Narrow T20 World Cup loss to South Africa shows that USA’s envious depth is both a blessing and a curse

2024 Jun 20 by DreamCricket USA

USA captain Monank Patel has sat on the sidelines since USA's win over Pakistan on June 6. Yet USA has remained mighty competitive without their first choice XI, showing how expectations have changed since the start of the 2024 T20 World Cup. 

Photo credit: Peter Della Penna

By Peter Della Penna (Twitter/X @PeterDellaPenna)
If anyone had said before the 2024 ICC Men’s T20 World Cup began that USA would not only advance to the Super 8 stage, but that they would be in a position in a subsequent match against South Africa where 28 off 12 balls with five wickets in hand would cement victory, most people in the American cricket ecosystem would be doing backflips just to have the opportunity. Yet such is USA’s rapid progression since April in a revamped squad under head coach Stuart Law that to fall short by 18 runs in some ways feels disappointing. 
USA had a Men’s T20I ranking of 19 before the tournament began, which put them behind fellow Associates Oman, Nepal, UAE, Netherlands, Namibia and Scotland, not to mention Full Members Ireland, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and Pakistan. USA has since beaten three of four teams in the latter grouping, while all of the Associates in the former list have all been knocked out of the tournament. Both of these things make a mockery of the ICC T20I rankings system when you consider that the ranking doesn't take into account USA's lack of T20I fixtures since July 2022, which USA’s calculation was based off, as well as the fact that the #19 ranking was arrived at well before Andries Gous, Harmeet Singh, Nitish Kumar, Shadley van Schalkwyk, Nosthush Kenjige and Corey Anderson had all played their first T20I matches in a USA uniform. 
This was before USA currently stands as the team with the second most sixes in the tournament, 34, behind only co-hosts West Indies, which includes a washout against Ireland. This was before Saurabh Netravalkar, USA’s all-time leading wicket-taker, showed that his stats – which have been primarily built up in an international career dominating teams at League Two level – are not to be pooh-poohed now that he has scalped some of the biggest stars in world cricket in matches against Pakistan, India and South Africa. 
All of which makes Wednesday’s result against South Africa a perplexing conundrum: are fans supposed to be happy USA stretched South Africa to the limit, or disappointed that they arguably lost a very winnable match?
This felt different than the game against India. On a very batting unfriendly surface, the type that many of USA’s players have been accustomed to negotiating through much of their careers, USA stayed in the contest for 35 overs against India in a bare-knuckle brawl contest. It was Mark Twain idiot cricket in a proverbial sense: USA tried to drag India down to their level (playing on a scrapheap of a wicket) and beat them with experience. But even in those conditions, USA needed to play the perfect match in order to beat India. Dropping Suryakumar Yadav on 22 before he finished on 50 not out, combined with the five penalty runs for time-wasting between overs, are things that may not have mattered in the end because India’s depth is such that they may have realistically won regardless of those mistakes not being incurred. 
It's hard to argue the same against South Africa. USA played far from the perfect game, and yet, they were still highly competitive for the bulk of the contest while chasing a target of 195 in spite of playing nowhere near their best cricket, with nowhere near their best XI.

