January 16, 2014

The USA and Canada: the have-nots of Associate cricket

Samarth Shah
They are huge countries with vast talent pools, which means their meagre resources are stretched that much more

The Canada and USA teams mostly consist of weekend cricketers who get to train together about twice a year © International Cricket Council

The World Twenty20 Qualifier recently concluded in the UAE, with the big guns of Associate cricket - Ireland, Afghanistan, and Netherlands - qualifying for the main draw. Joining them are Nepal, UAE and Hong Kong. The two countries I play cricket in, Canada and the United States, finished 12th and 15th in the 16-team competition.

Both countries are vast, with large immigrant populations, and thousands of club cricketers across dozens of leagues. Reactions to the national teams' sub-par showing have ranged from anger and concern to resignation, depending on who you talk to. Canada Cricket published an open letter to its fans and supporters on its website, sympathising with their disappointment and looking ahead to the future. It then sacked the national team's coach, Gus Logie. In the United States there has been no official comment, but the disappointment of the cricket cognoscenti is for all to see.

I have played with most of the USA's national players and some of the Canadians. The players are giving their best. If it seems like an unequal contest out there, that's because it is. Some Associate nations' players have opportunities and resources, others do not. You'll be surprised to know that the cricketers of Canada and the United States, both G8 nations, are among the have-nots.

These are vast countries with thousands of cricketers and dozens of leagues. Why can they not produce 15 players who can compete with much smaller nations like Ireland, Netherlands, Hong Kong and Nepal?

It's because the vastness of land and large number of cricketers are actually a burden when you don't have the financial resources to organise this raw talent spread across thousands of miles. A sizeable pool of cricketers is important, but the wherewithal to identify the best among them, and organise and train the select few, are more important. In India, with all its cricketing riches, such infrastructure exists only in the larger cities. If population was all that mattered, New Zealand as a nation would have given up on cricket decades ago.

The USA has an estimated 30,000 club cricketers. There are probably a couple dozen leagues that have more than 20 teams each. I know club cricketers in Boston, New York, Washington DC, Atlanta, Orlando, Miami, Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, Dallas, Houston, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, all playing in leagues with 20 to 50 teams each. So much cricket yet so little funding and such a paucity of resources required to promote, organise and streamline it all into a giant funnel through which emerges a quality national side.

I'm hard-pressed to even name 15 cities in other Associate countries let alone 15 cities with more than 20 cricket clubs each. Their funnels are minuscule in comparison, and relatively easily constructed. The scale in Canada is similar to that of the USA. Canada too is a vast country, with several major cities and dozens of cricket leagues.

This is where I empathise with the USACA, in that the lack of organised cricket is due to the size/scale of the country and the lack of adequate finances, rather than an inability on the administrators' part to conduct, say, an eight-team tournament on an annual basis.

Take, for example, the small matter of bringing the national team together for a camp. In the United States, international-class cricket facilities exist only in Florida and California. The 15 amateur players comprising the national team, however, live all over this vast country. It is not feasible to have them all fly over to Florida for more than a weekend or two a year.

A national team that only meets and trains together once or twice a year! Smaller Associate nations don't have this problem. I don't imagine it's too hard to round up the national teams of Hong Kong or Scotland or Ireland or Nepal for training camps. None of those players needs to take $500 round-trip flights across three or four time zones. And this is just a national camp. There are similarly prohibitive costs associated with hosting a national tournament, regional tournaments (regional meaning merely two time zones away, not four), youth cricket and women's cricket, all involving far more than 15 individuals.

Another way in which USA and Canada are disadvantaged is in terms of their lack of proximity to a Full Member country's cricket facilities. The Ireland, Scotland, and Netherlands players can theoretically travel weekly to England to avail Test-class facilities, gain exposure in competitive leagues, and get access to expert coaches. Nepal borders the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, which have first-class teams and international venues. Kabul is as far from Peshawar as Washington DC is from Philadelphia. Namibian Under-19 cricketers played next door in South Africa last month.

