How the table was set for 2020. And crystal gazing into 2021.
By Venu Palaparthi
[Due to a personal emergency at the start of 2020, I did not recap 2019 last January. The pandemic that followed changed the cricketing landscape. As a consequence, I felt compelled to summarize the most significant events of 2019 as well in this piece, which also explains the length of this article.]
2019 - The rear view mirror
The years-long Kabuki drama that was American cricket reached its fifth and final act on January 8, 2019. USA Cricket, formed in the aftermath of the suspension (in 2015) and eventual expulsion (in 2017) of its predecessor USACA, was finally approved by the ICC as the 93rd Associate Member and 105th member on that date.
The ICC decision was the culmination of a months-long organization building process beginning with finalizing a constitution (December 2017), conducting elections (July 2018) and the appointment of three independent directors (August 2018). Once the full ten-member board was seated in September 2018, Paraag Marathe, a Stanford and US Berkeley graduate with over two decades of sports management experience, was elected as the chairman in October 2018.
In his two-year inaugural term as chairman, Marathe’s primary goals were identified as gaining membership of the ICC and exploring commercial opportunities. 2019 began with the accomplishment of the first of these goals. Marathe called ICC’s approval of USA Cricket’s membership application “a significant staging post” on USA’s journey to bring together the cricket community and to develop the game.
The board had commenced work on the second goal even before the ICC had approved USA Cricket’s membership. On May 23, 2019, USA Cricket selected American Cricket Enterprises (ACE) as its strategic partner. ACE is backed by Sameer Mehta and Vijay Srinivasan, the founders of Willow TV, the largest cricket broadcaster in North America, and Satyan Gajwani and Vineet Jain, the principals of The Times of India Group, India’s largest media conglomerate along with financial support from other investors.
At the start of 2019, USA Cricket began its search for a new CEO. This process yielded interest from hundreds of candidates. Iain Higgins, then COO and General Counsel of ICC, was the “clear frontrunner” according to USA Cricket, and was eventually selected and approved unanimously by the board. Higgins joined USA Cricket as CEO in September of 2019.
On the field, USA retained its spot in Division 2 and overcame the Division 3 curse once and for all in 2019. With a top 4 finish in Namibia, USA also achieved ODI status, guaranteeing it 36 ODIs as part of the CWC League 2 against the likes of Scotland, Nepal, UAE, Namibia, Oman and PNG. For the United States, twelve of these matches were going to be home games, twelve were to be away games and twelve were going to be neutral-venue games. As 2019 drew to a close, USA had signed contracts with thirteen of its players, had won six of its first eight ODIs and led the group with 12 points. USA had secured international status for all of its T20s beginning January 2019, but won only 2 of its T20Is.
That set the table for 2020.
2020 in hindsight!
There was a lot of hope when USA arrived in Nepal after a three-game warmup halt in Mumbai in January, where Team USA won one match and lost two. But what followed in 2020 was an unmitigated disaster for the team. Playing without Ali Khan and Hayden Walsh Jr, USA lost all of its games in the 2020 Nepal Tri-Nation Series. To add insult to injury, the team posted the lowest ODI total in its final game against Nepal, which is now the shortest innings in ODI history, lasting just 72 balls. To compound matters, Nisarg Patel’s bowling action was pronounced illegal.
That was in February. Then came the pandemic, which brought all kinds of bad news. First, the USA leg and the Namibia legs of the Tri-Nation CWC League 2 were both rescheduled. The National Championships for Men and Women met with the same fate. Zonal trials were held across the country but the process remained incomplete at the end of the year. Talent identification camps were held for women but the pandemic played havoc with the schedule for that as well. The Women’s Cricket World Cup Qualifier, to which USA earned a ticket, was postponed. On the player front, USA Cricket, slashed the number of contracted players and reduced their retainers, also necessitated by the “unprecedented events of 2020.”
Yes, 2020 was a bleak year for Team USA. If there was a silver lining for the national team, it was this - despite their disastrous performance at the start of 2020, the USA are still in second place on the points table with a 50% win rate in their 12 outings. At the grassroots level, in a lot of states, cricket sputtered along. With the pandemic raging, the handful of leagues that were functional were tested regularly, especially as states across USA issued shelter-in-place instructions and imposed quarantine restrictions. In some instances, matches were canceled or abandoned when news emerged that a player or a family member testing positive. In retrospect, that cricket continued at all in 2020 is a sign of the sport's resilience in the country.
