USA keen to continue upward climb
Beginning on Saturday in Hong Kong, USA's journey back up the World Cricket League ladder comes full circle when they get a chance to take part in Division Three. It's taken almost four years for USA's players to dig out of a hole they found themselves in courtesy of the country's cricket administration, with the lion's share of the digging done in 2010 in Nepal and Italy.
Back in 2007, USA were scheduled to participate in the inaugural ICC World Cricket League Division Three tournament in Darwin, Australia. Unfortunately, it coincided with an ICC suspension for the USA Cricket Association and when they were readmitted, they were relegated to Division Five. Now that they are back in Division Three, they don't intend to stay for long. But standing in their way is a handful of opponents far stronger than what they faced in 2010.
Based on talent, USA have what it takes to gain a third consecutive promotion. Much like any other sport though, cricket matches are not played on paper. For success in this tournament, contributions will be needed from top to bottom.
In 2010, USA relied on their batting depth to get out of sticky situations. Aditya Thyagarajan was USA's highest scorer in 50-over cricket last year with 612 runs at 55.64 despite coming in at six or seven on most occasions. Coach Clayton Lambert refers to him as the team's insurance policy, but the habitual need to cash in on it shows how inconsistent the rest of the batting order is.
Captain Steve Massiah was the leading scorer at Division Five last February with 289 runs including four of his six half-centuries on the year. Orlando Baker had one century and two 50s in 16 50-over innings while Lennox Cush had a 55-ball ton and three half-centuries in 14 knocks. Yet each of these three top- and middle-order batsmen averaged below 40 in 2010. Their contributions will be vital in determining the extent of USA's success in Hong Kong.
Another key factor will be the adjustment of four new players to the squad. Chief among them, left-arm spinner Asif Khan is being counted on to play more like a seasoned veteran instead of a rookie. The 31-year-old has first-class experience in Pakistan on his resume, but that was more than a decade ago. Asif was hit hard in USA's only warm-up fixture on Monday, going for 43 runs in six overs without taking a wicket against a Hong Kong Invitational XI that featured six players in the Hong Kong side for this tournament. Teenagers Mark Chapman and Nizakat Khan both registered half-centuries in that game. Hong Kong's more seasoned batsmen will be licking their chops if Asif can't get himself sorted out by Saturday.
The biggest concern for USA is that they have limited knowledge of most of their opponents. At Division Four in Italy, they had a good understanding of Nepal after playing them twice at Division Five and also faced off against two very familiar rivals from the Americas - Argentina and Cayman Islands. As for this tournament, USA should feel comfortable matching up against Italy having played them twice at Division Four. Ryan Corns and Muhammad Ghous may also recognize the five players in Hong Kong's squad that they played against in 2009 at the U-19 World Cup Global Qualifier in Toronto.
Other than that, they have scarce information heading into matches against Oman, Papua New Guinea and Denmark. PNG's players are traditionally very disciplined, fighting tooth and nail for every run and in the field. Oman and Denmark were both in Division Two until recently and are probably chomping at the bit to move back up. USA recorded victories by 10, 9 and 8 wickets at Division Four. No match will be that easy this time around.
Adding to the pressure for USA is the fact that at five of the last six WCL events, the host team has finished in the top two to gain promotion. The only team that didn't finish first or second was the Netherlands at Division One last July, and promotion and relegation was not at stake in that event. USA had the opportunity to ease themselves into action before facing Nepal and Italy on their opponents' home soil last year. They don't have that luxury this time around and if they falter against Hong Kong on Saturday, USA will most likely need to run the table to lock up one of the two open berths for Division Two in the UAE this April.
However, USA only has to look at recent history for inspiration that they can keep up their winning ways. Afghanistan completed a dramatic surge from Division Five to Division One in the span of 11 months from 2008-2009. It will take a little bit longer, but the possibility exists that USA can duplicate Afghanistan's run of consecutive promotions to climb into Division One by 2013.
On Saturday, USA will finally get to experience what they missed out on in Darwin. Halfway around the world, fans back home in America will be hoping that it's similar to the experiences the team had last year in Kathmandu and Bologna: climbing the next rung up the World Cricket League ladder.
Peter Della Penna is a journalist based in New Jersey