Ghous eyes the main chance
One of USA cricket's biggest bugaboos over the course of recent history has been the fact that hardly any players have emerged out of its junior development programme to go on to play for the senior side. Instead, they have relied on expatriates who learned their trade overseas before moving to "The Land of Opportunity" to claim a spot on USA's roster.
However, some progress is being made to buck that trend. Muhammad Ghous, who came to America from Lahore as an 11-year-old in 2001, has parlayed personal success as part of USA's 2010 ICC U-19 World Cup team into a spot in the senior squad, for whom he will play, starting this weekend, at the WCL Division Four in Bologna, Italy.
"We haven't had a lot of players who have made the transition from the junior to the senior [level] over the years, but I must say that the one thing that I was very impressed with is his confidence and I think that's very important for any young player making a transition to the next level," said USA captain Steve Massiah about the solid performance of Ghous on USA's tour to Bermuda in May and June for the ICC Americas Division One Tournament.
"You have to have that self-belief to compete at that level, because most times it's your self-belief that's going to take you through. You have to believe in your ability and you have to be confident and feel that you belong there in order to perform, and I thought that's a great sign."
Ghous tied for the team lead on tour with 10 wickets split between three matches in the 50-over portion of the event, where USA finished runners-up to Canada, and four games in the Twenty20 competition, where USA defeated Canada for the title. Ghous said his confidence grew after he played against Jamaica in Florida prior to heading off to Bermuda. In his debut match for USA at the senior level, Ghous was their best bowler in a 132-run loss to Jamaica, turning in figures of 2 for 42 in 10 overs.
"The Jamaican team was very good. They had, like, five Test players," said Ghous. "I got a boost of confidence from there. I thought if I can bowl good against these guys, then certainly I can bowl really good in Bermuda against all those Associate teams."
Ghous sat out the first two matches USA played in Bermuda but in the third game he made an immediate impact against Bahamas, taking 2 for 34 in 10 overs. Two matches later, against Cayman Islands he took 3 for 21 in 10 with three maidens.
"My captain, when I got a chance to bowl, I got him a wicket," said Ghous. "The grounds were very small there. That was a disadvantage to the bowlers, but if you're going to bowl a right length, you can get the batsman mad and you can get his wicket, so I just bowled on a good length and got wickets from there. Throughout the tournament I just started bowling good and I didn't get dropped."
Ghous perhaps understands that he's not quite an automatic selection yet, but a valuable player when included as an offspinner. That role as a bowler is not exactly the way many people anticipated he would enter the senior team.
Ghous was the leading batsman and Tournament MVP at the 2009 U-19 National Tournament in New York, out of which USA's U-19 squad for the 2010 ICC U-19 World Cup was initially formed. It was a remarkable achievement considering he only started to play organised leather-ball cricket in 2006. He spent most of his time growing up playing with a tape ball.
However, when the team travelled to Toronto for the ICC Americas U-19 Championship in the first part of their qualifying journey, Ghous had a rough adjustment playing on turf wickets for the first time in his life and started to focus more on bowling offspin to help maintain his place in the squad. The move has paid off.
Two months later he bowled the most overs for USA at the U-19 Global Qualifier in Toronto, finishing with a 3.37 economy rate and nine wickets in eight games, including 5 for 46 against Afghanistan. It was the first time he had taken a five-for at any level. At the U-19 World Cup in New Zealand, he finished with four wickets and a respectable 3.77 economy rate in six matches. Although he faced off against South Africa and eventual champions Australia in group play, Ghous said it was in a warm-up match against India that he learned the most.
"Against India, they were going for everything," Ghous said. Both of India's opening batsmen retired, including Mayank Agarwal, who punished just about everything he faced from USA's bowling attack on his way to 104 off 82 balls. "I think I bowled in the Powerplay and the Indian openers were going after it really hard. So you've got to be mature and know about the game."
Since returning from that tournament Ghous has focused on his fitness more than anything else. "As long as you're fit, you can play the 50-over game," he said. "That's all you need, and on top of that I just started practising every day."
At the men's selection trials in April for the tour to Bermuda, Massiah saw enough to believe that Ghous was ready to step up and contribute.
"One thing that I must say I was impressed with was his control," said Massiah. "I figured that once he had enough talent, being around myself and a couple of the other senior guys, it could only have helped him."
"They see that I can bowl at the big level and I'm pretty mature. I have different deliveries and I can mix it up," said Ghous, referring to his arsenal, which includes a well-disguised doosra. He is also known for the rapid pace at which he completes each of his overs, further aiding his ability to keep pressure on batsmen. "Anytime, whenever they need me, I'm ready to bowl for the team."
While Ghous talks a lot about how he has matured on the field, he still projects the attitude of a blissfully unaware youngster off it. Perhaps drawing inspiration from Australian opener Phillip Hughes' foray into social networking during the 2009 Ashes, 20-year-old Ghous took the contents of an email he received in April from USACA informing him that he was selected to go to Bermuda and posted it as his Facebook status - 10 days before the squad was officially announced through a USACA press release. He also sports a carefully maintained David Beckham-style fauxhawk.
Ghous still dreams of making a major impact as a batsman and frequently talks up his batting skills. In June he scored his first century for his club team in New Jersey, but as far as the national side goes, his greatest worth is with the ball in hand. USA will be counting on him to tie down opposing batsmen in Italy starting Saturday, as the team aims for promotion to WCL Division Three in Hong Kong next January.
"I wish to do well and whenever they want me to bowl I will bowl and hopefully I will bowl good," said Ghous. "I just want to go up a division and win the trophy."
Peter Della Penna is a journalist based in New Jersey