA had it happen against Ireland (96), Kenya (90) and Hong Kong (100). It’s not so farfetched to think that USA could be bowled out for 100 or less at least three times in this tournament.
Back in March, USA scored 180 or more on four separate occasions at the 2013 ICC Americas Division One Twenty20 tournament. One of those matches was against a first-rate Bermuda team in which USA scored 184 for 4 with Taylor getting a century. Last weekend USA batted first in two matches against a second-rate Bermuda team, one that will most likely finish last in Group B at the 2013 qualifier, but couldn’t break 150 against them. Just two players reached 50 on the weekend, Fahad Babar and Japen Patel, only one of them (Patel) is going to the UAE and he’s not even cemented a place in the starting eleven based on his performances in live matches for USA.
Taylor’s scintillating pair of Twenty20 centuries in March seem like they happened ages ago. After his 162 against Nepal to start off Division Three, Taylor has gone through a stretch where runs have been anything but easy to come by and as a result his confidence has dipped. Massiah has never been a significant contributor in Twenty20 cricket for USA and the three matches last weekend against Bermuda only reinforced that. Baker was a candidate for the captaincy role in this tournament, especially after leading USA to an 8-0 record in March at the ICC Americas T20, but being passed over not only for the captaincy but the vice-captaincy as well indicates that Robin Singh may not view him as an automatic selection in the starting 11 for every game.
When all of these factors are put together, it means that USA will be relying heavily on younger and less experienced players like Akeem Dodson, Karan Ganesh, and Patel to contribute a lot of runs. While each has done so sporadically, none of these players has shown that they can be a consistent or dependable option. Srinivasa Santhanam was involved in some decent partnerships during USA’s warm-up matches in Florida, but it’s unwise to place big expectations on a player making his debut in an ICC tournament.
USA is so desperate for a decent bat that, according to sources, allrounder Barrington Bartley is being allowed to arrive at the start of the second week of the tour to the UAE, after USA’s first few tournament matches have been completed. Keep in mind this is a player who made 53 runs in six innings at Division Three with a high score of 21 but is being given preferential treatment that in the past had only been reserved for key batsmen like Mishra and the prolific Nadkarni.
Image (right) - After captaining USA and finishing as their leading scorer at the 2012 ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier, Sushil Nadkarni's big hitting presence will be absent this time around in the UAE. [Courtesy: Peter Della Penna/DreamCricket.com]
USACA is banking on Bartley to replicate his whirlwind century he made in a warm-up match against Bermuda in March, but his performances since then indicate that it may have been lightning in a bottle. The only player who appears guaranteed to cross 100 runs for USA in the group stage is Allen. Other than that, USA’s batting is shaping up to be threadbare in Abu Dhabi.
As has been the case in most of USA’s ICC tournament appearances, their strength will be their bowling unit and spin bowling in particular. Muhammad Ghous has matured into a steady player and can keep the runs down in Twenty20 cricket whether it’s bowling with the new ball or coming back later in the innings. Neil McGarrell’s presence is a major plus for his experience and his wicket-taking ability. There is some concern whether his fitness will be good enough to make it through the whole tournament but another easily forgotten benefit of McGarrell’s captaincy is that Massiah will no longer be able to bowl himself. Danial Ahmed and Bartley’s left-arm spin along with Allen and Ganesh’s off-spin means USA has a surplus of slow bowling options at their disposal.
At this stage, it’s hard to forecast how the seam bowlers will fare. More than likely, Allen will be bowling more overs of spin than pace in the UAE. Awan has been recalled mainly for his pace, which is sharper than most at Associate level when he’s in peak form but his best days are a long way behind him and the same goes for Adam Sanford. Although he's quick for USA standards, Sanford hasn’t shown himself to be an economic or wicket-taking option in his USACA domestic tournament appearances. However, both players may be preferred over the left-arm variety offered by Elmore Hutchinson, who might find himself relegated to drinks duties for a good portion of USA’s matches.
Image (left) - Usman Shuja is in the top five of USA's all-time wicket-takers, but won't be on the plane to the UAE on November 9. [Courtesy: ICC]
Regardless of how good USA’s bowling unit may be, the chances of them restricting teams below 140 in the first innings are not good, which is what will need to happen for USA to have any chance at winning most games. The quality of the spinners also won’t mean much if they’re asked to defend 100-120 after a USA first innings batting collapse. All anyone needs to do is remember USA’s match against Uganda at last year’s World Twenty20 Qualifier. USA stumbled to 123 for 8 in their 20 overs but still had Uganda pinned down after seven overs of the chase at 17 for 3. The pressure was relieved by a couple of dropped chances, which were then compounded by a dreadful 15-run over bowled in the 13th by Adil Bhatti and from there Uganda eased their way to a four-wicket win with four balls to spare. It was one of only two wins at the tournament for Uganda, with the other coming against Oman.
USA’s best chances of recording a victory in the tournament are against Uganda and Italy, but they will go into every game as the underdog. USA’s raw talent has always meant they are capable of producing the odd upset, especially with the big hitting presence of Taylor, but such upsets are few and far between and it would be a monumental shock to see them beat Ireland, Canada, the UAE, Hong Kong or Namibia in this event.
Prediction: USA to finish 1-6 in round-robin play, 7th out of 8 teams in Group A.
If USA fails to finish in the top six teams at the tournament, they will fall short of reaching the 2014 ICC World Twenty20 in Bangladesh. It means the men’s national team will have no scheduled ICC tournament action in 2014. The time would be right to cut their losses with Robin Singh and start over with a new coach who is willing to introduce a clear vision for on-field success, including a commitment to help coaching players locally instead of shuttling in and out as tournaments occur.