USA face selection dilemma
When America's most talented players begin play in Fort Lauderdale on Friday for the USA Cricket Association (USACA) National Championship, each one will be full of hope about their team's chances of walking away with the title. They'll also be desperate to impress selectors at the grounds each day because the tournament is also acting as trials for the USA national squad to compete in February's World Twenty20 Qualifier in Dubai and the World Cricket League (WCL) Division Five in Nepal.
While attention will obviously focus on the players, the administration will be under equal scrutiny. This is a crucial moment in the Don Lockerbie era. It will be the first senior squad picked since he came on board this year as USACA's chief executive. He may not have a direct hand in selecting the teams, but the players chosen will be responsible for helping to achieve Lockerbie's vision of Project 15. This involves USA becoming a top 15 team by 2015 as well as qualifying for the 2015 World Cup.
To achieve this goal it is necessary to blood homegrown players, who can get valuable experience and grow with the team for the next six years. However, the temptation to persist with expat heroes instead remains and continues to hamper the development of cricket in this country. Old habits die hard and old players who are entrenched in the team are even harder to cast aside.
As was recently reported, Sudesh Dhaniram was chosen for the New York team that is playing in Florida. Dhaniram, a former Guyana player, is 42-years-old and played for USA in their last international outing a year ago in the ICC Americas Division One in Florida. The player he replaced, 21-year-old Andre Kirton, came up through the New York Under-19 program and represented the USA at the U-19 World Cup in 2006.
Make no mistake, Dhaniram is a good player. He scored a blistering century in his local New Jersey 40-over league final last month and has a big reputation in the New York metro area. But Greg Matthews is still taking wickets in the Sydney grade competition too - it doesn't mean he should be playing for New South Wales, let alone Australia.
While it was exciting to see nine U-19 players in the list of 40 probables included in this weekend's trials, it was alarming to 43 year-old Nasir Javed included at the expense of 19 year-old leg-spinner Saqib Saleem. Saleem was USA's leading wicket-taker at the U-19 World Cup Qualifier in Toronto with 17 in 7 games including a five-for against tournament champion Ireland. He was left out despite eight of his other USA U-19 team-mates getting an invite.
A glance at the 2006 U-19 World Cup rosters, the first time USA played in the event, reveals a slew of players who have gone on to represent full-member nations at the senior level. Wayne Parnell, Tim Southee, Martin Guptill, Kieron Pollard, Kemar Roach, Andre Fletcher, David Warner and Moises Henriques all featured in teams that USA played against in the tournament. By giving them an opportunity at the highest level each country demonstrated a continued commitment to development.
Namibia, an associate level team which USA beat in the Plate competition that year, has had at least eight players from that squad go on to play at senior level. USA has had one, Akeem Dodson, who wasn't even included in the list of 40 for this year's trials.
Even more disconcerting is the fact that the 22-year-old Dodson spent this summer playing league cricket in England, something that was supposed to enhance his resume. Discussions are often held in local circles that something should be organized to give young American players scholarships to send them overseas for a summer in England or a semester in Australia in order to get proper training and experience that is typically not available in the US. Dodson pursued this and his efforts have been ignored.
On a broader scale, not engaging in development and failing to provide consistent opportunities to youth can cost USA financially. Lockerbie has been aggressively seeking a commercial sponsorship for USA since the summer. It is believed that one may be finalized and signed before the end of the year.
In sports, sponsors most often seek out young, rising talent because it provides an opportunity to establish a relationship with an athlete that can last an entire career. If Lockerbie's aim is to get a solid deal with a company to help fund US cricket, that company wants to see fresh faces. When players like Dodson, Kirton, Saleem, Ryan Corns and Ravi Timbawala get opportunities to play, it will demonstrate that USA is committed to developing cricket. In turn, companies will want to develop a relationship with cricket in the US because players like them offer the possibility of a very good return on their investment.
Many companies would love to take an active and pioneering role in raising the profile of any sport in the country if they saw it had a future with young, vibrant athletes who have come up through a youth system. But it's hard to see how any company can get excited about shelling out big bucks to represent a team full of guys that are pushing 40.
Most importantly, USA's team needs time to develop on the field. Lockerbie has often told the current U-19 team that they are the future of cricket in the country, that they will be 24 or 25 when by 2015, and that he hopes they will become the first crop of professional cricketers for the USA.
If his projected future comes to fruition, USA will be competing in the World Cup that year. Many of the players from the U-19 team that will compete in New Zealand this January could form the nucleus of the senior squad in six years. But they need opportunities to play. It makes no sense to build a squad for 2015 on players who will be approaching their 40s and 50s by then.
The onus will be on the selectors this weekend to choose a group of players that will give USA a strong chance of succeeding in February while also establishing a foundation and a development path for Lockerbie's destination date of 2015 and beyond. By sticking with older players, project 15 could expire by 2010.
Peter Della Penna is a freelance journalist covering US cricket for Cricinfo