There’s a strong probability that Monank Patel may not play again this tournament. It has been 14 days since Monank’s last appearance for USA, a Player of the Match performance with a half-century in the Super Over win over Pakistan, and USA team management’s public pronouncements that he only has a “slight niggle” with his shoulder no longer hold weight. “Slight niggles” keep players out for two days, not two weeks. 
Monank’s replacement in the XI, Shayan Jahangir, has only scored 3 runs off 10 balls in his place. Yes, USA has missed Monank’s runs badly, but they have not been humiliated in his absence. Monank being out opened the door for Gous to open the batting against South Africa, and in some way it can be argued that this wound up benefitting USA by putting Gous in more preferential batting position. The result was 80 not out off 47 balls. 
Looking elsewhere for things that could be classed as sub-optimal, Jessy Singh’s career-long issues with no ball oversteps popped up at an inopportune time yesterday. Conceding 28 runs in the fourth over was damaging. It’s hard to fault a guy for getting shredded by Quinton de Kock, an all-time South African great. Many other bowlers at Full Member level have suffered similar fate to de Kock and, at face value, it would be unfair to single out Jessy for getting hit for multiple sixes. However, it’s not unfair to single Jessy out for a stubborn refusal to correct a nine-year habit of overstepping, which led to a preventable bonus six off a free hit. 
The Mr. Hyde version of Aaron Jones reappeared against South Africa on Wednesday. New observers who have tuned in to discover USA’s players since the start of the World Cup have been falling over themselves to hype up the 94* off 40-ball Dr. Jekyll version of Jones on opening night against Canada. The 0 off 5 ball version of Jones is what long-time observers of USA are more accustomed to seeing, at least when it comes to his role in T20I cricket. Five dot balls were not a killer. The issue was that four of the five shots – he was trying to glide a single behind point on the final ball which resulted in an edge behind – were defensive prods trying to get comfortable feeling bat on ball rather than simply going for a single to get a well-set Gous on strike. 
Corey Anderson, arguably the highest-profile player in the squad coming into the tournament, has contributed a grand total of 30 runs off 29 balls in the T20 World Cup, including a sluggish 12 off 12 against South Africa. USA’s all-time leading scorer, Steven Taylor, has made 60 off 62 balls in the tournament, and threw away his first good start of the month against South Africa, getting out softly for 24 off 14 balls chipping to mid-off. Ali Khan, USA’s mainstay on the T20 franchise circuit, has collected just three wickets at an average of 45.66 and leaked 0 for 45 against South Africa. And not to beat a dead horse, but USA’s captain has only been available for two games. 
If all of those things had been printed about USA before the tournament began and a question was asked about how fans think USA will fare in the tournament, the majority would probably say USA has no chance of advancing out of Group A. Yet the tournament has showcased USA’s depth. Kenjige took three wickets against Pakistan. Gous is the team’s leading scorer with 182 runs at an average of 60.66 and a strike rate of 146.77. Netravalkar is the team’s leading wicket-taker with six in four games plus one in the Super Over against Pakistan. Harmeet Singh may have stolen Player of the Match from Gous against South Africa after following up his two wickets with a scintillating 38 off 22 balls. Only Kagiso Rabada’s death bowling, starting the 19th over by dismissing Harmeet caught on the deep midwicket boundary off a full toss and conceding just two singles by the end of it, stood in the way of another incredible win. 
There were other quibbles too. After marrying different replay images together, it looks like de Kock would have been inches short if Nitish Kumar’s throw from backward point in the second over had hit the stumps at the striker’s end with de Kock on just 2. De Kock went on to be named Player of the Match for his 74 off 40 balls, including the subsequent demolition of Jessy in the fourth over. All of it could have been nipped in the bud. 
The decision to send Jessy in ahead of Kenjige with 11 balls to go in the chase was also debatable. If sending someone in to hit sixes was the objective, putting Jessy in made sense. But based on his approach after arriving at the crease, it looked like the instructions given to him were to get a single so that Gous could get back on strike. If that’s the case, Kenjige is far more crafty at getting singles with clever dabs for ball placement in the ring and sending #64 in would have made far more sense in order to get Gous back on strike. Jessy wound up poking around and missing repeatedly to end with 2 not out off 6 balls. Again, the 2 off 6 wasn't necessarily the issue, but rather the inability to get Gous on strike, a microcosm of the whole USA innings in which Gous inexplicably faced just 39% of USA's legal deliveries despite being in the middle for all 20 overs. Deciding against sending in Kenjige in that situation was a subtle but important tactical blunder at a crucial time. 
There’s no shortage of areas where USA was less than perfect against South Africa. In 2022, this level of accumulation of errors resulted in the type of loss they had at the T20 World Cup Qualifier to Zimbabwe. The margin on that day was 46 runs and USA was out of the chase by the 13th over. In Antigua, they were right in it until there were three balls left. 
To hammer home the point, not only was USA extremely competitive despite putting in nowhere near their best performance, they were also extremely competitive despite selecting nowhere near their best 15-man squad for the tournament. Cameron Gannon, Cameron Stevenson and Brody Couch were never considered for what outsiders would view as the most comical of reasons: failing to show up in Texas to play in a domestic championship - in which two of the four days were washed out by rain - because they were busy with professional commitments in Australia.

