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How Hayden Walsh Jr. became USA's Mr Dependable

Hayden Walsh has been regularly been voted by his peers as USA's best fielder Peter Della Penna

"I think he would be proud. I'm sure he dreamt of it for himself because at one stage he was close to playing for the West Indies. My uncle was close to playing for the West Indies. So for someone of his blood to actually play international cricket, then I think he would be proud."

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"Do you prefer to go by Hayden Walsh or Hayden Walsh Jr. ?", I ask as he sits down for the chat. "Hayden Walsh Juniahhh," he replies.

In some ways, these words are a subtle embodiment of how Walsh Jr. operates on the field. The man who has been key to USA's rise to ODI status is blessed with athletic genes.

His father and uncle played cricket for Leeward Islands. His cousin, Chavaughn, and younger brother, Tahir, were both part of Antigua & Barbuda's 4x100m relay team at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.

While going to boarding school at Sutton Valence in Kent, someone once told him he might be good enough to make it to the England men's field hockey team if he persevered. But cricket drew him in, thanks to his father. So, the 'junior' in his name is a way of respecting the one who came before him.

Walsh Sr. ran a well-known local academy in Antigua that helped produce the likes of West Indies international Devon Thomas. He made it clear to Walsh Jr. at the outset that cricket was a big boy's game.

"I remember I played a game against some Under-17s when I was about nine-years old," Walsh Jr. says. "He was like, 'Go out there and be a tough guy. Just don't let them get you out.' Those guys were much bigger and stronger. A ball hit me on my thigh and I had to come off the field because it hurt so bad. At nine, that's gonna hurt.

"But then he said, 'Come on. Just rub it and go back out there.' In this day and age, it's probably not acceptable to send a nine-year-old to go out and bat against Under-17s. You'd probably get locked up for that. Haha! But he taught me to be a warrior."

Perhaps, it was this kind of a warrior that USA needed to get over the hurdle of WCL Division Three after four prior failures.

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"I didn't really know much about USA cricket," Walsh Jr. says. "My mom actually told me, 'You should look into playing for the US because they might have something going on. I was like, 'Mommy, they don't even play professional cricket so why would I?' She knew I was eligible but I just didn't really take it on."

After making his first-class debut for Leeward Islands in 2012, Walsh Jr. struggled for consistent opportunities over several subsequent years, balancing cricket with his day-job as a physical education teacher at an Antiguan school.

He bounced between Barbados and Leeward Islands, where the then head coach, Reginald Benjamin, the former Antigua fast bowler, had broached the topic of playing for the USA during the 2016-17 season. Benjamin too migrated to USA and represented the country at the ICC Trophy in 1990, 1994 and 1997.

Walsh Jr. still didn't take the opportunity afforded by his US passport - a consequence of being born in St. Croix of the US Virgin Islands - seriously until this past summer, when fate would link him with Ibrahim Khaleel, the USA captain at the time, at the CPL. With playing opportunities limited in the St. Kitts & Nevis Patriots squad, the two had plenty of time to chew the fat during games.

Then in October, when USA arrived in Barbados for the Super50 tournament organised by Cricket West Indies, Walsh Jr. first met head coach Pubudu Dassanayake. He played three games in the tournament for Barbados, including two against USA. He put in the efforts outside of the matches to demonstrate his future availability for USA, doing double sessions with Barbados in the morning and USA in the afternoons.

After two training sessions with the USA squad, along with a "team bonding" experience at a local beach, he had suddenly been fast-tracked into the USA squad for WCL Division Three the following month in Oman, along with Barbados team-mate and fellow USA passport holder Aaron Jones.

Their inclusion spurred outrage on social media within the small but tight-knit USA cricket community. Their contention was neither Walsh Jr. nor Jones had participated in the USA Cricket Combines, which was mandated of other players to be considered for selection.

Walsh Jr. says he was aware of the torrent of comments on social media and why it was coming his way. "I expected it becauseā€¦ who am I to just kind of walk into the team? I'm not saying I'm not good enough, but everybody went through a process and I literally just kind of had two sessions, if you look at it that way.