The nearest Test- or first-class level cricket from New York, on the other hand, is probably a five-to-six-hour flight away in the West Indies. From Chicago and Los Angeles, it's even further. Indeed, a large fraction of Irish and Afghan national cricketers are professionals because they have access to professional leagues relatively close to home. On the other hand, there is no professional cricketer in the USA.

Mohammed Shami's father sent his son 800 miles away to Kolkata. There is not a single turf pitch within 800 miles of Seattle, let alone an Eden Gardens

Perhaps we aren't that talented. On the other hand, if George Dockrell or Mohammad Shahzad had been born in Seattle, they couldn't have become world-class players simply by playing weekend club cricket in Seattle. They can do so only with access to first-class coaching, facilities and competitions, all of which are several thousands of miles away. Mohammed Shami's father sent his son 800 miles away to Kolkata. Whereas, there is not even a single turf pitch within 800 miles of Seattle, let alone an Eden Gardens.

Given these challenges, I feel the ICC could do a bit more to assist cricket in North America financially. A lot of the ICC's funding, like the TAPP (Targeted Assistance and Performance Programme) dollars given to Ireland, Afghanistan, Scotland and Netherlands, is performance-based. There is no question those countries' boards and their national squads have proven themselves worthy of this funding with their sterling performances. (Or, in Ireland's case, Stirling's performances.)

But in my opinion there should also be another consideration to TAPP and other ICC grants: means. Cricketers in North America don't have the means to compete with their counterparts in other Associate nations, largely because of the burden of size mentioned above. A dollar sent to the US has to be shared among way more cricketers and cricket centres than one sent to a much smaller country.

Now I'll be the first to admit that the USA's cricket administrators have seldom proven themselves worthy of receiving financial assistance. The USACA was suspended more than once by the ICC in the last decade, and after readmittance in 2009, once again managed to get what little funding it receives from the ICC cut off. Any income from the deal with Cricket Holdings America has yet to hit the grassroots. So even as I write that funding for cricket is inadequate in the United States, I wonder why anyone would trust us with extra funds. Then again, the ICC also rejected Cricket Canada's TAPP application, and I don't think Canada's administrators are inept.

So between the ICC not being sympathetic to the unique challenges of cricket in North America and the USA's bungling administrators is the small matter of tens of thousands of players left to their own devices to train for, and when chosen compete at, the international level. They are the true have-nots of Associate cricket.

The result could be observed at the World Twenty20 qualifiers: amateur cricketers who don't (in the USA) have a regional and national hierarchy, who receive minimal training, up against the might of trained professionals. In attempting to bridge the gap between the Associates and the Full Member teams, the ICC has ended up creating a vast gulf among the Associates.

In discussing the haves and have-nots of Associate cricket, I am reminded of a conversation some of us USA players had with Afghanistan fast bowler Shapoor Zadran in 2011 during a tournament in Toronto. Zadran gave us a vivid glimpse into the life of a professional fast bowler: he told us what he ate for breakfast and dinner each day, how many laps he ran daily, how many hours he bowled. He spoke with great pride of representing Afghan people all over the world. He was also grateful for the comforts of life the sport afforded him. (As an aside, he had flown business class to Toronto; the US players had flown economy.)

Then he asked us how we practised. How we practise is: we steal an hour of batting or bowling once or twice a week after an eight-hour work day, and play club cricket locally over weekends, since two days isn't enough to travel and play anywhere else in these massive countries. Finally he asked us how much we were being paid for the tour. We told him we weren't getting a dime, although the Canada and USA boards together were graciously covering all our travel and expenses. He was taken aback at our poverty.

At the end of the day, it was clear to everyone that Zadran was a serious professional and we a bunch of weekend cricketers. He was playing big cricket, which no cricketer in the USA has the wherewithal to.

Samarth Shah is a software engineer in Seattle. He played three matches for the USA national team in 2011