When the ICC revised its player eligibility guidelines, the intent was to simplify residency restrictions for non-citizen players hoping to represent their adopted country. However, in the case of USA and potentially other expat-centric squads such as UAE and Oman, it has the potential to overshadow homegrown junior development in favour of expediency via ex-professionals migrating from overseas.
It is in this context that USA coach Pubudu Dassanayake has sought to allay fears about the direction of the USA squad following the announcement of the 14-man squad last week that is heading to Antigua at the end of the month to participate in the West Indies Regional Super50 tournament. Dassanayake has said players and fans need to embrace the reality that in the high-stakes promotion and relegation atmosphere of Associate cricket, coaches and administrators are under strong pressure to pick their best eligible XI.
"Everything is all about making this team ready for the next World Cricket League Division Three and T20 World Cup Qualifier," Dassanayake told ESPNcricinfo. "In three to four years' time, I'm pretty sure we will build some home-grown youngsters into the international level. But at this point, we need some help from these expat players for us to come out of these divisions. Once we reach Division One and when we are settled down there, I'll be very happy to see a few youngsters coming through the system to pump into the team.
"But, currently, because of the club cricket set-up in the USA, the development is very slow when you compare it to international level. I have to find a balance for that but I'm always a very supportive person for homegrown players...but it's just that for the next one to two years, I need to find performers for the international level."
Notably, the squad for the Super50 includes three players - former West Indies international Xavier Marshall and former India Under-19s Saurabh Netravalkar and Sunny Sohal - who come with strong pedigree but who would all have been ineligible under the former ICC player residency guidelines which state a player needs to have been resident for four years prior to representing a new country. Each player meets the new three-year threshold.
Along similar lines, three more players - Jaskaran Malhotra, Nisarg Patel and Roy Silva - met the four-year guideline but not the seven-year rule that had been in place. Prior rules stated only two players could be in any starting XI who were resident for four years but not seven, but that restriction has been lifted. It means USA could be fielding as many as three times the former maximum allotment in a starting XI at this tournament.
In the process, US citizen players such as Ravi Timbawala, Abdullah Syed and Sagar Patel, who have all come through USA's junior pathways, have been dropped. According to Dassanayake, inconsistency was a factor in leaving them out after all three were part of the squad for USA's recent tour of the UAE and Oman but that he still has faith that they will continue to be a part of future plans. Dassanayake also said there are plans to have a fresh wave of combine trials, starting in March, ahead of the anticipated launch of a national tournament later in the year, giving opportunities for them to force their way back into the squad ahead of WCL Division Three.
"We want some kind of stability in the batting order," Dassanayake said. "It's not that we've taken them totally out. I'm really impressed with how Abdullah is shaping up. He was in Toronto last week and he looks like he's improving every time, but I'm looking for stability at the top of the order. But I want to see Abdullah, Ravi, Sagar work hard and find a way to come back."
Aside from locally developed players being left out, there has also been criticism on social media from various regional coaches and players who claim that the selection of Marshall, Netravalkar and Sohal subverted a standardised trial process over the past few years conducted through the ICC Combines. However, USA selection chairman Ricardo Powell previously told ESPNcricinfo that the Combines were "just the start" of player evaluation process and "not the end of the road".
As such, Dassanayake says he has made recommendations to selectors when someone has caught his eye as in the case of Netravalkar. The left-arm medium-pacer was part of a Southern California Cricket Association XI last May that defeated USA in a national team warm-up match in Los Angeles prior to their tour of Uganda for WCL Division Three. Dassanayake says selectors had consulted with him after seeing the incoming batsmen perform at numerous independently organised T20 tournaments played around the country, such as the annual US Open in Florida.
"From the first day that I was here, batting has been the issue and our top order very rarely has put runs on the board for the bowlers," Dassanayake said. "So looking to set up the batting line-up, I've seen a few times Sunny and Xavier Marshall and Jaskaran. As soon as I heard that they're qualified to play, I think this may be the only big tournament we'll have before the next Division Three so I thought it would be the best time to check out these guys.
"I'm excited to see how these top three will handle this tournament. I would say this tournament will be higher quality than WCL tournaments so it's going to be a good test. Having said that, there's still a few more players in the pipeline. Of course, Steven [Taylor] will be coming back when we play big tournaments. So looking at all these guys I'll be able to make a decision who will be our best four, five, six batters. I suggested to Ricardo and I think all the selectors were very happy to [listen] to my request."
Another obstacle for locally produced players is the infrastructure in place. Dassanayake has been vocal since the start of his tenure about the need for regional administrators to get serious about adopting 50-over premier divisions in their local leagues as opposed to the standard 40-over set-up in most places.
Dassanayake says several players from the squad that competed in this past summer's Under-19 World Cup Qualifier in Toronto came close to being selected for the tour of the West Indies. However, their best option for improvement may be to go overseas to speed up their development. Dassanayake mentioned Vivek Narayan as an example - the New Jersey batsman enrolled at university in London in September - of the path that may need to be taken until the domestic infrastructure improves.
"I'm really keen to develop these local players. Some of them who were in Canada and in the Middle East, they got decent opportunities, but I feel they also need to play lots of high quality cricket to learn to perform at this level," Dassanayake said. "Guys who are really knocking the door, I want them to go play cricket in different countries to get more experience and exposure. I'll personally be looking into those areas to get opportunities for our players. From the Under-19 squad, Vivek Narayan is already in England studying and playing cricket.
"Canada survived in the [ODI] system for a while because of the Toronto District League 50-over tournament they have. It goes for 16 weekends, played on turf, and every team has two or three foreign players. It's very competitive, even though the quality needs to improve, but 80% of the national players are involved in that tournament and I think that's one reason Canada has stayed at that level for a while. When you take the USA, we don't have good 50-over competitions. In Los Angeles, they just last year started playing 50-over cricket, but I'm not satisfied [with the set-up]. We have five national players in that league and four of them are in one team. So the competition is one-sided.
"When I was in Dallas last year, the DPL was a very competitive, good tournament. I watched some of their league cricket, 40-over games, and saw some good competition. We need to find a way to align these tournaments to the national level where everyone is playing 50 overs, white ball, coloured clothing and on turf. We have to have turf pitches so our younger players can develop. New York area has so much competition and there are lots of good players around there but they are playing on matting. Those things have to change."