There were other silver linings as well. Organizationally, USA Cricket had a relatively busy year. The organization checked off a few boxes as the year progressed. The most significant was the appointment of Jak Arunkumar as Men’s Head Coach (Julia Price had previously been named Women’s Head Coach). In March 2020, USA Cricket named the following selectors: Men’s Selectors - Michael Voss (chair), Niraj Patel, Clayton Lambert and Orlando Baker. And Women’s Selectors - Joan Alexander-Serrano (chair), Patricia Whittaker, Ritesh Kadu, Jyotsna Patel and Deepali Rokade. Subsequently, a panel of selectors was named for Youth selection in October with Amer Afzaluddin as chairman. The panel includes Sajith Fernando (a former Sri Lanka player), Alvin Kallicharran (former West Indies player), Jannisar Khan and Steve Massiah (both former USA players). The selection panels were augmented in the six zones by additional zonal selectors: Richard Staple, Sabin Sundar, Mark Johnson, Sami Khan and Krishna Prasad.
Along the way, USA Cricket fleshed out eight of its eleven committees in August 2020. The board also saw some new faces as Srini Salver replaced Usman Shuja and Sushil Nadkarni took over from Atul Rai. Just as this article was being written, the organization also announced its new membership program and launched its new portal.
The year also saw USA Cricket publishing its annual financial statements for 2019, and the numbers within shed some light on the organization's financials. Notably, the 2019 topline included roughly $2.5 million from the ICC and $1.5 million in contract revenue, which is revenue from USA Cricket’s contractual arrangement with ACE. That puts the organization on a stronger financial footing than we have grown accustomed to in the U.S.
Which brings us to ACE, also known as Major League Cricket (MLC). Away from the gaze on the national governing body, ACE/MLC continued to go about its mission to professionalize cricket in the United States through the creation of a world class national T20 tournament. As part of this core mission, MLC’s focus areas are developing cricketing infrastructure, elite youth academies, and high grade training facilities. This in turn is expected to help with developing a deep talent pool of players who can ultimately participate in MLC’s competitions - Minor League Cricket and Major League Cricket.
During 2020, MLC established a network of six academies and was in the process of adding more in 2021. To a large extent, the academies that now operate under the Major League Cricket umbrella are existing academies but, with MLC’s support, these academies are committing to creating infrastructure that is sorely needed to take the sport to the next level, with a strong focus on natural turf wickets and batting lanes. With the pandemic playing spoilsport, MLC’s plans for the inaugural Minor League Season were altered. Eventually, the Minor League was compressed into an exhibition series and commenced with the participation of 18 of the 24 teams - three in the Western Conference, six in the Central Conference, six in the Eastern Conference, and three in the Southern Conference. 51 games were held in all, even as the pandemic continuously tested the league’s resolve.
Finally, as the year drew to a close, Major League Cricket made three important announcements: (a) MLC agreed to redevelop Grand Prairie’s AirHogs stadium as the organization’s first cricket stadium (b) MLC announced its founding investor group, which included several entrepreneurs and sports investors and (c) a MLC Junior T20 Championship was announced, comprising a series of competitive tournaments for its affiliated academies.
Ultimately, 2020 was not the banner year it was meant to be. Instead, it was a year in which we had to be content with silver linings and hope that the foundational efforts will bear fruit whenever it is that the clouds clear.
2021 - Through the Crystal Ball
Crystal gazing is everyone’s favorite indulgence this time of the year. So here is my take on what the future holds for USA Cricket in 2021.
The 2021 international calendar is packed to the brim as can be seen below:
March 2021: USA Men’s Cricket World Cup League 2 Tri-Nation Series in Oman featuring USA, Nepal and Oman. With Oman at the top of the table and USA in second spot CWC League 2, this series is going to be critical.
May 2021: USA Men’s Cricket World Cup League 2 Tri-Nation Series in Papua New Guinea featuring USA, PNG and Namibia.
June 2021: USA Women will play in the 50-over World Cup Global Qualifier in June to be held in Sri Lanka.
July 2021: Americas Regional T20 World Cup Qualifier featuring USA, Canada, Belize, Cayman Islands, Argentina, Bahamas, Belize, Bermuda and Panama. This is the first stop along the journey to the 2022 T20 World Cup.
August 2021: USA Men’s Cricket World Cup League 2 Tri-Nation Series in USA featuring USA, Scotland and UAE.
August 2021: The Americas Qualifier for the 2022 ICC Under-19 World Cup is set for 18-21 August.
September 2021: USA Women will host the Women’s T20 World Cup Regional Qualifier for Americas, which will be held 11-18 September, 2021 in the United States. Four teams - USA, Canada, Argentina and Brazil - will participate in the tournament. The winner will progress to the World Cup Qualifier in 2022, with a potential second spot available to the highest ranked regional non-winner across all regions.
