The future is bright thanks to US youngsters
As recently as five years ago, no one would have given US junior cricket a chance to exist, let alone flourish in any meaningful sense.
Active US cricketers, it was argued, were mostly ex-pats from cricket-playing countries, too busy with their own game to expend energy on junior cricket development. The few juniors who could be found playing cricket were the younger brothers or sons of adult US cricketers, playing as 12th men or extras in senior league matches with little opportunity to display their all-round skills. There were no resources, it was argued, to develop junior cricket skills; no incentives offered to cricket clubs or leagues to develop youth cricket programs, and draconian eligibility rules set by the ICC which hindered overseas cricketers from representing the USA.
How different things look in mid-2007. By Cricinfo's count, there are at least 100 US cricketers under 19 whose skills are up to the highest senior standards, and many more on the way as US cricket academies develop Under-15 and Under-11 talent.
Just how good these players are was demonstrated by USA's clean sweep of the Americas Under-19 tournament in Toronto in 2006, and their subsequent performance at the U-19 World Cup in Sri Lanka where they turned in the best performance by a non-Test country and the first official victory by any USA team in a World Cup tournament. This was followed by another US sweep of the Americas U-15 tournament in Florida, and a tightly-fought series against the visiting Australian National Under-15 team at Woodley Park in California.
Remarkably, the USA juniors have yet to concede a single series. And they have lost only one match (a close one, to the Australian national team) out of 12 tournament fixtures.
How is one to interpret this fresh and invigorating breeze that is blowing through US junior cricket?
A lot of credit needs to go to unsung heroes in US cricket academies whose efforts are, at last, beginning to bear fruit. While the academies are by no means created equal, the best of them have clearly performed well above the call of duty, and this is reflected in the quality of their young trainees. What's more, they have taken a proactive stance, taking their campaign to the cricket field rather than wait for something to happen. Against the protests of organizers in 2005, they cobbled together an Under-19 tournament to run at the same time and place as the nationals. The coaches of the U-19 teams also voted to name an " all-America" team of the top performers at the tournament, the first time such a roster of junior cricketers had been compiled. USACA executives denounced the move as illegal, but the deed had been done and the basis was laid for success in 2006 and beyond.
There was also a remarkable change in attitudes towards junior cricket in 2006 and 2007. The names of their sons or younger brothers on the US junior rosters led many to support junior cricket programs in their own leagues and neighborhoods, and there is no more talk today about US junior programs being a "pipe dream" or an unrealistic fantasy. This commitment has been growing exponentially, and is heartening for the future of US junior cricket.
The support given to junior programs by ICC, Cricinfo and others also provided a tremendous fillip to US junior cricket.
In an open letter, the ICC's Matthew Kennedy commended the California Cricket Academy for its pioneering efforts. Sachin Tendulkar wrote a congratulatory letter, and his brother Ajit spent several weeks training coaches for the Academy teams. Larry Gomes, former West Indies Test player, was set to follow Ajit on a coaching stint aimed at the young cricketers. Ricky Ponting was pronounced a hero for his remarks in support of US junior cricket, as conveyed by the Australian national team on his behalf during their US tour. The Indian board sent an official memo from India commending US junior cricket, and promised to follow up on Australia's example by sending junior teams to tour USA in late 2007 and 2008.The list keeps growing as more and more well-wishers from around the cricket world add their voices to the chorus.
At this point, declares Hemant Buch, co-founder of the California Cricket Academy, US junior cricket has nowhere to go but skywards. "There will simply be more and more junior cricket in all parts of North America, and we should have several thousand first-class juniors ready to play competitive cricket by 2011."
The significance of 2011 is that the World Cup is due to be played in India that year, and US cricket is gearing up for the challenge. "In four years we will be ready," says Hemant Buch, "and we should surprise world cricket".
Brave words, but it has the ring of quiet self-confidence born of past success. There are many cricket aficionados who will be cheering US junior cricket along from the sidelines.
Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa