Finding a stable opener alongside Steven Taylor, developing a legspinner and a full-time wicketkeeper are top priorities going forward for USA's Men's 50-over squad.
Fahad Babar file photo courtesy: Peter Della Penna
By Peter Della Penna (Twitter @PeterDellaPenna
1. Sort out Steven Taylor’s opening partner
USA has cycled through plenty of options at the top of the order since 2018: Xavier Marshall, Jaskaran Malhotra, Sunny Sohal, Monank Patel, Sagar Patel, Ian Holland, Aaron Jones, Sushant Modani, Dominique Rikhi. The only two who had any sustained measure of success in the role before Taylor’s scoring outburst in Oman were Monank Patel and Xavier Marshall. But Marshall’s deteriorating form resulted in him being dropped and Monank is best served coming in at No. 3 for USA. Both Monank and Taylor are the only two players in that time frame to average above 30 in the opening role for USA. The next best performer, Marshall, did not even average 25.
Meanwhile, there is someone who has been kept on the sidelines all this time whose 50-over average for USA of 39.38 is better than all players who were in USA’s touring squad to Oman, better than even Aaron Jones. Fahad Babar was USA’s most efficient scorer from 2014 to 2016 and notched a 50-plus score once every three innings. Only Sushil Nadkarni has a better rate in USA’s history. But Babar missed a pair of tours in 2017 due to injury (2017 WCL Division Three and 2017 Auty Cup), and then despite producing one of the best innings of the June 2018 USA Selection trials in Texas – a blistering half-century in the second innings on the final day, coincidentally after then head coach Pubudu Dassanayake had already left to get on a plane to fly back home to Canada – but was not picked for 2018 WCL Division Three in Oman and mysteriously has never been heard from again. Did USA’s selectors lose his number?
It was a poorly kept secret that Dassanayake simply did not rate him because of some technical batting flaws. It’s true that Babar will never win any style points or medals for prettiest technique. But the majority of technically proficient and aesthetically pleasing openers USA has tried since Babar’s last innings for USA have all failed in the one area where Babar is vastly superior: temperament. Babar has the mental grit and steel to stay at the crease and grind out runs, no matter how pretty or ugly they come. The foundation of his game is something that should also fit in very well with the current regime: extremely high fitness standards. Babar works his tail off, is incredible at stealing quick runs between the wickets and is someone you never ever had to worry about with regards to cramping up out in the middle.
Babar averaged 66.00 in MiLC T20s for Chicago Blasters, playing all but one of his matches on natural turf wickets and scored a pair of unbeaten half-centuries which both came on natural turf with a sluggish outfield at Bolingbrook. He has also spent extensive time playing division and regional cricket in Pakistan in an effort to improve his game over the last several years. There are players who have done far less for USA but gotten more opportunities in terms of second and third chance recalls while Babar has never been given a second chance. Why is that? It’s not as though he lost his spot through underperformance, but rather through injury. He’s still only 29 and at the very least, he should get an invite to a squad camp to remind people what he’s made of. He’ll have another chance to remind people of his talent at the USA Cricket 50-over National Championship coming up in November.
Another option worth considering is Sai Mukkamalla, the 17-year-old right-handed opener from New Jersey. Mukkamalla opened the batting for USA U-19 at the ICC U-19 World Cup Qualifier in Canada as a 15-year-old two years ago and was in line to do so again this year, having been named USA Cricket U-19 National Championship Tournament MVP for his role as the leading scorer for the champion Mid Atlantic squad, before the ICC Qualifier was canceled.
Mukkamalla is confident against the short ball and is temperamentally sound as well. But another standout feature of his game compared to other players at junior level is his game awareness in terms of manipulating the field. That was on display at the MiLC opening round playoff matches in North Carolina where Mukkamalla helped the New Jersey Stallions to a sweep of Morrisville Cardinals.
While West Indian overseas pro Rovman Powell was blasting sixes at one end, Mukkamalla stood out in a different way during their 88-run partnership as he toyed with the cover sweeper by picking off twos at will by alternating his soft-handed placement wider and squarer of the man patrolling the boundary. Despite hitting only one boundary, his strike rate was 122.86 in his 43 off 35 balls and his scoring efficiency while refusing to absorb dot balls is the type of skillset that is very much translatable to 50-over cricket (and needed for USA in the format) for his wiry frame that is still filling out. For the season, Mukkamalla is the Statllions leading scorer with 360 runs at an average of 27.69. He is also someone who has shown little if any difficulty adjusting from artificial wickets (which Stallions play their home matches on) to natural turf strips whether in MiLC or in the USA U19 National Championships.
