USA cricketers' chance to shine
After more than three years of sitting on the sidelines, USA's eight regional senior teams will take the field once again this weekend at the USA Cricket Association T20 National Championship in Florida.
Back in 2011, the competition was held at what can best be described as a group of swamps and cow pastures scattered around north and central New Jersey. Several teams contemplated staging a protest midway through the event by refusing to play after becoming fed up with the substandard fielding conditions. They were eventually talked out of it by administrators and matches resumed as normal. This time, though, USACA has ensured that players will get an opportunity to showcase their skills at a proper cricket facility and the only ICC-approved ODI stadium complex in the country.
The event comes at a pivotal time for USA. Six weeks from now USACA will have to declare its 14-man roster for ICC WCL Division Three, which presents a chance for USA to go back up the Associate cricket ladder. A top-two finish in Uganda is the first step to get back into the multi-day Intercontinental Cup, which USA has not been a part of since 2004, and the World Cricket League Championship. Like most Associates, USA's fixtures calendar has been sparsely populated in recent years and qualifying for the Intercontinental Cup and WCLC would present a golden opportunity for some of the younger players in particular to gain experience and develop their skills, not to mention the chance to go to the 2019 World Cup.
On paper, the 19 games scheduled to take place this weekend will provide an analysis of who should be included in the tour to Uganda. However, there are still some players and administrators around the country who have been left jaded from past experiences, where transparency in team selection processes has been questionable at best. It does not help matters that there has been no official notification of any selectors who will be on duty to evaluate talent in person over the weekend.
While this event is meant to be a representation of the best talent the country has to offer, more than a dozen recent USA representatives are missing from the regional squads traveling to Florida. A few have suffered loss of form and just haven't been picked. Many others were picked but withdrew by choice due to financial reasons or work availability issues. One or two others are missing out due to injury.
Among the names absent from this weekend's competition are five players who have captained USA in one form or another in the last two years: Sushil Nadkarni, Neil McGarrell, Timroy Allen, Orlando Baker and Ryan Corns. Other key players missing are left-arm seamer Elmore Hutchinson and offspinner Muhammad Ghous, who formed the backbone of USA's attack at the country's two most important international assignments in 2013, ICC WCL Division Three in Bermuda and the World T20 Qualifier in the UAE.
In the past, USACA has shown a degree of flexibility for selecting certain players regardless of their domestic tournament participation due to their match-winning qualities. Time will tell if some of these names are fortunate enough to be included in the final USA squad when an official announcement comes in late September.
Others have made it a priority to make their presence known in Florida in an effort to press their cases for a recall to the national team. They include New York captain Steve Massiah, Central West captain Usman Shuja, South West vice-captain Aditya Thyagarajan, New York batsman Rashard Marshall and North East batsman Aditya Mishra. There is also Test calibre representation at the event in the form of New York bowler Adam Sanford and Central West coach Asif Mujtaba.
The south Florida heat was stifling on Thursday, with temperatures hovering around 35 degrees Celsius. The humidity from the thick sea air produced a heat index touching 40 degrees and more of the same is expected once the tournament gets underway. It will be a major physical challenge for amateur players, especially on days where there are multiple Twenty20 matches for each team to play. The possibility exists for teams to play as many as three matches on the final day.
One more subplot for this weekend is the viability of cricket going forward at the stadium inside Central Broward Regional Park in Lauderhill. Since the $70 million purpose-built facility opened seven years ago, there have been more non-cricket events staged there than cricket ones. The pitch was dug up and relaid 30 feet further north in October and November to accommodate the growing amount of dates reserved for soccer at the complex.
The few cricket tournaments played since the new pitch was installed have received poor reviews for the quality of the strips produced, with the main complaint being almost non-existent carry and bounce. Good length balls coming to batsmen at ankle height is a common occurrence. The preparation and suitability of the wickets produced for this tournament will more than likely come under the scanner once again, especially if they fail to meet the standards and expectations of the players. If the athletes who the facility was designed for hardly use the place, and don't have glowing recommendations when they do use it, the possibility increases that the stadium will become renovated for something besides cricket sooner rather than later.
At the end of the day, though, USA's cricketers have faced far more daunting challenges in the past and they have soldiered on. They only need to be reminded of the hurdles overcome at the last USACA T20 National Championship in 2011 to appreciate the simple things Lauderhill offers, like low-cut outfields and natural turf wickets as opposed to six-inch high grass and coconut matting. The next three days offer a platform for some of US cricket's unknown talent to shine brightly in the Florida sun. It's up to them to take advantage of it.
Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent. @PeterDellaPenna