Americas players keen to spring surprises
As the 2016 Nagico Super50 gets set to kick off on Thursday in the Caribbean, the ICC Americas squad is hoping to make a big splash on debut in the competition. The nine USA and six Canada players that make up the team are hoping to make enough of an impression that it won't be their last foray playing together under the same banner.
"The number one thing for me is to get the guys to gel, play as a unit and fight," captain Ruvindu Gunasekera told ESPNcricinfo ahead of the team's first match against Barbados. "The main goal is to get to the second round as a team and for the guys to be able to perform their roles in a successful way and use everyone in a successful way."
Though he has never captained Canada before, Gunasekera impressed with his leadership during trial matches at the ICC Americas combine in September which was used to pick the 15-man squad. At 24, he is the fourth-youngest member of the squad but has more than 100 caps for his country. With almost a decade of international experience under his belt since his debut as a 16-year-old in 2008, Gunasekera said he was more than ready for the task of leading the combined side.
"It's an honour to lead the whole continent in a tournament of this magnitude so I'm looking forward to it," Gunasekera said. "I've been playing for Canada for eight to nine years now. I've been the youngest one in the group and I'm used to it. It's not a matter of me captaining the team, it's a matter of getting the guys to gel and playing together as a unit and winning together, representing the whole continent. We have to have pride in doing what we do."
Win or lose, a major incentive on offer for the ICC Americas players was the announcement last month that an extra roster spot has been created in the Caribbean Premier League season specifically to guarantee at least one contract with each of the six franchises for Associate players from the region. Canada's Nikhil Dutta and USA's Steven Taylor made their CPL debuts in 2015 and Gunasekera believes there is no reason that more than the minimum of six players can't earn T20 franchise contracts, and not limited to the CPL either.
"That's an added incentive, yes, but I think if we all do well as a team it's not just six guys who will get a contract and it's not just in the CPL that guys will be able to get [offers]," Gunasekera said. "It's just the first step to open the doors for all the guys. We saw with Nikhil Dutta doing well in the CPL last time around. He's gone to the BPL in Bangladesh recently and did well there as well. It's just a matter of having critical performances individually that will boost the team as well."
At the top of the list of those in contention for a roster spot is USA allrounder Timroy Allen. He was placed in the Silver category for the Pakistan Super League draft and though he went undrafted, the 28-year-old is confident he has what it takes to shine given a chance to step up against first-class talent, despite USA's current standing in World Cricket League Division Four.
"Practically, where we started, and where I started with the [USA] team in 2008, we haven't progressed and haven't moved forward from there," Allen said. "We complain about the [lack of] opportunities. With what ICC Americas presented to us, they practically handed us a key and said, 'Go ahead and prove it to yourself and prove it to others and more than likely you'll be able to join the elite or the bigger players that do this on a day-to-day basis. If you think you can compete with them, than this is your chance to show it.'
"This is the first tournament for ICC Americas and it's an opportunity for the top performers. I should be able to go out there and convince one of those franchise owners. I know that I could go out there and compete with the guys at the top but the franchise owners don't know that. I've never had any doubt in my ability or my potential to come out and perform and this is no exception. I'm gonna go out there and show exactly what I can do."
Allen hasn't played for USA since the 2013 World Twenty20 Qualifier, where he served as vice-captain. It was on that tour that he a clash with then coach Robin Singh and he hasn't played for USA since. During the September combine though, Allen earned positive reviews from players and coaches for his work ethic and attitude and said he had nothing to prove to local administrators.
"Making the final 15 from the 105 or however many were at the trial, I think that's sufficient evidence to show you're good enough to compete with these teams like Jamaica, Barbados," Allen said. "If you can make it out of there as one of the top 15 players says a lot. I'm not going out to show anything to the selectors from [USA]. You have to go out there and show what you can against the top guys in the sport.
"I think it's a great opportunity for us as USA players and Americas players to show our talent. The top six guys will benefit for this but I think this is the beginning of something great that will happen here. Younger players that are up and coming will see a way out as cricket as a full-time job as opposed to every other Sunday or a couple times a month."
As for what the team needs to do to ensure success, Allen said the abundance of T20 tournaments around the USA means batsmen will need to be patient in adjusting their games to 50-over cricket in order to give the bowlers defendable targets. Gunasekera believers legspinner Timil Patel, who excelled in the World Twenty20 Qualifier this summer, will be key in the that defense.
"Of the couple US guys I haven't played with, I'm really looking forward to Timil," Gunasekera said. "He is the best spinner going around in the continent in terms of his performance lately and I'm looking forward to see how he does in this tournament. I think he'll be a major part of how we go, especially in the conditions."
Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent. @PeterDellaPenna