Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent. @PeterDellaPenna
When Sushil Nadkarni suffered an injury relapse which effectively ended his international career at ICC WCL Division Three last October, the drop-off in experience and talent was expected to be significant. Nadkarni had been USA's most prolific scorer since making his debut in 2006 and was an intimidating presence at the top of the order, both for his explosive shot making and his sheer physical stature.
While there is little doubt that USA misses Nadkarni's veteran leadership presence in terms of experience, the gap in talent is not as drastic as initially projected thanks to the emergence of Fahad Babar. Brought as a reserve batsman on the tour to Malaysia, 23-year-old Babar was thrust into the opening slot when Nadkarni went down and has flourished in the limited opportunities he has had to prove himself.
After feeling his way around during his first few games at Division Three against Uganda and Bermuda, Babar reeled off scores of 47, 59, 44 and 63 not out to end the tournament. If Nadkarni had been healthy, Babar might not have seen the field at all but instead he wound up as USA's leading scorer with 247 runs, which was also good enough for fourth overall in the event. Six months later, Babar showed that a Chicago winter and lack of matchplay hasn't dulled his senses one bit and he picked up right where he left off against Bermuda in Malaysia to strike an unbeaten 78 on Sunday in Indianapolis.
"The main thing is I think fitness," Babar told ESPNcricinfo after USA's five-wicket win on Sunday when asked what has been the key to his early success with the national team. "I have been working really hard. I have improved my fitness which has helped me a lot and helped me improve my batting today. I think it was a good job by the whole team."
What was also impressive was the calm he demonstrated despite continually losing partners. Such temperament is hard to find young players who lack the experience of someone like Nadkarni but Babar never once look flustered and instead seemed to thrive as the pressure began to mount late in USA's chase. His maturity was also evident in who he chose to target in the Bermuda attack.
"We have played Bermuda before and I know their bowlers well," Babar said. "I knew they had one good left-arm bowler [Delray Rawlins] but other than that they were okay bowlers so my main focus was to play out the left-arm bowler."
His performance was made more special by the fact that he was able to do it in front of nine family members who made the three-hour drive in the morning from Chicago to get to Indianapolis in time for the start of play. The last time they were able to watch him play in national colors was more than four years ago in Florida for the USA U-19 team. Babar only scraped together 14 runs in four innings at that tournament so today's effort helped create happier memories than the ones they had to take with them on the 20-hour drive from Fort Lauderdale back to Chicago.
"It was a great feeling," Babar said. "Thanks to my family they have been supporting me throughout. The ICC tournament is happening in our region so it's a proud moment for us. Other people were supporting us as well which was great to see."
Though Babar is part of a very raw squad which was the only team in this tournament not to have any practice matches in the month leading into Sunday's opening matches, Babar believes that the energy and enthusiasm in this squad has been uplifting and that it will help them overcome their lack of experience to hopefully finish with a repeat of USA's tournament title from 2013.
"We have won our last two games against Bermuda so the confidence was there," Babar said. "We have beaten them twice [in Malaysia] and today we did it again. I think it's a really good team. They're all new young guys and I think we have a really good chance for winning this tournament."
United States of America
U.S.A. vs Bermuda
ICC Americas Region Division One Twenty20