The road back from Sharjah
In 2002, USA won the America's Cup for the first time in their history. USA also defeated archrival Canada, who had earlier qualified for the World Cup. These achievements gave the United States of America Cricket Association, or USACA, a confidence in its plans for US Cricket; and, inevitably, a hubris that was to lead to its downfall.
Then a stroke of luck came USA's way. Kenya chose to pass up the Sharjah Tournament because it already had a place in the Champions Trophy. The International Cricket Council (ICC) sent a message to the USACA, informing it that it would go for Ireland unless the USACA could commit to participating immediately. The USACA reacted with lightning speed - and presto, the deed was done. Team USA was in the Six Nations Challenge, and had an opportunity that few had expected them to obtain.
The news provoked a lot of discussion in US cricket. There were those who felt that USA were simply not ready for Sharjah. Others argued for a team of talented youngsters, but the USACA opted to include "tried and true" veterans who had first-class match experience. After all, the USA had won with such a team, and didn't wish to change that strategy. The USACA refused to discuss its selection policies and methods, and ignored all dissent and alternate suggestions.
Team USA surprised everyone by winning at Sharjah, on a hair's-breadth advantage in run-rate over runners-up Scotland. In the USA, the Sharjah victory was seen as a major step towards putting US cricket on the map, and a vindication of USACA's selection and training procedures. The critics were silenced, although they expressed misgivings about Team USA's run of success, and whether it would continue.
The downward spiral in US cricket fortunes began shortly after Sharjah.
The first sign came in the Intercontinental Cup match against Canada. In the three-day game, USA played resolutely for two days, only to be "Davisonned" on the third day by Canada's skipper who, significantly, had been absent at Sharjah. This was followed by another defeat by Canada in the 2004 Americas Cup, as USA were dethroned as Americas Champions. USA did defeat Bermuda in their Intercontinental Cup fixture, but Canada qualified for the finals, and USA's pre-eminence in the Americas had been irretrievably lost.
It is against this background that USA's performance in the Champions Trophy needs to be judged. It was not the failure of an inexperienced team whose errors overwhelmed their ambitions. It was, rather, the failure of a team, which had lost its bearings, and was desperately seeking them in an unforgiving context. In a gentler and more expansive arena, it may have stood a chance. Against cricket's ultimate gladiators, Team USA's only recourse was to perish with some dignity -- and even then, there weren't many options.
Perhaps it is fitting that the two players who showed any spark of resistance came from opposite ends of the age spectrum. Clayton Lambert was the old warrior against New Zealand, holding his end up even when all seemed lost. And young Steve Massiah tried to do the same against Australia, until he was undone by his recklessness. Little than be said of most of the others other than that they were victims of circumstance --hardly the most complimentary thing that could be said about a player, or a team.
So it is back to the drawing board, now that the trek back from Sharjah is finally over.
It is, however, not a simple matter of replacing older players with younger ones. The young selectees need to have first-class match practice. and training to match. How is this to be accomplished? Here are some suggestions.
There needs to be a program to send selected youngsters from the USA to first-class countries for coaching and training. With the first USA Under-9 nationals about to take place in October, there should be no shortage of candidates. Playing opportunities could be made available to promising US cricketers in first-class cricket contexts. For example, US cricketers in schools or colleges could be encouraged to pursue "work-study" options with first-class cricket clubs or sides during their long summer vacations. Other such low-cost, temporary summer "internships" in cricket could be offered for first-class play.
Teams from the top Associate countries, as well as A teams from first-class countries, should be invited on extended (multi-city) tours where they play "test matches" against the US national sides and other matches with regional league teams.USACA might consider ending its feud with ProCricket, and help it instead. This would allow the best US players to play alongside first-class cricketers, albeit in a Twenty20 format. But some experience is better than none, and it wouldn't hurt the USACA to work with rather than against ProCricket.
All the suggestions made above require resources, planning and efficient administration. This is where an ICC Program like Project USA can really make its mark. Over to Gary Hopkins.
Whatever moves are made, they need to be drastic ones. US cricket is back to square one. It needs to move forward again, this time with a different strategy and direction.