"On any given Sunday, any team can beat any other team." This famous American sports quote belongs to Bert Bell, former commissioner of the NFL. After the last week in Hong Kong, it's also a harsh reminder for the USA cricket fraternity that no matter how much talent USA has, taking a blasé approach to preparation and underestimating the strength of any opposition can result in devastating consequences.
Steve Massiah, the captain, came into the ICC WCL Division Three confident that his team would make it three straight promotions to move up into Division Two. While the tournament was an opportunity for the players to stand tall against tougher competition, administrators back home were keeping fingers crossed that the team would advance again because of the increased ICC funding at stake.
Knowing that five of the last six tournament hosts had finished in the top two and been promoted to the next division, a lot was riding on USA's first encounter against Hong Kong. Rising to the occasion, Massiah led from the front with an unbeaten 97 to chase down 256 in a seven-wicket win.
The next day against Denmark, cracks that had been papered over from previous tours became visible again when USA's habitually poor fielding habits reared their ugly head. Denmark captain Michael Pedersen was dropped on 23, 46 and 70 on his way to 78 not out in his team's 193 for 6. The US players walked around at the innings break like it was no big deal and that after the previous day's batting performance, a win could virtually be chalked up.
They started the chase easily enough, going at better than five an over through the initial Powerplay. But it all came crashing down. The team was at 84 for 2 with a well-set Carl Wright and Lennox Cush fairly new to the crease. With five men now on the boundary, all that was needed was to knock the ball around for ones and twos. Instead, Cush went for an outlandish heave against Pedersen's flighted off-spin that resulted in a top edge taken at mid-on.
What followed was a spectacular collapse against a less talented opponent, but one who had more discipline and mental strength than USA could muster. In the process, USA not only lost by 30 runs, but had to go the rest of the tournament without their most dependable batsman and leading scorer from 2010, Aditya Thyagarajan. He had sprained his left ankle in the field and then dislocated his right patella while overcompensating for leverage on the delivery that bowled him. If only the men before him had batted responsibly, his ankle would have been allowed to rest, heal, and in 36 hours, would have been ready for the next game. Instead, he was lost for the tournament and USA's batting lineup turned into a rudderless ship.
While Cush's shot against Pedersen was worthy of a banishment to seven years in the wilderness ala Damien Martyn, he was instead rewarded with a promotion to open the batting for the next two games, where he scored 0 and 0 to set the platform for USA to be dismissed for 44 against Papua New Guinea and stutter to 20 for 7 against Oman. Only a tail-end Houdini act by Usman Shuja and Asif Khan saw USA past Oman to keep the country's promotion dream alive.
Unfortunately, USA's sorry fielding came back to haunt them versus Italy. When the two teams first met last August at Division Four in Bologna, USA had failed to convert a handful of chances, none more costly than when Peter Petricola was on 3 before he went on to make 85 in a 51-run win for the Italians. During the pivotal encounter in Hong Kong, USA dropped another three chances, including a Petricola edge that was put down by wicketkeeper Wright on 30. One match after finishing 104 not out against Hong Kong, Petricloa finished 69 not out to go along with 4 for 38 in the first innings, leading Italy to victory by four wickets. In the process, he knocked USA back to Division Four.
In a press release that appeared only hours after USA had been relegated, USACA announced that it had hired Robin Singh to coach the Under-19 squad at February's ICC Americas U-19 event in Florida. In a not so subtle message to Clayton Lambert that his time as USA senior coach is probably up, the release stated that "it is expected that his role may expand to include coaching USA national teams in other upcoming ICC-sanctioned tournaments."
Lambert has done a commendable job in the last few years. Under his leadership, USA has won three tournaments, finished runner-up in two others and also won resoundingly against ODI-nation Scotland at the 2010 World Twenty20 Qualifier. However, his decision-making in Hong Kong was not up to scratch.
When asked after the loss to Denmark about the form of 20-year-old off-spinner Muhammad Ghous, who was only given one over to bowl by the captain, Lambert replied, "Ghous has been our best bowler. He's only had one bad game really so we shouldn't be panicking." Sometime in the 36 hours that followed, the panic button was pressed and USA's "best bowler" was benched for the next three games.
In a move that outraged fans and administrators back in America, Lambert not only added 46-year-old assistant coach Howard Johnson to the playing squad after the injury to Thyagarajan, he also put him in the starting XI to open the bowling against Papua New Guinea. ICC officials at the tournament felt duped after it was insinuated by team management the day before that he would only be used as a substitute fielder if necessary. One official said they would have never approved the addition of Johnson to the squad if they knew what USA's actual plans were.
"Other than Howard Johnson's age, if he's up for trials or selection, he can walk into the team," was Lambert's justification, even though fast bowler Durale Forrest was in the squad and waiting to make his debut. When prodded further to explain why he would risk destroying Forrest's confidence with such a maneuver, Lambert responded, "What would happen if Chanderpaul was the assistant coach? Would that damage the confidence of the players?"
Lambert also said that the team needed a new-ball bowler to support Kevin Darlington against PNG because Shuja wasn't providing enough support at the other end. He also said that Johnson was the right man to do it because Forrest was brought on tour to be a first-change option. Who wound up opening the bowling for USA in two of their final three games? You guessed it, Durale Forrest.
The management follies continued against Italy. USA posted 222 for 8 and after 41 overs, Italy were 180 for 5 needing another 43 more. Johnson, back in his role as assistant coach, wandered over to the scorers and media area to ask how fast Italy would need to win in order to pass USA on net run rate, totally oblivious to the fact that Italy already enjoyed a 0.638 advantage on USA at the start of the day.
Changes aplenty are in order now. For several of the older players, this was probably their last tour and in the next year, younger talent must be given their chance to get more experience. Massiah acknowledged as much after the loss to Italy. A silver lining in the defeat was the assured 30 scored by 20-year-old Ryan Corns at first drop on debut. While Massiah was packing up his kit, he lifted his head in the direction of the South Africa-born Corns and said, "This is your era now Jo'burg."
More importantly, USACA would be well advised to take a hint from PNG coach Andy Bichel regarding its selection policy. USACA has a long established habit of choosing players based on reputation, with scant consideration given to form, dedication or attitude. Bichel was asked after his team thrashed USA why PNG was having so much success in Hong Kong and said, "It's about performance. If you perform, you'll be in this team. It's a great environment to create. If we can build that performance-based attitude, that's a very healthy one."
Division Four is more than a year away so USACA has to start working now in order to produce a respectable squad in time for that event. The next tournament scheduled for the senior team is this July in Toronto. If one of the lessons learned in the past week harkened back to the words of Bert Bell, another piece of wisdom that would be useful for everyone involved in US cricket to draw on comes from coaching legend Vince Lombardi: "The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary."