USA drop key veterans for ICC WCL Division Three
In a shocking move, veteran batsman Aditya Thyagarajan and fast bowler Usman Shuja were left out of the 14-man USA squad for the 2013 ICC World Cricket League (WCL) Division Three beginning April 28 in Bermuda. USA need to finish among the top two teams to have a chance of advancing to the 2014 ICC World Cup Qualifier.
The selection put a dampener on the jovial atmosphere in the team after they finished a 10-1 campaign in Florida across two weeks in March. Captain Steve Massiah could be seen having a long conversation with both men at the team hotel after the news filtered in, and it was hard to tell who was consoling whom. Before long, several other senior squad members made their way into the lobby trying to come to grips with the situation at hand.
Thyagarajan, 34, is USA's third-highest run-scorer in 50-over cricket after USA captain Steve Massiah and vice-captain Sushil Nadkarni and has been a member of the national team since his debut for USA in 2008 at ICC WCL Division Five in Jersey. He was the team's leading scorer in 2010 but, in January 2011, he suffered a dislocated right knee during a WCL Division Three match against Denmark in Hong Kong.
He made his return to the national team in September at ICC WCL Division Four in Malaysia where he only scored 35 runs in four innings as he struggled to regain match fitness. However, Thyagarajan scored a century at the USACA 50-over National Championship in November and was in decent form last week against Bermuda, scoring 86 runs in three games at an average of 43.00.
Thyagarajan has made his reputation by digging the team out of precarious situations. He played his best knock in Italy in the summer of 2010 in the last round-robin match of ICC WCL Division Four, which USA needed to win in order to guarantee promotion to Division Three. USA were 17 for 5 against Argentina, with four of the top six batsmen dismissed without scoring. In a remarkable fightback, Thyagarajan and Rashard Marshall produced a 205-run unbeaten partnership for the seventh wicket with both batsmen scoring centuries to steer USA to safety and an eventual win.
Shuja is USA's second-highest wicket-taker in limited-overs cricket, behind former captain Zamin Amin, and was expected to lead the bowling going into Bermuda having played 46 games since 2006. He has a strong record against Nepal, one of the favorites to secure promotion from Division Three, with 15 wickets at an average of 16.07 in eight matches and one five-wicket haul. In three matches against Bermuda last week, Shuja took 2 for 106 in 18 overs while battling the effects of pneumonia he contracted over the winter.
According to several sources, USA coach Kumaran Thirunavukkarasu brought Shuja and Naseer Jamali together ahead of the team's third 50-over trial match against Bermuda on Friday, and told them that this match "was the most important game of their lives" with the implication that they were in head-to-head competition with each other. Shuja finished with 1 for 52 in 7 overs, Jamali 2 for 63 in 10.
In all, six players from the squad that finished runner-up at Division Four in Malaysia last September are absent from the squad being sent to Bermuda: Thyagarajan, Shuja, Ryan Corns, Aditya Mishra, Andy Mohammed, and Abhimanyu Rajp. Corns was USA's leading wicket-taker two weeks ago at the 2013 ICC Americas Division One Twenty20 tournament while also being one of only three players on the team to score a half-century, an unbeaten 61 against Bahamas.
Marshall and Barrington Bartley make their return to the USA roster after extended absences. Marshall last toured with USA in 2011 but scored a half-century last week against Bermuda to secure his spot on tour while Bartley produced a spectacular 111 not out off 65 balls against Bermuda last Friday to earn his spot. The last time Bartley played in an ICC tournament for USA was at the 2005 ICC Trophy in Ireland.
Danial Ahmed and Neil McGarrell are the two left-arm spinners being brought along for Bermuda. Ahmed has been impressive in limited appearances for USA since making his debut in November against Canada. McGarrell, a former West Indies Test player, is hoping to make an impact for USA playing at the age of 40 in his first ICC tournament for the country. USA tried to draft him in for the tour to Hong Kong two years ago but he was ruled ineligible at the time by the ICC.
Jamali and Japen Patel are the other two changes from USA's September tour to Malaysia for Division Four. In 20 career matches for USA, Patel's highest score is 40 which he scored on Friday against Bermuda. Jamali, a former USA U-19 World Cup squad member, is also thin on experience at the senior level having played just eight matches for USA. The left-arm seamer took 2 for 82 in 14 overs during the 50-over series last week against Bermuda in Florida.
Regardless of the quality of the other players in the squad, USA is now heading into Bermuda without adequate middle-order protection in an important tournament. A top-two finish would send them to the 2014 ICC World Cup Qualifier in New Zealand and could open the door for a significant increase in ICC funding. Falling short of that would keep USA stuck in the Associate and Affiliate cricket stage for the foreseeable future.
USA is expected to leave for Bermuda on April 25, three days ahead of their first match of the tournament against Nepal on April 28.
One step forward and two steps back. That's what the USA Cricket Association has achieved over the last two weeks by going undefeated as the host side of the 2013 ICC Americas Division One Twenty20 tournament, only to follow up that success by dropping a pair of their most indispensable resources ahead of ICC World Cricket League Division Three in Bermuda.
One of the great problems in USACA's quest for professionalism is finding a way to properly evaluate players at the local, regional and national level to ensure that the best and most deserving eleven are representing the country on the field at all times. Instead of having paid staff accountable for a handful of important decisions relating to USA's on-field performance, it's left to volunteers who are often unsuitable and unqualified for the tasks they are expected to carry out. Most people involved in selecting the US national team have rarely, if at all, seen the team play in an ICC tournament. USA's matches are not televised anywhere and few administrators have the time or the money to ferry themselves around the world to see the players compete in person. Unfortunately, USA's on field competitors turn into faceless names on a sheet of paper as a consequence of that.
USA was a rudderless ship in Hong Kong two years ago when Thyagarajan went down injured and there are now legitimate fears that without him the team could be headed for a shipwreck in Bermuda. Nepal and Italy, USA's first two opponents at Division Three in Bermuda, have squads geared to navigate the tricky waters in front of them and could leave USA in their wake on the way to the World Cup Qualifier.
It was somewhat fitting that the USA squad was announced on the same day that season three of the hit HBO television series Game of Thrones premiered in the USA. Both Thyagarajan and Shuja have been longtime loyal servants of the national team, but witnessing their axing is as jarring as seeing Ned Stark cut down by the Lannisters. Spring may have begun while USA was in Florida, but winter is coming for the team as they head off to Bermuda.
Peter Della Penna is a journalist based in New Jersey