USA's Auty Cup showing highlights lack of depth
Thursday is the uniquely American holiday of Thanksgiving, a day when people around USA indulge in a traditional big turkey dinner with their friends and family while pausing to reflect and give thanks for all the things they are grateful for in their lives. After last week's performances turned in by a second-string USA squad at the Auty Cup series, USA's fans will be thankful for the return of their first-choice squad when 50-over World Cup and World Twenty20 qualification tournaments resume in 2013.
The four matches against Canada in Florida presented a rare and outstanding opportunity for some of USA's up and coming domestic talent, many of whom have been pining for a chance to play in a USA uniform for several years, to step up and make a name for themselves against a first rate Canadian unit. As the week went along, it was clear the step up in class that USA's players were attempting to make as the visitors came away with an 82-run first innings lead in a drawn two-day match to retain the Auty Cup, followed by a four-wicket win in a 50-over contest before both teams split a pair of Twenty20 matches.
Faced with the challenge of going up against batsmen who play a consistently higher standard of cricket in the Intercontinental Cup and World Cricket League Championship, USA's bowlers hung tough, particularly in the two-day match. Much of USA's success in World Cricket League events over the past several years can be linked to the fast bowlers at their disposal like Kevin Darlington and Usman Shuja. However it was USA's debutant spin bowlers who had the most success against Canada.
Timil Patel, formerly a first-class cricketer with Gujarat, took a match haul of 7 for 107 in 34 overs of legspin. Even more impressive was the effort produced by the left-arm spinner Danial Ahmed, who had no such previous elite level cricket experience to draw upon. Ahmed took like a duck to water in his first match for the national team, taking match figures of 6 for 73, including 4 for 34 in 18 overs during the second innings.
At the crease though, the match exposed USA's lack of batting depth. After lukewarm performances by several of USA's established veterans across 2012, many of the batsmen selected to play against Canada could have made an excellent argument for inclusion in tours for 2013 at the expense of some older batsmen on the wane. Yet, the output was reminiscent of the problems encountered by many associate players whose biggest struggle is maintaining their focus when trying to make the transition from weekend amateur cricket in local leagues to more intense cricket at a higher level.
"When I first went there, getting 30 and two wickets and a catch, that was the player of the match. That's the challenge, to create a performance-based environment because I can't have a whole team of people who get 30 and two wickets and a catch because that just doesn't happen. It doesn't win you a game of cricket. If they get five wickets and a 100, all of a sudden you start to win games." Those are the words of Australian selector Andy Bichel in reference to his time as Papua New Guinea's director of cricket. By the time he left PNG, their players had progressed beyond the "30 and two wickets" phase. As a result, they've already clinched a spot at the 2014 ICC World Cup Qualifier.
At the inaugural American Cricket Federation Twenty20 National Championship last month in Los Angeles, a player was visibly upset when he was passed over for a Man-of-the-Match award in one of his team's victories. He lost out after making 35 not out off 22 balls to top score in his team's total of 154 for 7 and later took 1 for 28 with the ball. His team-mate who won the award took 2 for 13 in four overs opening the bowling to prevent the opposition from gaining any momentum at the start of their chase. The former was still incredulous the day after the game, as though 35 not out and a wicket is a slam dunk performance to receive a Man of the Match award.
The pride of the "30 and two wickets" achievement referenced by Bichel resonates strongly at the domestic level around the USA but unfortunately USA's players seem to be entrenched in "30 and two wickets" mode at the national level too. No batsman has scored a century for USA in a live match at the senior level since Lennox Cush did it against Italy at the final of ICC World Cricket League Division Four in August 2010. Only once in USA's last 63 matches, a period stretching back to 2008, has one of their bowlers taken a five-wicket haul. USA's opponents notched one century and four five-wicket hauls against them during 19 matches in 2012. USA's record in those games was 0-4.
In the four matches last week against Canada, USA had 13 scores of greater than 20 but just one of those eventually turned into a half-century as Patel finished with 67 not out in the second Twenty20 contest which USA won by 46 runs. Players just aren't hungry enough for runs at the local level and that lack of fight and desperation to score heavy translates to their performances at the national level too. Rather than create an atmosphere of heightened competition for spots by putting pressure on the incumbents, the performances last week were just more of the same mediocrity USA has experienced since winning Division Four in Italy more than two years ago.
Perhaps the best example of an 'almost but not quite there' performance by a USA player against Canada was from Timothy Surujbally. He scored 24 off 55 balls in the two-day match and 28 off 54 in the 50-over game batting at No.3. Given an opportunity to open in the first Twenty20, he cracked four boundaries and a six in the first over but had to retire hurt on 27 in the middle of the third over after pulling a hamstring when he went for a sharp single. He looked good against pace, struggled against spin and ultimately never carried on to a significant score that banged down the door for selection and screamed, "Pick me for the tour to Bermuda next year!"
In 2012, many young players were given opportunities to prove themselves with the bat, but only Steven Taylor genuinely grabbed hold of his chance to cement a permanent place in USA's batting order. Everyone else has scratched and sniffed, but ultimately lacked the predatory ruthlessness necessary to not only fight their way into the national team, but stay there. USA's first-choice veterans exhausted their time off from work for the year and weren't available to play against Canada, but USA will be thankful to have players like Sushil Nadkarni at their disposal when they hit the road again in 2013 on the qualification path for the next couple of major ICC global tournaments.
Peter Della Penna is a journalist based in New Jersey