In the build-up to USA's primary ICC tournament assignment for 2018, the World Cricket League Division Three, repairing a hole in the middle order has been put at the top of their coach Pubudu Dassanayake's to-do list for the upcoming USA Cricket Combines. Dassayanake made his evaluations following a return from the CWI Super50 tournament in February in Antigua.
"There are a couple of games we would have won pretty easily if we had played basic cricket," Dassanyake told ESPNcricinfo. "It was disappointing to miss that but lots of positions were settled down and we just need to improve from there now. I think the batting order is pretty decent. It's just a matter of one more batter in the middle order. That's what I'm looking for at these combines.
"Mainly, what we are missing in this order is a good finisher who can bat with the tail, bat to the end and change games. Of course, Mrunal [Patel] is capable and highly talented, but I want him to be more consistent and there is room for another batter if we find someone. If we have a good finisher, then I think we will have a very decent batting order."
USA won only one out of their eight matches overall, defeating only Leeward Islands by 59 runs. However, they squandered strong positions in three other games. The first came against Jamaica, who recovered from 170 for 8 to eventually win by 99 runs.
Perhaps more frustrating for USA were the two blown opportunities against Kent. In the first match, USA slipped from 102 for 3 to 188 for 9 while chasing 216 and in the rematch, they had Kent at 51 for 6 but allowed them to recover to post 172 for 9 and USA were bowled out for 142 after a middle-order collapse.
Dassanayake said that he was satisfied with the contributions from the top order after a rough start. The emergence of Jaskaran Malhotra on his debut tour was a positive for Dassanayake in particular. The opener finished as USA's leading scorer with 277 runs, 12th on the list overall. There were also sporadic contributions from others: with half-centuries made by Sunny Sohal, Xavier Marshall, Roy Silva and captain Ibrahim Khaleel. However, Dassanayake said their inconsistency could be traced to readjusting from artificial wickets around the USA in mostly T20 competitions to turf wickets in the Super50 tournament, but said it was a problem that could be fixed.
"The problem I see with them is getting used to US conditions a lot playing on concrete and artificial, and then playing lots of T20s where when the pressure is there, they are looking for that boundary rather than the single," Dassanayake said. "But they have done it in their career before, it's just [that] they've gone away from that system a bit since they have been in the US.
"So it's not going to be a big job for me to turn them around for 50-over cricket and playing on turf against good quality bowling. That's what I really was looking at because it will be hard for me to get a youngster who don't know those things. It's just about putting them into a proper training programme and covering those things in the next six months. I'm confident in those top five guys. We just need one more good batter. The job is now very clear for me and even for the players for the next six months in what we need to do to dominate Division Three."
Though the batting was hit or miss in Antigua, USA's bowlers shone brightly, led by the left-arm medium-pace duo of Elmore Hutchinson and Saurabh Netravalkar, and backed up by the superb left-arm spin of Nosthush Kenjige. Both Hutchinson and Netravalkar finished sixth overall in the tournament with 13 wickets each. While Hutchinson stood out for his economy rate of 3.65, Netravalkar bowled perhaps the more challenging spells that often went unrewarded, though he did take 4 for 45 in the last match against Jamaica.
"I think the main thing Saurabh brought is his experience," Dassanayake said. "He doesn't have extra pace but he's very consistent on hitting the good areas. More than anything, he's one of the guys who really understood the tactical side well and implemented his own plans well. Ibrahim has his plans and Saurabh was one of the guys who really followed them, and Elmore bought into the plan and they stuck to it regardless of the situation. The key for both guys was consistency. [In] the spinners department, I think Nosh is really leading the pack."
With CPL-contracted Ali Khan missing the Super50 due to work commitments and the injured Jessy Singh to soon return from reconstructive knee surgery, USA's fast bowling depth is exceptionally strong. Hammad Shahid, who excelled in the 2016 Auty Cup against Canada before suffering a knee injury ahead of last year's WCL Division Three, is also waiting in the wings for a return. With others like Keshav Pabbisetty, who excelled for USA Under-19 last summer at the World Cup Qualifier in Toronto, also pushing for spots, Dassanayake said their fast bowling competition will be the backbone of overall team success going forward.
"You never know when bowlers will break down or in the USA environment because of work commitments someone has to miss a tour," he said. "So my plan is to build up a squad of 10-12 good fast bowlers and give them training programmes to do on their own year round plus get together three or four times to sharpen their skills. That's the plan for what we want to build after the combine. I want them to have competition through the group and having a big group we won't have any issues if someone gets injured.
"When you go through the Associate world, fast bowlers are key. I know spinners dominate statistically in Associate tournaments, but if you have a good fast bowler, you can give lots of trouble to Associate batters and one of the reasons Afghanistan moved so quickly is that they had three good fast bowlers who bowled at 140kph plus. I think USA also is blessed with that, with a very good bunch of fast bowlers and we have to use them properly to get the best out of the whole squad."
USA Cricket recently announced that players currently in the national squad will be automatically included at the final USA squad trials in Houston this June at the conclusion of the regional combines throughout the spring. However, Dassanayake said he expected all of those players to attend the regional combines to bring the best competition out of other players trying to force their way into the team and build the best squad possible for tournaments late in the year, including Division Three, the Auty Cup series against Canada and the start of 2020 World T20 Qualifying, tentatively scheduled for August.
"We always have to carry a third opener, there's a middle-order vacancy," he said. "It's open to anyone but it's just a matter of showing the improvement. We have seen guys before and now the guys in the last tour, but now for us to settle the order we need to see guys score under any conditions and under pressure. Those are the two big things I'm looking for and, of course, the consistency."