USA ready after Hyderabad experience
As they finish their preparations in India to begin their baptism of fire in Sri Lanka, the USA Under-19 side does so with many memories of their tropical sojourn to cherish - and hopefully, experiences which will stand them in good stead when the competition begins in earnest in a week.
By hindsight, the choice of Hyderabad in South India as the site for their preliminary matches was a serendipitous one. The playing conditions are not too different from what will be faced in Sri Lanka. Hyderabad also has a distinguished cricket history, having contributed many Test cricketers to India over the years; its state teams rank high in the various national tournaments, and there are many cricket academies in the area, private and public, catering to all age groups. Dennis Lillee's own academy, which draws aspiring cricketers from all over Asia, is only a stone's throw away, and undoubtedly adds to the attractions of the area for youth cricket.
Two years ago, the Hyderabad Cricket Association had played host to a USA Invitational XI led by Amjad Khan. The USA team was given the honour of being the first overseas side to play at the new state-of-the-art LB (for Lal Bahadur) Stadium, and the entire tour was deemed a success by the hosts. Clearly, the HCA had been looking forward to the visit by the USA U-19 side, and again the welcome mat was very much in evidence throughout the trip.
Going halfway round the world to be met at 2 am by a battery of correspondents, TV crews and assorted dignitaries eager to display their hospitality would be a daunting experience for even the most seasoned travellers, and the youngsters were no exception to the rule. Evidently, the idea that cricket was played at all in the USA seems an extraordinary item of news to the Indian press and TV corps, and a USA youth team in the U-19 World Cup seemed to be an even more unlikely possibility. In no time at all, pictures and video clips of the visiting team were plastered all over the media, and became the topic of the week for radio and TV sports commentators.
However, this was not going to be a cakewalk for the USA. The Hyderabad Cricket Association had arranged a graded and gruelling schedule for the visitors, to let them test their skills at various levels. They put the USA team through their paces.
The first match was against the Hyderabad U-17 team which had featured in the all-India semi-finals for their age group. The USA made surprisingly short work of Hyderabad, who were all out for 94 thanks to some effective bowling by Anil Deopersaud, Nisarg Patel and Alex Kirton. Openers Sumon Bari (25) and Ravi Tmbawala (35) practically took USA all the way to victory, which they achieved by six wickets.
The second game brought the high-flying USA closer to the realities of competitive international cricket. Playing against the Hyderabad U-19s, who had performed even better in all-India contexts than their U-17 counterparts, USA scored a respectable 189, with all their leading batmen in the runs (Hemant Punoo 44, Nisarg Patel 27, Mrunal Patel 22, Akeem Dodson 17, Ravi Timbawala 15). But the Hyderabad U-19s matched their opponents run for run and wicket for wicket (Mohd Shakir 56*, Gautam Raju 31, T. Aron Paul 28, Ravi Teja 20, PSS Bharath 18*) with only the USA vice-captain Abhemanyu Rajp (3 for 48) being able to make a significant dent in the Hyderabad batting. USA lost by six wickets.
Smarting from that unaccustomed defeat, the USA unloaded on the prestigious Nora Academy, a private training and coaching school that had contributed many players to state and regional youth teams. USA piled up 340 runs for 7 wickets in 50 overs (Akeem Dodson 80, Hemant Punoo 60, Kumar Ramsabad 42, Sumon Bari 23, Nisarg Patel 28*). They then skittled out Niraj Academy for 116 in just 27.3 overs (Ananth Reddy 24, Anji Reddy 39). Niraj Academy, who had marked the match as a special event, presented the USA with a special trophy that had been prepared for the occasion, and presented Akeem Dodson with a Man-of-the-Match award.
The sternest test for the USA team was waiting for them on their next match. Through a series of negotiations between the USA team managers and the HCA, it had been arranged that the game would be a day/night affair at the LB stadium, against a first-class HCA team of which no less than seven were current Ranji Trophy players. Both in the class of opponents and in playing under floodlights, which none of the USA youngsters had experienced, this was the biggest test and a chance to see what stuff the USA team was really made of.
The USA threw caution to the wind and decided to bat first. Under the circumstances, they put up quite a creditable performance, scoring 194 in 48 overs (Hemant Punoo 42, Mrunal Patel 38, Nisarg Patel 24). But although the USA put up a spirited resistance, the HCA first-class team ended up with a five-wicket victory due in no small measure to AT Rayudu, captain of the winning India team at the U-19 World Cup two years ago and who is considered a Test and ODI prospect for India. He scored 94 off 77 balls and guided his team to victory.
The final match was against the Arshad Ayub Cricket Academy at its own scenic grounds and practice facilities at the Vijay Gardens on the outskirts of Hyderabad. Still not fully recovered after the rigours of the game the evening before, the USA decided to field. They were able to hold the AA Academy to 178 in 42.2 overs (Faraz Baig 41, M. Fahim 40, Ranvir 24) due to some especially devastating bowling (Mrunal Patel 4 for 4, Anil Deopersaud 2 for 8, M. Rahman 2 for 35). USA were able to match the AA Academy in 36.5 overs, for the loss of only five wickets (Mrunal Patel 41*, D.Nathaniel 36, Suman Bari 25). In style as well as substance, this final victory was like the glory days in Canada, where USA had qualified for the World Cup by putting their opponents in to bat and pulverizing them into submission in the run chase - and it suggested that the USA were beginning to rediscover itself in these alien contexts.
The win-loss ratio (3-2) for the Hyderabad leg of the tour does not, of course, tell the whole story. A great deal of credit has to go to the Hyderabad CA and the USA team managers, who managed to pit their charges against a variety of skill levels and playing conditions and to draw out the best they could from all the players. Now it will be up to the USA team to show what they have gained from their Hyderabad detour, and how they can put it to use in Sri Lanka.
Deb K Das is Cricinfo's correspondent in the USA