USA U-19 ambitions hit by poor planning
Six months ago USA's Under-19 squad was riding high after beating Canada Under-19, completing an undefeated run to claim the ICC Americas U-19 championship. The team had confidence and, with five players returning with experience from the 2010 U-19 World Cup in New Zealand, qualifying for the 2012 World Cup event seemed realistic. However, thanks to kamikaze planning by the USA Cricket Association (USACA), the team failed to qualify for next year's tournament in Australia.
Several strange decisions were made prior to the team heading for the 2011 U-19 World Cup Qualifier in Ireland. Unlike in 2009, when USACA held its U-19 national tournament in May prior to the Americas U-19 Qualifier in July and the U-19 World Cup Qualifier in Canada that September, the administration tentatively planned to hold the 2011 U-19 national tournament in October. Staging the competition earlier this summer would have been the best way to evaluate who deserved to go to Ireland.
Instead, a half-baked camp was held in June in New York, after which some questionable selections were made. Five New York region players were chosen, though several of them had no noteworthy performances to speak of. Meanwhile, only two players made it from the North West, a region that stood head and shoulders above the rest of the country over the last several years for its ability to produce good young talent.
A four-match series against West Indies U-19, scheduled a few weeks after the selection camp, did nothing for the USA players other than humiliate them and destroy their confidence heading into Ireland. Now that the team failed to qualify for Australia, the only reason the U-19 national tournament will remain on the calendar this autumn is to fulfill an ICC mandate in order to make sure funding from the game's governing body continues to flow in.
More bizarre choices in the last month did not help the team's preparation either. USACA flew two players in to Florida, Stephon Singh and Christopher van Tull, to participate in some of the matches against West Indies U-19 despite neither player having ever been part of any USA squad or even a selection trial. They were brought in allegedly because they would be eligible to play for USA if the current group qualified for the World Cup in Australia. It deprived those in the squad for Ireland of playing opportunities and damaged team chemistry.
There was also no continuity in the leadership. Abhijit Joshi was named captain for the Americas U-19 Qualifier in February, but was removed in favour of Greg Sewdial for the tournament in Ireland. Sewdial had hardly played any competitive cricket since spending more than a year recovering from two surgeries to his left ankle.
Head coach Robin Singh arrived late for the series against West Indies U-19, leaving Sew Shivnarine in charge of team training. Robin then left the country for unknown reasons after the fourth match, while Shivnarine flew to Connecticut to scout talent at the U-15 national tournament. It meant that for the next five days, team manager Wesley King was running training along with USA women's head coach Linden Fraser, who was flown to Florida to help out until the team left for Ireland.
The squad then spent a week in Strabane, Northern Ireland, ahead of their first match against the hosts, but only played one warm-up game against a local club side. Robin didn't rejoin the squad until they arrived in Dublin for the start of the qualifiers. There was a gap of 12 days where he wasn't around. When players were asked in Florida what they were working on while Robin was away, the general response was a shrug of the shoulders.
It was apparent that the players were confused by the coming and going of coaches. That lack of mental clarity seemed to have an effect on them in their first two matches. USA's batsmen were called short of a run twice and dropped several simple chances in a one-wicket loss to Ireland.
The next day against Papua New Guinea, first slip jumped out of the way of a wide delivery rather than catch it, which resulted in five runs, and four overthrows were conceded later on when no one backed up a shy at the stumps. Still, USA appeared to be on their way to victory before getting involved in two sloppy run-outs in the span of 15 balls and they eventually fell short by six runs. By the end of the tournament, those missed opportunities cost USA a spot in the top six and a chance to compete in Queensland next year.
The general behaviour of the management also left a lot to be desired. King refused to make Robin or Sewdial available to the media following the loss to PNG. When he was questioned about it a few days later, after the team's win over Afghanistan, he reacted with an outburst just moments after Mital Patel, who had taken six wickets and completed a hat-trick, had been presented with a Man-of-the-Match award.
At the tournament's closing ceremony and dinner, USA's players were the first to leave while Robin never showed up. So they did not witness the gesture made by PNG U-19 head coach Andy Bichel at the end of the night as he led his players across the room to shake hands with each and every member of the Scotland team, the tournament's champions. That's the kind of leadership USA players at all levels need on and off the field, but which has been absent for a long time.
Perhaps the saddest example of USACA's failure to guide and nurture young talent to prepare them for the international level is the case of Joshi. Three years ago in the Caribbean, Joshi set the CLICO International U-15 Tournament alight with 265 runs in six innings, including four half-centuries, to finish fifth overall on the runs-chart, behind two players from Pakistan and two from West Indies, John Campbell and Kraigg Brathwaite.
Braithwaite has gone on to play Test cricket and Campbell torched USA U-19, scoring three centuries in four matches during the West Indies U-19 tour of Florida. In that same series, Joshi could only manage 31 runs in three innings, and in 21 innings for USA at the U-19 level, he's never reached 50. Ireland's George Dockrell took just three wickets in five games at the 2008 CLICO tournament, but has since left Joshi in his wake. The difference in each player's development was poignantly summed up two weeks ago when Dockrell bowled Joshi off the only ball he faced from the left-arm spinner. Dockrell went on to lead Ireland to a third place finish at the qualifier while USA ended up seventh.
Whether it's with the senior or the junior teams, USACA's current administration continues to make the same mistakes and doesn't equip its squads with the right tools to succeed. Unless new blood comes into power during the next USACA elections, and sweeping changes are made to the way cricket is structured in America, the ICC would be well advised to turn their efforts away from New York and focus on development in Beijing and Shanghai as a way to spread the game.
Peter Della Penna is a journalist based in New Jersey