2. Groom a young legspinner
Speaking of former USA U-19 players from New Jersey… 21-year-old Raymond Ramrattan showcased his skills in style at the same Morrisville venue for the same Stallions squad that has advanced to the 2021 MiLC Final Four. The legspinning allrounder leads the entire tournament in outfield catches with 19 and took four on the day of the Stallions semi-final sweep, including a stunning one-hander at mid-off that would make Karima Gore jealous. With the ball, he took a combined 3 for 31 across four overs in the two playoff matches. On the season, he’s taken 16 wickets at an average of 15.12 and an economy of 6.69, very respectable numbers in T20s.
Now that Timil Patel’s career appears to be over, and Hayden Walsh Jr is not coming back from West Indies, there is a vacancy in the USA squad for a legspinner. Though USA’s bowling attack excelled mainly at containing runs through their arsenal of left-arm spinners, they sometimes lacked bite and variety. As if there needed to be any reminder about why legspinners are so valuable in limited overs cricket, USA got a handy lesson on the opposite side of the field with the performances of Sandeep Lamichhane of Nepal and Khawar Ali of Oman, and to a lesser extent Charles Amini from Papua New Guinea who suffers from having a weak attack around him.
Ramrattan has true all-round potential, but it’s worth a reminder that the likes of Delray Rawlins – now a powerful batting allrounder for Sussex and Bermuda – got his Bermuda debut at No. 11 as a left-arm spinner because that’s what Bermuda required at the time. Ramrattan might develop into a top-class middle-order batting allrounder down the road, but if his legspinning skillset is what gets his foot in the door of the USA squad immediately, then so be it.
Another one who is in the running to fill a legspinning role for USA is also a talented teenager from New Jersey who was named to USA’s Under-19 squad that wasn’t this past summer, Yasir Mohammad. Like Ramrattan, Mohammad may also have a better long-term future with the bat, but he was the leading wicket-taker for Somerset Cavaliers taking 17 in 15 games though at a more expensive average and economy – 17.71 and 8.14 – compared to Ramrattan. Aditya Gupta, another USA Under-19 selected leggie from 2021, took 16 wickets in MiLC league play at an average of 12.88 but was hammered by the Stallions lineup in a pair of wicketless performances during the playoffs and still has more target areas to work on.
USA has had other talented young options in the recent past – Usman Ashraf, Shashank Vittaladevaram, Vivek Narayan – but they have fallen back in the pack or are off the radar altogether. Ashraf was drafted by The Philadelphians in 2021, but then never appeared in a match. Narayan was drafted by the same franchise in 2020, but not retained for 2021. Vittaladevaram has not taken part for anyone in MiLC.
3. Clarify the full-time wicketkeeper role
This may be USA’s most rapidly revolving door of the last decade. Carl Wright, Ashhar Mehdi, Ritesh Kadu, Steven Taylor, Akeem Dodson, Ibrahim Khaleel, Jaskaran Malhotra, Akshay Homraj, Monank Patel. With the exception of Taylor, who held the role for a few years before giving it up to preserve his back, nobody has been able to lock down the position for a truly extended run. Monank was pressed into duty out of necessity for the tour of Oman, not because he is outstanding in the role.
There appears to be a very high probability that when former India U19 wicketkeeper Smit Patel becomes USA eligible, he will immediately walk into the role as USA’s first choice gloveman. He scored an unbeaten 99 on MiLC debut at Lauderhill for Manhattan Yorkers in August, then followed it up with a half-century on his CPL debut for Barbados Royals in September.
So is Monank just a stopgap keeper until Smit gets to the three-year residency ICC qualification guideline? What’s the harm in trying out one of USA’s talented youth in the same manner that UAE has done with Vriitya Aravind?
Slade van Staden, the 18-year-old US citizen originally from South Africa now with Houston Hurricanes in MiLC, kills two birds with one stone. Not only is he a skilled keeper, he is someone who can bat spin in the middle order, a skillset USA was desperately lacking both on this recent tour and throughout the last decade. Another option is 18-year-old California native Rahul Jariwala, who could plug the revolving door at the top of the order if Babar or Mukkamalla – or anyone else – were deemed not as appealing. Jariwala has been in solid form all summer ever since he was initially left out of the USA U-19 squad camp in California in June, which appears to have lit a serious fire under him after he was a starter for USA U-19 at King City in 2019.
The point is that there are options worth exploring through the USA U-19 pipeline, whether it is for openers, legspinners, wicketkeepers or any other role. If USA men’s national team selectors and officials want to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to all the dollars spent on local infrastructure in the last few years, then prove it at the men’s selection table – just like the USA Women’s selectors did – and show that US citizen players, in particular locally developed ones such as Jariwala, Mukkamalla, Ramrattan, and Mohammad, will not be treated as second-class citizens compared to the surplus of ex-[fill in your country name here] pros who have flooded MiLC rosters in the hopes of qualifying for USA national team representation.
[Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of DreamCricket management. If you have different views or opinions, we respect those views and urge you to provide your feedback, both positive and negative. Feel free to respond to the author via Twitter @PeterDellaPenna
ICYMI - Part 1: Team Grades
, and Part 2: Player Grades