When the ICC took the decision to expel the USACA midway through 2017, it was the most tangible representation that the country was getting a clean slate for its cricket. More tangible signs followed later in the year when a new logo and website were unfurled for the new governing body, USA Cricket.
But given the opportunity to start with a clean slate when it comes to a successful national team selection strategy, which they appeared to do to break the country's Auty Cup drought in 2017, USA Cricket's first move in 2018 has drifted toward "more of the same" from the old USACA regime. Specifically, it's the tried and mostly failed strategy of calling upon former internationals and former first-class professionals to rescue USA from the Division Three doldrums and take them to the promised land of ODI status.
In the past, this selection strategy was semi-restrained thanks to the maximum of two four-year resident players in a starting XI under the ICC's formerly stringent eligibility guidelines. But the lifting of that rule, along with a lowering of the ICC's residency eligibility threshold from four years to three, has resulted in the selection strategy being hopped up on amphetamines with Xavier Marshall, Saurabh Netravalkar and Sunny Sohal rushed straight into the USA squad all at once.
When such a player - or three - with overseas professional experience appears, administrators and selectors tend to lose all self-control, believing Christmas has come early. Giddy with excitement, they go to bed dreaming of more sugarplum pros dancing in their heads. But USA's cricket has been stuck in a very, very long winter nap and when these administrators spring up from their beds, tear up the shutters and throw up the sash, they never find a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer pulling a bundle of World Cup appearances with them.
The reality is that the strategy of picking former internationals from other countries who have made USA their new home has rarely led to success for the country. Two of the most prominent examples of the failed strategy have come in the last five years at ICC qualification tournaments.
After Orlando Baker captained USA to an 8-0 record in the ICC Americas regional qualifier in March 2013, he was pushed aside in favour of 41-year-old former West Indies spinner Neil McGarrell for the World T20 Qualifier that November. Despite having already demonstrated fitness issues due to his advanced age - he broke down with a hamstring injury in the final match of round-robin play against Bermuda at WCL Division Three - McGarrell was retained for the T20 Qualifier in the UAE where he took two wickets in five games before missing the last two matches due to injury. USA also cut loose younger fast bowlers in favor of 38-year-old former West Indies quick Adam Sanford, who finished with three wickets in three games as USA finished last in their group with a 1-5 record.
A year later, USACA selectors rolled the dice on Jermaine Lawson, whose West Indies career never got back on track after he was reported for a suspect bowling action, first in 2003 and then again in 2005. When he toured Malaysia with USA for WCL Division Three in October 2014, he did so with a pinched nerve in his bowling arm. After three matches, the nerve ailment flared up and he could no longer take the field, leaving USA a bowler short in a tournament where they finished in the bottom two, relegated to Division Four. Like McGarrell and Sanford, Lawson hasn't been heard from again.
When USA has resisted the urge to call all former West Indian hands on deck, they have actually fared not so badly. At the 2015 World T20 Qualifier in Ireland, a very young side nearly qualified for the main event in India despite missing their best player in batsman Steven Taylor - who was with Barbados Tridents at the CPL. USA went 3-3 in group play, giving Ireland a serious fight in a pivotal loss before notching wins over Papua New Guinea and eventual qualifiers Hong Kong. Of the 15-man squad, seven were former USA U-19 players while another five had represented regional U-19 sides at USACA junior tournaments.
The one rare but very significant success USA achieved that administrators can point at to show the expat ringer strategy can work was all the way back in 2004 when 42-year-old Clayton Lambert was drafted into the USA squad to make his debut at the ICC Six-Nations Challenge in the UAE. Lambert finished as USA's leading scorer with 214 runs at an average of 107 as USA beat out Canada, Netherlands, Scotland, Namibia and UAE for a spot at the 2004 Champions Trophy.
Yet, USA's subsequent Champions Trophy performance featuring a squad flooded with over-40s like Lambert undid all that goodwill and provided an equally strong counterargument to the merits of relying on West Indian and South Asian expats who are past their use-by date. Lopsided losses to New Zealand and Australia, and the strident criticism that followed from Ricky Ponting, arguably contributed to Associates never again being part of the tournament.
The glass-half-full view of the current USA squad compared to previous incarnations that included players such as Lambert, McGarrell and Sanford is that unlike those three, Marshall (age 31) Netravalkar (26) and Sohal (30) all have time and fitness on their side. Their selection for the upcoming West Indies Super50 is not meant to be a one-and-done roll of the dice to reclaim past glory but ideally the first stage of a lengthy partnership between the parties.
In particular, Netravalkar's story arc is similar to that of another former India Under-19 player who made a new life for himself in the USA in his early 20s, Sushil Nadkarni. In neither case was the player past their prime when they left India but instead it can be argued they intentionally opted to forego a professional cricket career in favor of furthering their education in America. Nadkarni averaged over 50 in one-day cricket in an illustrious career for USA from 2006 to 2014 after making his debut as a 30-year-old and Netravalkar has the capacity over time to make an equally significant impact with the ball.
