December 20, 2010

The stars of USA cricket

In my opinion, the number one architect of USA's successful year, was Coach Clayton Lambert

It's probably not as eye-catching as Australia's Ashes comeback at Perth, Kallis' first double-hundred, or Tendulkar's 50th Test century, but these have been a news-filled few days for USA cricket.

First, there was the announcement of a historic commercial deal between the USA Cricket Association (USACA), New Zealand Cricket (NZC), and Cricket Holdings America LLC. A definite positive for the game here, but how exactly the grassroots will be impacted is not yet apparent. When compared to most other associate nations, the game is far more popular here in North America because of the large number of expatriates. USA and Canada are two of the top immigrant destinations in the world. The sheer size of these nations though, as I've written earlier, makes the logistics of cricket organization much harder than in smaller nations, and the need for money in cricket in these parts is thus a lot more dire. The game has long been in this peculiar bind with relatively high public interest (as compared to other associate nations), but no funding or commercial interest. Cricket Canada has recognized this situation and secured sponsorship for its activities, before the USA. The commercial deal inked this week is a first step towards solving the interest-funding disparity, specifically in the USA. There is still much work to be done though, in terms of actually securing the investments, putting them to good use, and ultimately yielding results on the investments. The administrators will have their hands full working out how to prioritize between marketing the game, drawing youth, improving representative squads to build a quality USA cricket brand, and improving regional infrastructure across the country. To be sure, each of these goals is important, and they are related, but vested interests in each of these domains will soon want their share first. The chickens will claim they come first, the eggs likewise.

The other news this week was the announcement of the inaugural edition of Radiant Info USA cricket awards. I feel privileged to have played with and/or against all the men's awards winners, especially my west coast colleagues and friends Aditya Thyagarajan (Best Batsman and Cricketer of the Year) and Saqib Saleem (Junior Cricketer of the Year). Every awardee was most deserving of the recognition, no real surprises. The sponsors of the awards deserve a lot of credit for both taking the initiative to institute the awards, as well as meticulously combing the records to find the right awardees. For the record, Kevin Darlington won Best Bowler, Sushil Nadkarni won Comeback Player of the Year, Mohammed Ghous won the Upcoming Player category, Lennox Cush was both Best Twenty20 Player of the Year as well as the winner of the Best Individual Performance award, and Indomatie Goordial-John was the Women's Cricketer of the Year.

One suggestion going forward would be to also mention the contributions of the 2nd and 3rd best player in each category, perhaps via a "nominees" list, when announcing the award, in true Oscar/Grammy style, as it were. This is how my league, the Northwest Cricket League, does its awards. In this crucial year for USA cricket, apart from the actual awardees, the likes of Usman Shuja, Orlando Baker, Rashard Marshall, Steve Massiah, and Carl Wright also had very important roles to play, in making it a hugely successful one. "Baker gives runs like he spends his money," coach Clayton Lambert once joked, but there is obviously no award category for tight bowling that results in wickets for the fellow at the other end. Among the juniors, Andy Mohammed and Ryan Corns did very well too, in addition to Saqib. No Best Fielder/Wicket-keeper award was announced. Still it was good to see those who contributed in what was a very successful make-or-break year for USA cricket, be recognized.

Apart from the players mentioned above, in my opinion, the number one architect of USA's successful year, was Coach Clayton Lambert. A lot of times, the actual contribution of the coach to a team's success is not clear. The Australian side of the early 2000s would've been world champions had Elizabeth Hurley been their coach, and not John Buchanan. Hurley would've also been a lot more popular than John Buchanan was, with the biggest star of that team. But the coach always has a special role to play in a team that is in the building and growing phase. I doubt anyone would rate John Buchanan over Bob Simpson or John Wright, as a national coach, for this reason.

The contribution of Coach Lambert ("Lamby" to those around him), is not just the hard work he's done in building the national squad, growing it from a WCL Division 5 team to a Division 3 team, with other notable successes along the way, such as an Americas 50-over and Twenty20 championship each. He's overcome several other challenges as well. He's done his best to keep the murky politics away from the cricketers. He and skipper Steve Massiah have worked consciously towards unifying different people, and very different styles of cricket, into a strong national squad. Again, this is harder in the USA than in most associate countries. In the USA, the players at the national level learned their cricket on different continents, and come from totally different backgrounds. Sometimes a bowler might not even understand his wicketkeeper's advice, because of his accent!

In addition, coach Lambert has played an active role in screening talent. He's been at both the Western Conference Championships in Los Angeles this year, as well as the National Championships in Florida. Even the national selectors haven't been travelling and scouting talent the way he has. He knows most of the USA under-19 probables by name, let alone the USA senior probables, since he worked with the under-19s too, during a camp last year. He's worked on not just his wards, the USA national squad, but with many fringe players as well. He emanded a fitness regimen from me when I was just a probable for the UAE-Nepal twin tours, and discussed my game for a long time, even after the squad was announced without my name in it.

Lamby is a quiet but keen observer, who will chat at length with you after a tournament or a camp, about anything cricket. He just doesn't want to be asked every day how you played though. He's keen on working one-on-one with players, and is credited with a quantum leap in the performances of Aditya Thyagarajan, USA's Cricketer of the Year 2010. He has a role in mind for every player, and brings his experience in first-class cricket, Test cricket, and professional cricket in South Africa, to bear. He once watched me struggling to contain a couple of left handers, and in a booming voice from outside said, "Ask de maan to bowl over de wicket." My next four overs yielded nine runs, and a couple of edges as well. It was the sort of insight that comes from having played at a much higher level than he's coaching at right now. He's constantly working on his own coaching skills, having picked up from visiting New Zealand cricket academy coach Dipak Patel some fielding tips and drills, that he then used on his USA wards. A huge fan of baseball and American football, he's expressed his desire to incorporate coaching techniques from those sports into his work.

Lamby once explained to a group of players, using an anecdote from his own playing days, the role of a coach in getting the best out of his charges. His club coach in Guyana once remarked to him on the morning of a tough game on a tough pitch, that if he batted until tea, he'd get a 100. Lamby thought the coach misread the conditions entirely, since they weren't suited to scoring a hundred in two sessions. To prove his coach wrong, he batted as best as he could for two sessions, and returned at tea, well short of a century. He couldn't find the coach at tea, but resumed his innings thereafter, and reached 100 just before close of play. He confronted his coach at the end of the day, and let him know it wasn't the sort of pitch where one could score a hundred before tea. His coach only replied, "I didn't say you'd make a 100 before tea. I only said that if you bat until tea, you will - eventually - get a 100."

The current USA probables met on the weekend to prepare for the WCL Division 3 tournament that begins in Hong Kong in 6 six weeks. USA is once again looking up to its star performers from 2010 to continue their good work into 2011. The one that all the other performers will be looking up to though, is the man they fondly tease as the "chunky biffer" because his ESPNcricinfo profile describes him so: Coach Clayton Benjamin Lambert.