USA ready for the next rung on the Associates ladder
On Saturday USA will begin the next chapter in their journey to rise from the lower levels of the game as they try to advance through World Cricket League Division Four in Italy and on to Division Three next January in Hong Kong.
Six years have passed since USA played against Australia and New Zealand in the Champions Trophy. It will be five more before they can dream of visiting both countries for the 2015 ICC World Cup. Reaching that goal would be heaven for USA as they continue to make progress on the field since returning from the netherworld of ICC suspension, which was lifted in 2008.
One step in the right direction was a runner-up finish in February's WCL Division Five in Nepal. In a must-win game against Nepal in the final round-robin match of the event, USA's fast bowlers came through in the clutch on a flat track to lay the foundation for victory by five wickets, clinching a berth in Division Four. It was a huge psychological hurdle to clear after stumbling at the same event in Jersey two years earlier.
Much of the squad believed that the competition in Division Five was much stiffer than what they would potentially face in Division Four. Considering the fact that two of their opponents in this tournament, Argentina and Cayman Islands, have routinely been whipping boys for USA in ICC Americas competitions, it's easy to see why. True to form, USA pasted Argentina by 119 runs in May behind tons from Orlando Baker and Aditya Thyagarajan. Six days later against Cayman Islands, they notched a 10-wicket win with Sushil Nadkarni scoring an unbeaten 54-ball century.
Taking into account that USA defeated Jersey in Nepal by 66 runs, and Jersey finished unbeaten at the ICC European Championship Division One last month in which Italy finished last, USA aren't exactly quaking in their boots thinking about facing the hosts. Tanzania lost twice to Italy at home in the WCL Division Four in 2008. All things considered USA should see themselves as clear favorites to dominate in Bologna.
The first match against Nepal will be the biggest challenge. Nepal has the talent to defeat USA and did so in a rematch for the title at Division Five on the back of left-arm spinner Rahul Vishwakarma's seven-wicket haul. However, much of Nepal's spin-friendly attack will be neutralized on the artificial wickets that this tournament will be played on.
USA's players have vast experience playing on artificial wickets which are standard fare at most clubs throughout America. If USA lose that first game, the pressure will be on to run the table for the rest of the tournament in order to book a ticket to Hong Kong.
Another reason Nepal won that second match against USA in February was because they had fresh legs. USA's average age at that tournament was pushing 32. They seemed to have learnt the lesson by blooding younger players at the ICC Americas Division One in Bermuda and two of those debutants have retained their places for Italy: 23 year-old fast bowler Adrian Gordon and 20 year-old offspinner Muhammad Ghous, who was also a member of USA's Under-19 World Cup campaign in New Zealand. They have helped bring USA's average age down to 30 for this tournament. Meanwhile, Nepal's squad will enter with an average age of 23. It will be intriguing to see who wins the battle of youth vs. experience in the opening match.
The player with the most experience for USA is leg-spinner Nasir "Charlie" Javed. His controversial selection was met with scorn by many fans last month due to his position as a South East Region representative on the USACA Board of Directors in addition to the fact that he is 44. At the ICC Trophy in Canada in 2001, Javed tied for 12th in the wickets column with 14 in nine games at 22.21. The last time he played for USA, he collected three wickets in five games at an average of 32.66 in the 2008 ICC Americas Division One in Florida. Much attention will be paid to his contribution to USA's cause in Italy.
Javed and captain Steve Massiah are the only two players remaining from the Champions Trophy back in 2004. Massiah is dedicated to making sure it won't be his last competition against Full Member teams before his career is through. The journey for him and the rest of the squad, to qualify for the 2015 ICC World Cup, continues this weekend.
Peter Della Penna is a freelance cricket writer based in the US