But the appeal to recruit the services of Netravalkar, Sohal and Marshall is the what. Of greater concern is the why. Why is there a desire to continue seeking out these types of players when they immediately become eligible instead of giving more opportunities to locally developed talent?
A big reason is that the existing infrastructure fails to not only develop talent, but in some ways has a noticeably detrimental effect, tearing down skills and techniques established in better conditions. This is seen in multiple areas: lack of 50-over competitions, too many teams and the consequent thinning out of talent within premier divisions, lack of turf wickets, and poorly maintained outfields.
When it comes to the false impression local infrastructure can have on batting and bowling, a good example is batsman Fahad Babar. He has scored multiple double-hundreds in league cricket, including 278 in a 30-over match a few years ago. But after a hot start to his national-team career he began to cool off late in 2016. In an effort to improve his game, USA coach Pubudu Dassanayake organized a seven-match stint in the B Division of Sri Lanka's first-class competition. Babar totaled 187 runs in 14 innings with a best of 36. It highlighted the gulf in standards that exist between Chicago league cricket - 30-over matches played on artificial wickets - compared to matches utilising internationally regulated conditions.
Current USA captain Ibrahim Khaleel openly admits to avoiding Chicago league cricket, save a few matches, instead choosing to focus mainly on net sessions, fitness and mental preparation ahead of tournaments with USA. After a lengthy Ranji Trophy career with Hyderabad, Khaleel believes playing on non-turf wickets adversely affects his technique. Former USA bowler Usman Shuja, the country's leading wicket-taker in one-day cricket, similarly chose to play only a handful of club matches a year in Texas because he felt the casual approach of league opposition hindered his national-team preparation.
Another case in point about the quality of American club cricket is allrounder Nisarg Patel. He left California in 2007 to attend university in England partly to help develop his game. He was a leading performer in the Essex League, taking 31 wickets in 2012, just three behind New Zealand legspinner Todd Astle. When he returned to Los Angeles, Nisarg put in a dominant performance at the 2014 USACA National Championship in Florida and was named tournament MVP.
But a quirk in the ICC's eligibility guidelines meant that despite having played for USA at the 2006 Under-19 World Cup, Nisarg had to re-qualify due to spending too much time out of the USA while getting his bachelors and masters degrees in the UK. By the time he was called up to play for USA's senior team in 2017, his game had stagnated partly due to a watered-down league standard, even though he is playing in a 50-over competition in Los Angeles on the best turf-wicket facilities in the country. If that is the case for Nisarg, what hope is there for players like Babar or anyone else to close the gap at international level by playing less than 50 overs on artificial wickets against substandard league-level opposition?
So it's no wonder the default fallback route is to call on the likes of Marshall, Netravalkar and Sohal, not to mention the recently installed 35-year-old Khaleel as captain along with Roy Silva, the 37-year-old former first-class pro from Sri Lanka. And if they can help propel USA up to Division One, a spot in the WCL Championship and 2020 World T20 over the next 24 months, there's a strong chance opportunities for local talent will be even tougher to come by.
As has happened in other Associate teams like Netherlands, the appeal for passport holders to get exposure by testing their skills at high-profile events such as the World T20 may spark interest and availability in US citizens playing overseas. Among those already known to be on the USA radar is 22-year-old Durham opening batsman Cameron Steel, who impressed with a best of 77 in the Royal London One-Day Cup against a Test-standard Nottinghamshire bowling unit before scoring 224 in the County Championship later in the summer against Leicestershire.
Other US citizens plying their skills abroad include 27-year-old Victoria and Hampshire seam-bowling Ian Holland, 23-year-old former Canterbury Under-19 batsman David Wakefield, 19-year-old Surrey junior and former USA Under-19 captain Alex Shoff and 27-year-old New South Wales-based spinning allrounder Ryan Corns, who represented USA at the 2010 Under-19 World Cup and the senior team from 2011 to 2013 and is now excelling with Sydney Cricket Club in grade cricket. The examples of Corns and Shoff support Dassanayake's recent call for USA's junior players to raise their game by training and playing overseas. Anyone without significant overseas experience is behind the eight-ball.
USACA received much-deserved blame for failing to rectify long-standing infrastructural woes. Former Associates such as Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Ireland, who were all behind USA through the 1980s and 90s, worked hard at cultivating strong infrastructures that allowed them to leave USA in their wake.
The onus is now on the new USA Cricket administration to get things right. It won't happen overnight and will take significant public and private financial support, but until they begin to address core issues such as infrastructure development and streamlining standards of play across leagues around the country, the cycle of local players overlooked in favor of expat ringers will understandably carry on.