When USA organised a squad to go off to the Middle East last December for five matches - one each against Kenya and Nepal in Abu Dhabi followed by a three-match series in Oman - the initiative was labeled by USA Cricket as a development tour to "build on" momentum from USA's historic Auty Cup win over Canada. Ten months later on the eve of USA's return to Oman for WCL Division Three, that exercise from the end of 2017 is retrospectively looking more like a teardown tour.
Eleven players who were on the plane to Oman last year are guaranteed to be absent when USA return next month. That list now includes Ibrahim Khaleel, who was named USA captain in September 2017 with a long-term vision to lead the side through the end of the 2020 World T20 qualifying process in 2019, but found himself abruptly written off by USA's selection panel on Tuesday. In a period of instability where there has seemingly been no clearly defined strategy for building and keeping faith in a core unit of players, Khaleel's axing further highlights the issue.
A major catalyst for the high rate of turnover since the start of the year can be traced back to the ICC's decision to revise its player eligibility guidelines which lowered the threshold to three years of residency with no limit on non-passport holders in a starting XI. And yet the how and why for who has been chopped and changed in favor of newly eligible talent is peculiarly hypocritical. Mediocrity has been punished for some (younger players who have mostly come up through USA's junior programs) and not for others (anyone with a first-class career overseas before moving to the USA) barring Khaleel, which makes his axing all the more surprising.
First, the bare facts. Ibrahim Khaleel was a statistically average player for USA. In 26 matches for USA across formats, he only crossed 50 once. In some ways, his slow batting arguably cost USA a few wins at the Regional Super50 in February. His 50-over average of 19.60 in 21 innings underlines his status as someone who was steady but hardly a match-winner and a strike rate that typically hovered around 50 - it was 47.97 at the last Super50 - didn't help matters either.
"We don't want to get into a situation where we always have good starts and struggle in the middle order," USA coach Pubudu Dassanayake recently told ESPNcricinfo about his frustrations over the lack of performance beyond the top three. "If you're a top-order batsman, you need to put runs at least three innings out of every five or six innings. You can't have one innings in seven or eight innings. It's the same for everyone if you can't produce."
Judging by that standard, Khaleel's one half-century in 21 50-over innings made him expendable. However, he is hardly alone in this regard. Sandwiched around him on USA's 50-over averages list are three other players who have hardly set the world on fire of late but whose roster spots are safe for the Super50 in Barbados: Sunny Sohal (20.75), Roy Silva (19.00) and Timil Patel (19.96).
Sohal, 30, made his USA debut in January at the Super50 seven years removed from his last appearance in the IPL when he was at the peak of his powers, and it showed. He began with back-to-back ducks before scratching his way to a pair of fifties later in the tournament. At a USA selection camp in Texas in June this year, he struggled against top-tier bowling during intra-squad trial matches. Similarly at the recent ICC World T20 Sub-regional Americas Qualifier, he muddled through both contests against Canada by scoring 10 off his first 20 balls before ending with 38 off 39 in the tied match that USA lost in a Super Over, then followed it up with an awkward poke at legspinner Junaid Siddiqui to be bowled third ball in the rematch.
Silva, 38, is supposed to be in the team for his batting but has routinely failed from his spot in the middle order. In the Super50, he was arguably USA's most underwhelming batsman, making the least out of his many opportunities. Putting aside a 50 against Kent in USA's second to last match, he scored 25 runs in his six other innings. Likewise against Canada in North Carolina, he produced two more failures with scores of 13 and 8. But he has been given an exceptionally long leash thanks to his part-time medium pace. Since making his debut against Canada in the 2017 Auty Cup, nobody has taken more one-day wickets for USA than Silva's 24.
Along the same lines, 34-year-old Timil is now holding down a spot in the team thanks to his secondary duty. The legspinner is USA's leading wicket-taker in T20 cricket and tied for second all-time in 50-over cricket as well, but in the last 18 months his output with the ball has nosedived. It started at 2017 WCL Division Three in Uganda where he took just five wickets and was largely hidden from the attack by then captain Steven Taylor in a crucial showdown with Uganda.
At the Super50 earlier this year, he only bowled 42 out of a possible 80 overs, taking six wickets at an average of 40.66. Sandwiched between those tournaments though, he was USA's leading scorer in the 2017 Auty Cup. He also played a pivotal role with the bat in USA's two-wicket win over Canada last week in the T20 Qualifier by holding down an end for Steven Taylor in a 47-run seventh-wicket partnership. However, he failed to take a wicket in a four-over spell one match earlier against lowly Panama and was only used for a wicketless over on both occasions against Canada.
The point is that if such mediocrity is endorsed amongst those three in particular, what motivated those in charge to take such drastic action against the captain rather than his underlings who performed in identical fashion? A contributing factor may have been USA's total lack of energy in the field, which led to habitually poor fielding displays once again in North Carolina. USA missed 16 chances in their last five matches at the recent T20 Qualifier, including six in one innings against Panama.
Regardless of finishing as tournament champions by virtue of a superior net run rate to Canada, USA simply did not look like a team capable of promotion at Division Three as they were constituted in North Carolina. The fielding was one issue but beyond the top three of Jaskaran Malhotra, Monank Patel and Taylor, the batting order was also a serious concern.
Khaleel never seemed to grasp the gravity of the on-field sloppiness and how it reflected on him as captain though. He always had a glass half-full view of things - almost to a fault - frequently saying, "overall, we are happy" when asked about the team's poor fielding and "we don't have any concerns" about underperforming players like Sohal and Timil in various post-match media interactions.
His replacement in the squad brings more questions than answers though. If Khaleel was regarded as USA's best player of spin, Alex Amsterdam is also right near the top in terms of technical proficiency. But like Khaleel, Amsterdam is a player who has a nasty habit of taking a long time to get in and then getting out once set, and it's been nearly two years since he crossed 50 for USA when he did it in back-to-back matches at WCL Division Four in Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, Fahad Babar remains on the outside looking in. Babar was the second-highest scorer at June's USA squad selection camp in Texas and if team selection was a simple matter of picking players based on stats, he'd be a shoo-in. The red strike marks against Babar are his technical flaws, in particular a tendency to push with hard hands away from his body making him vulnerable against the moving ball. In spite of runs, the likes of Sohal, Amsterdam and debutant David Wakefield don't have this issue. As a result, their techniques are all more appealing to the eyes of a selector.
But USA's selectors seemingly never put any stock in batting temperament. As ugly as Babar's technique can be at times, few USA batsmen have shown greater stomach for fighting hard and digging deep when the chips are down. There's a reason why he's scored a fifty once every three innings for USA, and has more 50-plus scores for USA than anyone in the current squad except Taylor.
If you're going to drop the captain, the best reason to do it would be because his replacement is a major upgrade, but that doesn't appear to be the case with Khaleel. If anything, history has shown that dumping a senior leader just before a major tournament doesn't bode well, demonstrated by USA's failure to gain promotion following the axing of Aditya Thyagarajan and Usman Shuja ahead of 2013 WCL Division Three in Bermuda. Time will tell whether Khaleel was a middle-order millstone or if chopping off the team figurehead only helps prolong USA's Division Three curse instead.