But the player USA arguably is missing most is Ian Holland. He was USA’s best player at the 2021 ICC Americas Qualifier in Antigua and hasn’t played a T20I for USA since then. His style of low 70 mph stump to stump wobbly seam bowling may have been deadly on the New York strip against India. And his clever changes of pace were decisive with 2 for 21 in four overs – while not conceding any boundaries – in a must-win match against Bermuda at Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in 2021 on a similar style pitch to the one USA played against South Africa. He has also shown how adaptable he can be with the bat as a finisher for USA. 
Insert Holland into the XI in place of Jahangir or Jessy for Wednesday’s match and issues with team balance are immediately rectified. Up until Wednesday, there were no shortage of people crowing about how USA’s 15-man squad selection, including the choice of at least one particular reserve, was justified based on their progression to the Super 8s. But on a day where USA’s team balance was thrown off with the captain sitting out once again and bench options limited due to ill-advised and politically motivated selection decisions made at the start of May, that crowing is no longer quite as loud. 
Unlike the Australia-based trio, Holland may not have played in the T20 World Cup anyway even if USA wanted to pick him. Similar to issues faced by Scotland and Netherlands in their World Cup squad selection, many eligible players in Associate systems made themselves unavailable for the World Cup due to the pressure to maintain their place on a County contract. Skipping a month of cricket in the English domestic season could result in losing their contract for 2025. It’s an unenviable position to be in, and it’s hard to envision making the leap to put yourself at risk of losing that County contract when USA’s players were engaged in a well-publicized pay dispute with their own board which has resulted in them getting paid less per match than the majority of tickets were priced for the USA v India match in New York.

That’s right, your $350 ticket to sit in the stands for the final game at Nassau County International Cricket Stadium was worth more than the USA player compensation envelope for being on the field that day. The USA players surely haven’t forgotten it, nor have their wives, partners and families. A reckoning is on the horizon after USA’s T20 World Cup rollercoaster ride eventually ends, one which may finally make the USA Cricket board regret their penny-pinching ways. The fact that no bonus has been announced for USA's 15-man squad after their progression to the Super 8s - which carries with it an extra $150,000 participation fee bonus that will be received by the board due to the efforts and achievements put forth by the players on field and not because of any middle-aged men and women in suits (It's hard to find a T20 World Cup runs and wickets column for David Haubert, Pintoo Shah, Srini Salver, Nadia Gruny and Venu Pisike, et al) - is the icing on the cake to USA Cricket's long-running poor treatment of their most high profile assets.  
When you add up the pre-World Cup player vs board turmoil to everything else, little did anyone think before the tournament began that losing to South Africa by 18 runs could look like a disappointing result for USA. The Red, White and Blue were nowhere near their best, but still took the match down to the wire. With two overs left, five wickets in hand and 28 off 12 balls needed with two well-set batters in, ESPNcricinfo’s win predictor showed USA had a 25.24% chance of winning. In the space of two weeks, USA has gone from having a result against Pakistan that some cricket experts felt was a one in a million upset to being in a situation against South Africa that they could reasonably expect to win one out of every four times. 
USA’s squad and their performance results have changed dramatically in the last three months, and now so have the expectations. They may have fallen short against South Africa, and as two-time Super Bowl winning head coach Bill Parcells famously once said, “You don’t get any medals for trying.” But being disappointed means USA belongs with the big boys. They’ve consistently shown throughout this tournament that they are not out of place measuring up against far more experienced Full Member opposition. They have two more Super 8 matches to show it.