January 10, 2013

Cricket in the USA

No path from league to country

Samarth Shah
Steven Taylor powers one through the off side, Denmark v United States of America, ICC World Cricket League Division Four, Kuala Lumpur, September 4, 2012
How does a player make himself visible to the national selectors without a domestic structure?  © Peter Della Penna
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"So how does one get picked for the USA cricket team?” a colleague of mine asked me at lunch, a couple of years back. I told him I play in a weekend league in Seattle. If I do well, I am picked by a group of selectors to represent my league, against other leagues in the Northwest Region of the USA, at an inter-league tournament. If I do well at the inter-league tournament, the Northwest Region selection committee picks me to play against other regions, at the Western Conference championship. And if I do well there, I get chosen to represent the Western Conference at the USA national camp, where the USA national selectors and coach are in attendance. These officials put the players through their paces at the national camp, note the names of those who catch their eye, and follow these players' progress. When the USA squad needs to be picked for an international fixture, the national selectors and coach choose 14 from the names they've noted down at the most recent national camp. I concluded by saying I was chosen to represent both my league and the Northwest Region for three years consecutively, and was invited to two national camps in Florida, where I made it to the national coach's and selectors' radar.

My colleague had stopped listening a long time ago. Now he got up and left.

Unfortunately, domestic cricket is boring to the layperson. Not just in the USA, but all over the world. As WV Raman recently indicated, nobody in India even follows Ranji cricket, let alone attends the games. To the layperson, domestic cricketers are to Tendulkar, as bathroom singers are to Stevie Wonder. For the club cricketer or the junior cricketer though, domestic cricket is all-important, as it is the ladder to the top. Each rung is a new challenge, to be met with renewed spirit and effort. Each rung has its own learning curve, and each level reached is an accomplishment of its own. Even if one never makes the national team, the topmost rung, there is pride in being among the best 14 cricketers in one's state, region, or even in one's weekend league.

We'd still play if the ladder were absent, because we love playing the game. But the ladder motivates us to play harder, to aspire to the next level. Eventually, contests even at lower levels gain significance through history and tradition. In England, Yorkshire play Lancashire in the Battle of the Roses. Here in the USA, the Northern California Cricket Association has been playing the Southern California Cricket Association annually for the Raisinland Trophy, for decades.

The bigger the country, the more effort it takes to keep a domestic setup running. The number of players involved in the domestic system is greater, requiring more rungs in the domestic ladder. The distances between venues are greater. Organising domestic cricket in India or (among associate nations) in the USA is a herculean task. Only the players and officials involved in domestic cricket appreciate this though, not lay people. The participants in domestic cricket - players, umpires, coaches, and administrators - are best described by John Milton's famous line, "They also serve who only stand and wait."

However, of late, even the cricketers and officials seem to be struck by ennui and apathy. The groundsmen and team managements ensured that more than 60% of Ranji Trophy matches in 2012-13 were drawn (as compared to less than 25% drawn Test matches since the year 2000), and most of these were boring draws, sometimes with even the first innings not completed. The Indian captain MS Dhoni has not played a Ranji Trophy game in almost eight years. Even in Australia, the administrators have pushed the domestic competitions to the fringes of the cricket season, with the Big Bash League now occupying the "primetime" slot through December and January. Nobody wants to see domestic cricketers slog all day, when you can have three hours of slam-bang entertainment featuring so many big-name international stars! Seems like the "Here we are now, entertain us" generation has finally had it with all the Miltonian standing and waiting.

In the USA, we have outdone everyone else, by simply cancelling the whole domestic setup altogether. We may not have the best cricketers in the world, but in political machinations, we are second to none. Some 70% of the cricket leagues in the country have fallen out with the USACA. Or vice-versa, the USACA has fallen out with the leagues - who knows? Some leagues have apparently fallen out with each other. So hardly any inter-league cricket occurred in 2012, since nobody quite knows which is a bonafide league, and which isn't. Absolutely no inter-region cricket either. A solitary Western Conference vs Eastern Conference game constituted the entire year's domestic cricket. This is akin to the Ranji, Deodhar, and Duleep Trophies all being cancelled, and the entire Indian domestic season reduced to one Irani Trophy match. Or the entire English county season being cancelled, and replaced by a single "North vs South of England" match. I am not sure how the teams for the solitary inter-conference match were selected, since there was hardly any inter-league and absolutely no inter-region cricket, at the underlying levels. Perhaps club stats were used, but in the absence of an inter-league, how do we know which league is strong (and hence club stats there ought to mean more), and which is not?

A rival national cricket body to the USACA held a tournament, involving some of the leagues banned by the USACA. However, individual players with USACA links from these leagues, including the entire national squad, didn't participate in the rival organisation. The net result is that there is no national hierarchy any more. The national ladder has been taken down and dismantled. Each rung of the ladder used to represent a level of achievement. I represented Seattle, the Northwest Region, the Western Conference, and ultimately the USA. Yes, one still goes to weekend club games and gives one's best. That's just out of a basic love of the sport. But there's no reward waiting, in the form of inter-league participation. If I'm a junior cricketer playing club and college cricket, what must I do next towards fulfilling my ambition of playing for the national team? What's the next rung in the ladder? Unfortunately, in 2012, there was no ladder.

Last month, the USACA appointed Darren Beazley, formerly of the Western Australia Cricket Association, as its CEO. One hopes that someone with a background in domestic and regional cricket understands the importance of the domestic ladder, and quickly restores the cricket hierarchy in the USA. My sense though is that cricketers and officials seem more enamoured with the proposed franchise-based Twenty20 league in the USA, involving international stars and all. Nobody cares much that a Ranji or Deodhar Trophy equivalent doesn't exist anymore in this country, as long as an IPL equivalent exists. No thought given to the domestic systems the IPL and the BBL get a majority of their players from. My hope is that the new CEO realises the importance of a domestic infrastructure, and puts one into place, so the glamorous Twenty20 league can build on top of it.

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