December 2021: ICC established the first ever U-19 Women’s Cricket World Cup, which is expected to be played in Bangladesh in December. Details regarding the qualification pathway for this tournament are awaited, but if it is similar to the Women's World Cup, USA has a real chance of qualifying.
In addition to the above, the zonal tryout process for Men’s and Youth teams awaits completion. In parallel, structured training needs to commence despite the uncertainty that envelopes us. The cricket community also awaits with bated breath for a domestic youth tournament and for Men’s and Women’s National Championships.
Separately, MLC expects to have its first non-exhibition Minor League Cricket season in 2021 this summer. The 24-team league was a success by most measures in its exhibition year. (As a co-owner of a Minor League team myself, I found the 2020 exhibition series to be instructive and also a harbinger of a competitive tournament, especially for younger US born players.)
As noted above, MLC is also expected to launch its MLC Jr T20 Championships this year with a full calendar of junior events for MLC academies. This MLC T20 Jr Championship features events in U11, U13, U15, U17 and U19 categories. Bay Area and Morrisville will host U19 events in June and August respectively. Atlanta, Bay Area and Morrisville will host tournaments in all remaining age categories. NYCL will host its 8th annual tournament in July in Maryland in U11, U13, U15, U17, U19 and Women’s categories.
This level of activity calls for some thoughtful planning even in a normal year. But this is not a normal year, the pandemic continues unabated, with much of the nation going through post-holiday Covid surges. Vaccination is key, but nobody expects it to be widely available until later this summer.
A laissez faire approach won’t work for tournaments and training camps at the national level. A return to the cricket field entails the creation of a controlled environment for these high profile tournaments. Self-regulation cannot be relied on beyond club level competition. Such an approach is not fail-safe, with the potential for the weakest link to bring the entire thing apart. As an example, for national level and ICC events, every participant, and that includes players and staff, will need to be tested before travel, upon arrival and through the tournament. USA Cricket will undoubtedly need help from volunteers and foot soldiers as the season progresses. As noted above, the need of the hour is thoughtful planning and meticulous execution.
To be sure, this is something that USA Cricket seems to be focused on as well. In a message that has been circulating in various groups, Sushil Nadkarni, the Chair of the Cricket Committee, noted: “The six zonal panels will now convene to select Men’s and Men’s Youth Zonal training groups, as well as to review and add to the Men’s and Women’s National training groups where appropriate. This will help Jak Arunkumar, who has now successfully relocated to the United States, to prepare the groups for the comprehensive domestic and international calendar that lies ahead in 2021 and which will be announced more fully in due course.” Nadkarni signaled that the doors to zonal and national team selection remained open, adding “further opportunities will be available during 2021 for those who, for one reason or another, did not have an opportunity to demonstrate their talent.”
Performance wise, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about 2021. Despite the pandemic, cricketers still trained a fair amount in 2020 because there was no actual lockdown in the country. USA also has the added advantage of playing several of the 2021 tournaments at home, a considerable plus given the circumstances.
The Men’s and Women’s Captains sounded positive at the start of the year. USA Women’s Captain Sindhu Sriharsha said: “It’s been a year unlike any other, but we have been doing a huge amount together, just virtually, with our Team’s training moving entirely online. We are so happy to have confirmed fixtures on the horizon now, with the Americas Qualifier for the T20 World Cup being preceded by the 50 Over Women's World Cup Global Qualifier in Sri Lanka. We are looking forward to both events, the challenge we face in Sri Lanka first up in June before hosting in the T20 format at home in September. We will absolutely not be underestimating the newcomers Brazil or Argentina, nor old rivals Canada, but we will be targeting a first-place finish and a chance for another opportunity at another global qualifier.”
Men’s Captain Saurabh Netravalkar sounded optimistic as well: “We have been using the time-off from international fixtures productively and been training hard remotely or in small groups where possible. We have a clear pathway now to both the T20 World Cup and the 50 Over Cricket World Cup with a very exciting schedule on the calendar now for Team USA. We will be doing everything we can to bring success to the team in both formats and we all can’t wait to get going again in Oman in March.”
Here’s to a safe and successful 2021!
[Editor’s note and disclaimer: DreamCricket Academy became affiliated with Major League Cricket / WIllow Academies in 2020. Separately, the writer signed on as a passive investor in American Cricket Enterprises at the start of the year and as a co-owner of New Jersey Stallions. While acknowledging this conflict, DreamCricket does not expect that its involvement with ACE will impact the website's independence or its ability to provide objective coverage of either USA Cricket or MLC.]
[Picture Courtesy: USA Cricket]