USA face baptism of fire

The United States of America face a baptism of fire when they play in their first-ever Under-19 World Cup in Sri Lanka next month.

The youngsters have been drawn in one of the two groups that include three Test-playing sides - Group B - and will face the beaten finalists from 2004, the West Indies, together with South Africa and two-time winners Australia. It all adds up to an intimidating prospect for the side that qualified for the tournament thanks to victories over all their regional rivals - Canada, Bermuda, Argentina and the Cayman Islands - in Toronto last August.

Even the most ardent USA cricket fan will recognise that respectability is the most attainable goal for the squad, especially in conditions none of the players will have encountered before. But in their favour is the fact those players are being guided by a coach who has seen it all before, the former West Indies batsman Larry Gomes. Gomes played 60 Tests and 83 ODIs between 1976 and 1987 (including a World Cup final at Lord's in 1983), was part of one of the greatest sides ever to play the game and his experience as a mentor to the players is likely to be vital over the next few weeks.

Having said all that, the players clearly have plenty of raw talent, as they have demonstrated over the past six months. To start with, they defied the odds to win last August's Toronto tournament as most casual observers were expecting Canada, whose senior side qualified for next year's World Cup in the Caribbean the previous month, to sweep all before them.

It did not turn out that way as the USA won their opening match against their more fancied opponents thanks to a handy batting display and a determined effort in the field. Their score of 246 was built around 67 from 16 year-old opener Ravi Timbawala and other contributions from Kumar Ramsabad (42), captain Hemant Punoo (32) and Dunae Nathaniel (22). Then legspinner Anil Deopersaud (3 for 44) and opening bowler Mohammad Rehman (2 for 49) played major roles as Canada were dismissed for 207, well short of the victory target.

With a victory like that under their belts in the first match it would have been easy for the USA to sit back and relax but, to their credit, they pressed on and hammered the other three sides in the competition. Bowling first on each occasion they dismissed Bermuda and the Cayman Islands for 86 apiece and Argentina for 105 and knocked off the runs with the minimum of fuss when their time came to reply.

Chief destroyer with the ball in those three matches was vice-captain Abhimanyu Rajp, an offspinner who captured 5 for 7 against Bermuda, 5 for 45 against Argentina and 1 for 18 against the Cayman Islands in the match that confirmed qualification for Sri Lanka. Punoo, also an offspinner, weighed in with 2 for 6 against Bermuda and 4 for 12 against the Cayman Islands and fittingly he was at the crease when victory in that final match was secured, unbeaten on 42.

Other players to watch out for with the bat in Sri Lanka could be opener Sumon Bari, who made a couple of solid contributions during the Toronto tournament, and wicketkeeper Akeem Dodson. Dodson, who was born in Queens, New York is one of four players in the squad born in the USA along with Deopersaud, Ramsabad and Timbawala. He was also part of the New York/North East side that won the National U-19 Tournament played in Los Angeles in November, scoring 76 and 71 not out in successive matches, the latter innings helping his side secure the title against the North West/South West side.

NY/NE were the only one of the four teams in the tournament that won all three matches they played and also included Punoo and Ramsabad. The other two line-ups taking part were Atlantic (including Nathaniel) and Central West/Central East, comfortably the weakest side of the quartet.

Since that tournament the build-up to Sri Lanka has continued with two warm-up matches in Florida against a USA A team led by senior captain Steve Massiah, and a tour of India. The U-19s lost their first meeting with the A side on 14 January when they were bowled out for 139 chasing the opposition's 176 for 9 but they could take some comfort from 50 by Dodson and three wickets for the left-arm seamer Nisarg Patel.

And they got their revenge the following day when, batting first, they made 212 (with 50 from Punoo, 44 from Bari and 41 in just 20 balls from allrounder Nathaniel) and then bowled the A side out for 182. That was encouraging and so was the side's first match on their tour of India on 25 January, which resulted in a four-wicket win over a Hyderabad U-17 line-up. Nisarg Patel took 3 for 14, Deopersaud captured 2 for 11 and another spinner, left-armer Alexandrino Kirton, took 2 for 19. The USA then edged home with six wickets down, with the major contributions coming from Timbawala (35) and Bari (25).

It all suggests plenty of reasons for optimism in the USA camp and whatever the results the squad achieves in Sri Lanka, the whole period from qualifying to taking part in the U-19 World Cup should be a terrific learning curve for the players which can only benefit them and cricket in the USA.

USA squad: Hemant Punoo (capt), Abhimanyu Rajp, Dominic Audain, Sumon Bari, Romeno Deane, Anil Deopersaud, Akeem Dodson, Alexandrino Kirton, Dunae Nathaniel, Mrunal Patel, Nisarg Patel, Kumar Ramsabad, Mohammad Rehman and Ravi Timbawala. Manager - Ashok Patel, Coach - Larry Gomes, Trainer/Physiotherapist - Basil Butcher.