An epic journey
Team USA's long march to the Under-19 World Cup ended on a clear afternoon in Sri Lanka, almost six months ago to the day when its improbable journey began in Ontario.
As it was, only Nepal and USA among the non-Test nations made it to the semi-finals of either of the two championships - the World Cup and the Plate - which are being played in Sri Lanka. For Nepal, this was their third appearance in the U-19 Trophy, and they became the only non-Test nation to make it into the finals of a 2006 U-19 tournament with a nail-biting semi-final Plate win over South Africa. Then they went one better - winning the Plate Championship in another sensational and nail-biting finish over New Zealand.
USA can take some solace in knowing they have acquitted themselves with courage and style. In the Plate semis, New Zealand won by applying basic strategy to a USA team which was beginning to recover its bearings as the tournament progressed. In past matches, the USA had often been undone through massive scores by one or two batsmen which put the game out of reach before USA even got a chance to bat. This time, it was New Zealand's skipper doing the honours with an unbeaten century, taking New Zealand to 290 for 7 in spite of some determined bowling by USA vice-captain Abhemanyu Rajp who restricted the rest of the NZ batting. In reply, although the USA opening pair stirred a few memories of past glory days, the rest of the batting order simply failed to live up to their past accomplishments and were dismissed in under 40 overs for one of USA's lowest totals of the tournament.
Coming after the previous day's sensational victory over Namibia, where USA had reversed the outcome of their warm-up game in which Namibia had decisively defeated the USA, the semi-final loss was something of a bitter pill for USA to swallow. Perhaps it was asking too much of a first-time team in a World Cup to summon up the adrenalin to win two back-to-back matches against highly competitive teams which were playing with considerable verve. Namibia played as if it had something to prove, and New Zealand was out to salvage its status with its Test-playing peers. Caught in the crossfire of these aspirations, USA's focus wavered just enough to deny them a double victory. They were, after all, newcomers to such contests of gladiatorial will.
Just how far the USA U-19 team have travelled in the past year can be seen by looking back to the uncertain and murky days before the Americas U-19 Tournament in Toronto.
Over a year ago, few US cricketers thought that the USA was in any position to come up with 11 youngsters who could play competitive cricket with their peers in the Americas, let alone the rest of the world. USACA had tested the waters, and decided that it was beyond its means to conduct the kind of national program which would produce competitive teams in the youth categories. In fact, in its 40 years of history, its attention had been focused on the cricket-playing immigrants who made up the bulk of its membership.
What changed things in 2005 was the unexpected discovery that there were, in fact, enough young cricketers in the USA to make up a four-zone national U-19 tournament, which was inaugurated in 2005. Apparently, dedicated parents had been keeping cricket alive among their children by including them in their leagues, or sending them back "home" to play cricket with their peers - and even though though this represented a very small percentage of the kids who deserted cricket in favour of American sports like baseball and basketball, the sheer size of the USA ensured that the numbers were sufficient to produce quality teams at the U-19 level.
The reactions to the discovery were rather mixed. There were those who complained that the USACA was simply ducking the issue - it was relying on this unexpected pool of homegrown talent to drive a program it had paid scant attention to. Still others wondered if these first-generation children of immigrants were being misdirected by their cricket-playing elders - whether they were being isolated from mainstream America by being forced to play cricket, when they might be better off assimilating into American social life. And there were those who considered the entire U-19 USA program a band-aid -that only a comprehensive program aimed at US schools and mainstream youth would really serve the needs of US cricket, and anything less was a futile gesture.
What a difference a few months can make. There is no longer any question about the undoubted talent displayed by Team USA. It was the first US team ever to manage a clean 4-0 sweep in an ICC tournament. It was first to qualify for a World Cup tournament. Even in losing, The USA posted better performances than any first-time team in a World Cup. They also made the semi-finals of an ICC tournament (the Plate Championship) in their very first appearance on the international stage. And all this from a team that had been written off as unlikely to amount to much. Those naysayers were silenced, and hopefully will stay that way.
It may now be all over bar the shouting, but the important questions now need to be faced. What is to happen to the stellar US Under-19 team, half of whom have probably played in their last youth tournament - is there any plan in the works to ensure this talent does not go to waste? Will the USACA recognize the importance of youth cricket, and out in place the programs it has been paying lip service to, for the past few years? Will Major League Cricket (MLC) step in with its own youth programs, which it says it is ready to implement in 2006? US cricketers are waiting for the next move, which should not be long in coming.
Deb K Das is Cricinfo's correspondent in the USA