USA coach Pubudu Dassanayake credits the Under-19 team's attitude in a runner-up finish to Canada at the Under-19 World Cup Qualifier in July as a key factor in reshaping the men's unit that achieved Auty Cup success over Canada last week for the first time in 26 years.
"I think it's so important that every player who comes into this group, they have to play for the team and the team is first," Dassanayake told ESPNcricinfo after USA's 2-1 series victory over Canada last week. "Anybody who comes in from now on has to play for the team and it's not about any individual. The Under-19 unit actually showed that with their limited capability.
"They gave a hard time to the Canada Under-19 team and this group is also moving in the same direction. I think that sets the whole USA cricket into getting into that culture. You can be the best player in the country or have performed in the best way but the important thing is you need to fit into the group and respect the rest of the group. In the future, I hope every USA player that comes in aligns with that culture."
Dassanayake picked out the USA Under-19 side's four-wicket win over a heavily favoured Canada in the first round of the double round-robin U-19 World Cup Qualifier in Toronto. On a helpful wicket, USA's seamers ripped through Canada for 63 and in the process bowled 21 maidens. This after Dassanayake was regularly frustrated with the senior team in Uganda in May at Division Three for their indisciplined bowling lines that made it difficult to set any field.
Despite having far less talent, the Under-19 players showed far more discipline. Their fielding was also exceptional, with a highlight-reel catch from Awais Mubarak making the rounds on the US edition of Sportscenter's Top 10 plays. Canada Under-19 beat USA in the return match to claim the Americas region spot in the 2018 Under-19 World Cup, but Dassanayake said even in defeat his team's battling in the second game gave him the blueprint for what he wanted from the men going forward.
"The Under-19 tournament was an eye-opener for me because when I look at USA cricket and especially the national team, I thought changing this culture was a long way off," Dassanayake said. "But suddenly when I saw this young group working together to want to win, I thought if these guys can do it, why can't the next group do it and start the same?
"It really opened my eyes to say 'you know what, this is how we're going to move forward with the senior cricketers as well.' So that influenced me to force some things in the senior group and I think it's working pretty well, especially with the captain Ibrahim Khaleel, who is in the same line with me about how we want to move forward."
After failing to gain promotion at Division Three in May, Dassanayake and the USA selection panel, headed by Ricardo Powell, enacted a series of major changes, naming Khaleel as new captain to replace Steven Taylor, whose priorities have shifted toward the West Indies. Meanwhile, Taylor's fellow CPL-contracted players Timroy Allen and Akeem Dodson were dropped along with Alex Amsterdam, the team's leading scorer at Division Four last year. Khaleel felt there was no doubt in the selectors' eyes that the team sent to the Auty Cup was a first-choice USA squad in spite of the individual star-power absent.
"Whatever people say, the coaches and selectors have said it's the 14 best at this time and that's the only reason they believed in that and gave us this team," Khaleel said. "They know what is the best decision for this team to take, whatever players are the best to take, and most importantly we delivered it. The credit goes to the selectors and coach to give us a free hand to do whatever we're comfortable at.
"It's a great feeling winning the Auty Cup after 26 years. I think it was a great team effort and I think we just kept it simple. We learned from the second game that we were not disciplined and I think in the third game that was the plan: to go back to the first game, how we bowled a disciplined line, just keep it tight and see where it goes from there. I really want to dedicate this tournament win to [USA high performance manager] Tom Evans, Pubudu and all the selectors who believed in this team and believed in me as captain."
Both Khaleel and Dassanayake pinpointed left-arm spinner Nosthush Kenjige as a significant catalyst in the team's changing dynamic. Making his debut on the tour of Uganda, the 26-year-old was at times inconsistent but showed flashes of his capability in taking seven wickets in six games to finish second on tour while also showcasing his electric fielding at backward point. Kenjige stepped up his bowling in the Auty Cup, leading the team with seven wickets in three games including a hat-trick in the second match.
"I think Nosh, compared to [the tournament in] Uganda has improved his consistency," Khaleel said. "He's giving less runs and every ball he bowls looks like it will be a wicket-taking ball. I think that helped him get so many wickets at this tournament. I really liked his attitude and his approach. I think he's one of the best left-arm spinners in the USA and I think he's going to play for a very long time."
Though USA's next ICC qualification tournaments are not expected to begin until midway through 2018, Dassanayake says the Auty Cup win should serve as a springboard to further success. The USA coach is working with ICC Americas caretaker staff to facilitate a tour of the UAE for November in conjunction with leading Associate sides' participation for the final round of the WCL Championship, and is aiming to use that as another development opportunity to keep moulding a new identity for USA.
"We have informed all the players even before this tournament of the direction we want to move forward with the national team," Dassanayake said. "So we set up some standards: we had given details on how to move forward and the tournaments we are having in the next 15 months. We're not going to wait 12 months to build the team for the next Division Three or the T20 World Cup Qualifier. We're going to build the team from now.
"So when we're starting a new pathway to get this win, it's a fabulous feeling. Of course, winning the Auty Cup is one thing but for a new group to come in to win, that has set the platform for us for the next 15 months."