"But, honestly, I was in such a good space at that time, I didn't think about what he or she is saying. I was confident when I went to Oman, I was gonna tear this up."

In a match situation that was evenly balanced against Kenya at 121 for 4, Walsh Jr. produced an 83-run stand with Jones to put USA in command for a win. A grimmer scenario unfolded a few days later against Denmark, when he walked in at 87 for 5. But he added with Jones a USA record sixth-wicket stand of 131 on the way to scoring his first half-century in a gritty 14-run win.

Walsh Jr. was arguably USA's MVP on tour, scoring 167 runs and taking seven wickets in USA's run to promotion. He was also USA's best fielder, as marked by a new squad tradition where the title is passed with a white hat stitched with "Best Fielder" along the side.

"Oman was such a blur," he recounts. "I was just enjoying playing and just being around the guys. I didn't feel any pressure to perform and make sure they go through. When I have a big leading role and there's a lot of pressure, I find my game advances a lot more."

"[My dad] taught me how to stand up when the chips are down. Maybe that's why I play like that. Instead of giving me 100 drills, 100 pulls, 100 drives, 100 sweeps, he taught me a lot of mental toughness."

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It was January 9, 2010, and Walsh Jr. who was 17 at the time, had just been dropped off by his dad for a cricket training session. Hayden Sr. then went to the Dove Cove Hotel where he was "going to have a staycation" to spend time with his six-year-old twin brother and sister Malik and Yenique.

Only a week earlier, Walsh Jr. had suffered a head injury on a basketball court in Antigua and blacked out while being taken to hospital. When he woke up, his dad was being treated for high blood pressure. But nobody had an inkling of what was to follow.

"I came home in the afternoon and then someone called the house saying my dad's sick," Walsh Jr. remembers. "They said he was on his way to the hospital and I thought he should be fine then. But then a police officer came to the house. I didn't really know the significance of a police officer coming to the house. I told the police officer that my grandmother was home so she went to my grandmother and told her.

"My grandmother shouted, "Hayden, your dad is dead!" I was like, 'What is this crazy woman saying?'"

Local media reports at the time stated that Walsh Sr. died in a swimming pool accident, but gave few details. Hayden Jr. says his dad had to be dragged out of the water after losing consciousness. An autopsy later revealed he had no water in his lungs and that he had actually suffered a massive stroke. He was pronounced dead on the way to the hospital aged 46.

Despite all the pain Hayden Jr. was experiencing emotionally, one of the few outlets he knew that would let him escape was going back to the bond he shared with his dad. Less than a week later, he was back at cricket training.

"My dad was basically my mentor. He guided me through age group cricket, through England. So I was like, 'Let's go. This is what I was doing with my dad. So let's continue this.' It was a getaway from all the feelings and what not. Ever since, I've always been super focusedā€¦[because] I wanted to be a professional and I know he wanted to see me be a professional."

Walsh Jr. is now hoping to accomplish that dream with USA. Just as he did in Oman, he contributed another USA record partnership with Jones - 127 runs, this time, for the fourth wicket - in a two-run win over Namibia that helped USA gain ODI status, a result that may help push USA into a truly professional era.

ODI status brings with it increased ICC funding. With 36 ODIs over the next two-plus years, Walsh Jr. aims to go all-in for a central contract with USA, having terminated his contract with Barbados in February, and not being picked again in Friday's CWI first-class draft.

But at the top of his agenda right now is USA's first one-day international since 2004, against Papua New Guinea, to close out WCL Division Two in Namibia. Playing full-fledged ODI cricket is an occasion he and his dad dreamt of, and one that his father may be looking at with pride from up above.

"It's my ambition, but he wanted it as well," Walsh Jr. says. "So we were actually working together to help myself. So instead of just dropping it and saying, 'Well, my dad's not here to help me,' I just said, 'Okay, let's continue.' He showed me up until this point, so let me just continue and make him proud."