Rethink needed as rules hamper development September 28, 2004

ICC eligibility requirements stifle US cricket

Clayton Lambert: not exactly what is meant by youth policy © Getty Images
USA's abysmal performance in the Champions Trophy has reopened the debate on whether the ICC is setting eligibility requirements that make it difficult, if not impossible, for the them to field competitive teams in international cricket?

Under current rules, almost all cricketers allowed to represent the USA must either be US citizens or have lived in the US for the better parts of seven consecutive years. Two players can play as "deemed nationals" if they have lived in the USA for four consecutive years. There are other details, but this is the essence of ICC's requirements; only citizens and long-standing residents are eligible to play for the USA, with perhaps a couple of players admitted as token immigrants who have "nearly" made the grade.

This leads to some rather strange situations. If you happen to be born in the USA (or for that matter Canada) it does not matter where you have lived or played cricket, you can play for Canada or the USA whenever you want to. Canada's John Davidson and Ian Billcliff play first-class cricket in Australia and New Zealand respectively, but were born in Canada and therefore qualify as citizens. In fact, the search is on for first-class cricketers anywhere in the world who happened to have been born in the USA, in the hope that there are US Davidsons out there waiting to be discovered.

Acquiring citizenship by naturalization (or even permanent residence) is a quite difficult matter in the USA and post- 9/11, the process has become a tortuous one. Some people have to wait five, 10 and even 15 years before they complete the procedures. In fact, there are people who have qualified for residence but simply do not bother to go through the paperwork because of the hassles involved.

The US situation is in stark contrast to other countries (such as the UAE) where citizenship could be acquired rapidly and instantly, and wholesale importation of professionals to pad team rolls was given as the reason for establishing the ICC eligibility requirements. Those issues simply do not apply to the USA, and are not likely to do so in the foreseeable future.

So, suppose you are a young first-class cricketer from Pakistan or Jamaica who is immigrating to, and wants to play cricket for, the USA. Assuming you are around 25, you could expect to be at least in your mid or late thirties before you could qualify for Team USA. Even worse, most of those years would be spent playing cricket at far lower than first-class levels. If you were especially brilliant, or earned the favour of US selection committees, you might earn a spot as a "deemed national" in four years--but with only two such spots available in every USA team, your chances would be remote.

The results are predictable and obvious. Some of the USA squad in the Champions Trophy were in their forties, persons whose best years of cricket were behind them but who were among the few to qualify. Steve Massiah, one of the best young players, barely made it on to the team as a "deemed national". The other "deemed" player was Clayton Lambert, the former West Indian Test cricketer. Leon Romero, a so-so player in Trinidad, was an automatic selection because he had been born in the USA.

On the other hand, a Trinidad junior player who had already immigrated to the USA chose to pass up the US cricket scene and returned to play in Trinidad because he did not wish to be sidelined for his best cricketing years. He might decide to play for the USA some time in the future, but certainly not now.

By an unofficial estimate, at least 80% of the best cricketers in the USA would not meet the eligibility requirements set up by the ICC. They may be bona fide residents or naturalized citizens, but have not spent the necessary four or seven years away from overseas first-class cricket; they are young, their skills are still sharp, and they could be coached far more effectively than a team of mostly superannuated pensioners.

If the ICC is really serious about raising the level of cricket within the USA to world-class ODI standards by 2007, as it declared two years ago, then it must relax its eligibility requirements, to allow the best US cricket talent to showcase itself. Otherwise, in future the USA will be trapped in a perpetual quarantine, unable to re-invent itself as it desperately needs to do.