January 31, 2011

Rebuild, don't revamp

I'd make a plea for some patience from fans

So ends a disappointing tour to Hong Kong for the USA national squad; the first really disappointing tournament for the senior team, since the 2008 tour of Jersey. The team started well, toppling the hosts and eventual champions easily. Usman Shuja and Asif Khan also showed grit in stealing a win from the jaws of defeat against Oman. But those were the only bright spots for the team in the six-nation tournament.

I followed most of the games via ESPNcricinfo and DreamCricket's coverage, and from this distance, the batting failure appeared to be the primary reason for the team's defeat. Many of the batsmen were understandably out of touch, because this tournament fell bang in the middle of the US winter. When the team left the USA, 49 of the 50 states had snow! The only other team that came from such a wintry climate - Denmark - also fared poorly, winning only two games. Both Denmark's wins came against the USA though, so the lack of preparation was obviously not the only reason for USA's failures. The top order completely forgot to tap singles, and seemed too eager to hit big shots. In general, a lot of things went wrong, not least the tournament-ending injury to USA Cricketer of the Year 2010 Aditya Thyagarajan, mid-way through the tour, followed by an injury to left-arm spinner Asif at a crucial stage of the game against Italy. Apparently the fielding was also sub-par, again likely due to the lack of practice over winter.

To me, a major disappointment over the last week was the attitude of the fans following the fortunes of the team. At every turn, fans acted as if there were deeply entrenched problems afflicting the game in the US, but paradoxically, believed the solutions were obvious. A batting collapse wasn't simply a failure of the batsmen, no. It was taken to mean that the whole system was corrupt, starting with the topmost administrators of the USACA, all the way down to the selection, coaching, and age of the squad. Their brilliant solution, to fix a simple batting and fielding failure, was to completely reconstitute from scratch, not only the USA cricket team, but the whole administration and structure of USA cricket itself. It's amazing how there is no such thing as a modest fan: each fan has perfectly gauged ability and intent, no chance of error, and believes his own eye for talent to be unsurpassed in the entire world.

The same squad under the same coach had breezed through from Division 5 of the World Cricket League up to Division 3, and also won tournaments at the Americas level, since 2008. The same team won the first game of this tournament comfortably. After that they made some errors, which obviously need rectification the next time around. I don't know much about cricket administration in the USA, and its attendant politics. But I do know that the team management had tried its best to keep the team focussed on cricket, so the problems faced by the team in Hong Kong have little to do with whatever politics are taking place in the administration. The team that went to Hong Kong was a mix of players who have done well in the past for the USA, and newcomers like Ryan Corns, Asif, Durale Forrest, and Ritesh Kadu, who have each been excelling in domestic cricket for some time now.

Obviously the team didn't bat very well, and perhaps the decision to play the assistant coach was a tad misguided. But mistakes sometimes happen. What were fans expecting? That the US will rise without a single setback along the way, all the way from Division 5 to the World Cup? The solution is not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. The solution is to figure out specifically what went wrong and fix it. Blaming the whole "system" is a cop-out, meaning you can't identify specifically what went wrong. (Here's one hint: it starts with a "B" and ends with "atting.")

Don't tell me the whole system is rotten, because cricket is always a complicated thing in large countries with lots of players and leagues. Only 11 can play for the country, and the larger the country the greater the hardship in isolating that 11. Which is why India aren’t permanent world champion despite a population greater than the sum of the populations of all other Test playing nations. USA has to figure out its best 11 with perhaps the same financial resources in cricket, as much smaller countries like Denmark or Hong Kong.

But in such large countries - and I saw this in both India and the USA - it's very easy to blame the system as being the root of all evil. When I wasn't picked for the USA squad last year, despite being in the probables, a number of people asked me, "was it due to politics?" I took great pains to explain that I was given a fair go; the team management was very open on what they were looking for, and where I fit in. It was anything but politics. Many of my questioners were strangely unhappy with that answer! I think it was unfashionable to not blame politics.

One solution to USA's cricket problems that is often bandied about, is to fill the team with youngsters. A noble sentiment, at first glance. After all, the youngest two squads finished at the top of the table at Hong Kong. On the other hand, the third-youngest team, Denmark, finished near the bottom. And the oldest squad in the tournament, Oman, finished a respectable third. Make of that what you will.

I think youngsters need to prove themselves in domestic cricket first. The only USA-eligible youngster who did consistently well in domestic cricket but didn't find a place in the squad was 24-year-old Abhimanyu Rajp. He didn't find a place because the incumbent off-spinner is USA's Upcoming Player of the Year 2010, Mohammed Ghous, who at 20, is even younger than him! It's not like other youngsters - apart from Rajp and Corns - have been setting the Mississippi on fire. Note that it was the lack of form of the 20-year-old that prompted the desperate inclusion of the assistant coach in the 11, in the first place. In contrast, the top three batsmen and bowlers for the USA in this tournament were all over 31 years of age, ie. above the average age of the squad.

During this tournament, a number of fans opined that it is better to lose with a bunch of youngsters, who will gain some experience, than win with 30-year-olds. A ludicrous notion. International cricket is not a training ground to gain experience. The essence of sport is to try your best to win every game, not accept losing in order to gain experience. While picking the younger of two equals is fine, we must not over-emphasise youth. At the Western Conference Championships in Los Angeles, six Northwest Region players requested substitutes over three games, and there was a furore in our region over what an old and unfit team we had. Bring in the youngsters, was the cry! Except that none of the four oldest players in the squad was among those who had asked for a substitute. This was a classic case of over-emphasising age, rather than getting to the root of the issue.

The goal should be to build a solid team, comprising the best players, irrespective of age, which is focused on winning every game. Even the youngsters are best served by competing with quality players, for a spot on a team whose aim is to win. It doesn't help even the youngsters to use some age-based affirmative action to obtain a spot on a team, which in any case is satisfied by merely gaining experience. If the first team of 20-year-olds does poorly for two-three years, the very same fans will be attracted to a new bunch of 20-year-olds, three years down the line. (Notice how the 2006 USA under-19 World Cup squad has been totally forgotten, in favour of last year's flavour.) How is this a sustainable tactic in the long run?

Critics will do well to remember that the most successful team of this generation - the early 2000s Australians - was an army of dads, with a nary a member in his 20s. Cricket history is riddled with players like Hadlee, Walsh, Gooch, and Imran who continued to improve their game, well past the age of 35. The success of 16-year-old Mark Chapman, who bowls left-arm spin, fields well, and hit 70 in the tournament final at Hong Kong, shouldn't be the motivation to fill USA's squad with teenagers, who may only have age in common with Chapman.

In conclusion, I'd make a plea for some patience from fans. There is no doubt the team failed in Hong Kong, but it had notched some memorable wins in the two years leading up to this tournament. There is definite ability there, and obviously room for improvement. A loss is a good opportunity to fix specific problems: work on playing the moving ball, work on rotating strike, work on training indoors in bad weather, etc. The solution to four losses, however tough they may be to swallow, is not to revamp all of USA cricket.