When Cush comes to shove
When Guyana take on Royal Challengers Bangalore on Sunday, there will be a tremendous amount of support from fans back home on the northern coast of South America. But because of one player in the team, they'll have support stretching across the Caribbean to North America as well.
Lennox Cush, a senior member of the Guyana squad, is the only player participating in the Champions League who plays for the USA national team. While he came up through the Guyana system as a hard-hitting batsman and still plays in the top order for the United States, he has demonstrated all-round skills by morphing into an attacking offspin bowler for Guyana in Twenty20. In a squad with an average age just under 27, Cush's versatility, experience and spirit are a definite plus for the captain, Ramnaresh Sarwan.
"Obviously we use him as a bowler, but of course I think he's one of the individuals that's very focused, very fun," said Sarwan. "He always brings a certain type of spirit to the team and everyone welcomes him because he's so funny. I think it's always good to have someone like that in your team."
There have been a few bumps on Cush's road to playing in front of a worldwide audience, but he's managed to hold on to his big smile all this time.
He was brought up in Georgetown with his four sisters by a single mother. "It was a mess," says Cush. "It was kind of tough because our mother was left to fend for us. Things turned out well, but at the end of the day she's the one that should be taking all the praise." Sadly, Cush's mother died from kidney failure only a month after he made his first-class debut against Windward Islands in 1996.
"When it had happened, he took it very hard, like, I think, every other person would," reflected Sarwan, who has known Cush very well for more than 15 years. "His mum was such a loving and caring person, and she was such a good mum to him. She taught him the right things in life. Obviously she wasn't there to see him play on a consistent basis, but I think it kind of motivated him to try and see what he can achieve. Even when we're playing cards sometimes, he brings up his mother's name. It shows obviously that he still thinks about her and he holds her very close to his heart."
Cush started to achieve more in 1998 during the domestic one-day competition. In the Red Stripe Bowl Final, he took a catch that dismissed Leeward Islands captain Stuart Williams, before taking 4 for 37 to bowl Guyana to the title.
After some solid batting performances playing league cricket in England during the summer of 1999, he was looking forward to building on his success for Guyana and pushing for a place in the West Indies side when a freak accident curtailed those plans.
"I was just kidding around with a little relative of mine in New York and he ran behind me," says Cush, motioning to show how his right knee wound up being dislocated. He points to the sizeable surgical scars that trace the outside of his knee. "I didn't know the seriousness of it. I just told him to pull it, turn it back into place. You can imagine that. I blacked out two times in five minutes."
All of his ligaments had been damaged and he wound up needing two surgeries three months apart and missing the entire 1999-2000 season.
"I think he was very close," surmised Sarwan when asked if Cush could have made it into the West Indies team had he not suffered such a devastating injury. "His knee, that was a big setback for his career."
A few years after recovering, Cush reached his best form with the bat during the 2001-02 season, scoring two centuries while averaging 39 in the domestic four-day competition. But it wasn't enough to crack the West Indies side and by 2005 he had played his last four-day and one-day games for Guyana.
The following year he had qualified to play for the USA. He had become a permanent resident, having met the woman who would become his wife in New York and married her there in 2001. He was selected to play for America for the first time at the 2006 ICC Americas Division One Tournament held in Canada.
The emergence of the Stanford Twenty20 competition, though, breathed life back into his Guyana career. In the second edition, held in 2008, he was the second highest wicket-taker in the tournament, with eight in three games, and he was drafted into the Stanford Superstars team. However, he sustained another knee injury during the training camp, this time to his left anterior cruciate ligament. He gave it a go against Middlesex, but when it came time for the grand finale against England, he failed a fitness test and didn't get to participate in the Superstars' ten-wicket romp.
Almost two years later, it appears that Cush is finally going to get his chance on a big stage. So far he has been having a golden summer. It started with his performance in July at the Caribbean T20, where he formed a potent spin combination with Devendra Bishoo to help Guyana win the title. Cush was the leading wicket-taker in the tournament, with 11 in four games, including a hat-trick against Combined Campuses and Colleges.
Three weeks later he helped USA win the ICC World Cricket League Division Four in Italy, where he was named Man of the Match in the final against the hosts. He opened USA's chase and rampaged his way to his first century in a red-white-and-blue uniform, notching 101 off 57 balls with 14 fours and four sixes in his team's eight-wicket victory.
It may have been a 50-over game but he was already prepping himself for Twenty20 mode in the Champions League. He'll be batting down the order for Guyana, but his team should feel confident that he's capable of scoring runs if needed.
"I think we've got a very strong batting line-up and he's being picked mainly for his bowling in this team," said Sarwan. "But I think it's important that because we have a few experienced guys and a few inexperienced guys, we want to try and spread them out and allow everyone to be able to handle situations. I think Lennox batting at that position, if we were in trouble, I think he would be a good player for the situation and probably guide us through it."
Cush hopes that he will serve as an inspiration for players from the USA to strive for bigger and better things in the future and hope that they too might get to stand toe to toe one day with some of the biggest stars in the game. "I think knowing that they can be there sometime or at some point is an added motivation for them, and me playing there, I think that will help them to even play harder to get to that level and bring US cricket to that level," says Cush.
In the meantime Sarwan is just happy to have Cush healthy and with a smile on his face and believes that he will be a key ingredient for a successful two weeks in South Africa.
"My mindset is to enjoy myself, give it my best and just enjoy the cricket," says Cush on his mental approach to the tournament. "Whatever I'm doing - batting, bowling or fielding - just enjoy it, take the pressure off of myself."
Fans on two continents are hoping that mindset will lead to triumph for Cush and Guyana in the Champions League.
Peter Della Penna is a journalist based in New Jersey