Picture this: You're driving to the airport from your home in St Kitts with two plane tickets in your inbox. One ticket will take you to Miami, then on to Los Angeles for a USA national team training camp and potentially a central contract. The other ticket will take you to Miami, then on to Toronto for the Global T20 Canada and a gateway to franchise T20 cricket. What would you do?
It was a dilemma faced by 27-year-old Hayden Walsh Jr. one morning in late July. Three months later, he is preparing to play for Barbados Tridents in the CPL final as the tournament's leading wicket-taker. It doesn't take a genius to figure out which path he wound up taking.
"Trust me, it never occurred to me before that I would be in this position," Walsh Jr. told ESPNcricinfo on Friday from Trinidad ahead of the CPL final against undefeated Guyana Amazon Warriors. "I never would have told you I would be the leading wicket-taker this year. I thought I would have a good year in CPL, but not this great. It was just about trying to get into the starting XI and trying to cement a place but I did more than that."
But, if not for a twist of fate, his incredible tournament for the Tridents might never have happened. By the time he got to the airport and checked in on that July morning in Basseterre, he still wasn't sure which way he would go.
"I left St Kitts with two seats on the plane," Walsh Jr. said. "When I got to Miami, I had to decide whether I was going to go to the LA gate or the Toronto gate."
When Walsh Jr. was first drafted into the USA team in November 2018 for WCL Division Three, everything was a breath of fresh air. No longer was he buried in the Barbados franchise set-up behind two West Indies spinners in Jomel Warrican and Ashley Nurse.
"Barbados has nine players on the West Indies team and I would literally play three out of ten games a year," he told is in March while on tour in Dubai with USA to play their maiden T20Is against UAE. Since making himself available for USA, he was getting opportunities not just to bowl but to bat higher up in the middle-order as well and was making the most of those opportunities to became a very dependable player for USA on their march to ODI status at WCL Division Two in Namibia this past April.
In February, he had asked to be released from his Barbados first-class contract. As far as he was concerned, he had pushed his stack of chips to the centre of the table and was going all-in with USA. "I'm looking forward to a USA contract once we get ODI status," Walsh Jr. said. "I'm actually looking forward to a USA contract at the end of Division Two, once we qualify."
"My wife was like, 'These people aren't treating you right. They haven't been honest'. I needed to be respected more."Hayden Walsh Jr. struggled with the instability of playing for the USA
But USA's success suddenly brought just as many problems as solutions. Not long after USA Cricket announced intentions to start a T20 franchise league via a billion-dollar partnership with a group of investors to form American Cricket Enterprises (ACE), the first dominos started to fall. Head coach Pubudu Dassanayake, who had been a driving force in not just getting USA to ODI status but in recruiting Walsh Jr. to come play for USA, jumped before he was pushed out and announced his resignation in the second week of July.
The situation around the USA team started to become unstable. After initially being promised large sums and a guaranteed one-year central contract, Walsh Jr. says ACE principal Vijay Srinivasan reneged on their verbal agreement and lowballed him with a revised offer on paper.
"When I spoke to the people from ACE, they were promising one-year contracts but then when we actually got it, it wasn't what we expected," Walsh Jr. said. "When I actually saw what was sent to me, it didn't have the right amount. To get to the right amount I had to work towards a bonus and it wasn't for a year. It was actually for three months. I felt let down and just like they literally went back on their word."
A three-week USA national team training camp was organised in Los Angeles starting on July 22 in preparation for the Americas Regional Final scheduled for Bermuda in August for T20 World Cup Qualifying. Even though Walsh Jr. had already signed his contract to turn out for Vancouver Knights in the GT20 starting on July 25, he says he was still committed to come to the USA national team training camp as a show of good faith. However, Walsh Jr. says he made one request to ACE.
"You have got to help me to get out of the Vancouver deal because I have already signed the contract and cannot leave them high and dry just like that just because there's a camp," Walsh Jr. said. "If it was national duty [matches], then I would understand. So they agreed, yes, but then the same morning of the flight, [Srinivasan] told me I would have to go and inform Vancouver by myself."
"I was texting my wife [Tevelle] and she was like, 'These people aren't treating you right. They haven't been honest. If they really want you, why is it that they can't hold up their end of the deal properly?' So those things really made me say I need to be respected more and I'm gonna do what I believe is right for me."
Walsh Jr. had packed his suitcase the night before with nothing but USA training kit. He checked in on both tickets for the flight, but had his bags tagged to go through to Los Angeles. At some point, while he was cruising at 36,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean on his three-hour flight from Basseterre to Miami, he changed his mind. After he got off the plane and collected his bags at US customs clearance in Miami, he took his checked luggage back to the airline check-in desk and asked the baggage to be retagged to go to Toronto as his final destination.
Walsh Jr. started the season on the bench for the Knights' first three matches but after entering the line-up against Edmonton Royals, he made an immediate impact not just with the ball but in the field. He took the wickets of Canada captain Navneet Dhaliwal and New Zealand allrounder Jimmy Neesham to end with figures of 2 for 20 and also pulled off a run-out in a six-wicket win for the Knights. On USA's tour of the UAE in March he had pulled off three run-outs in a five-match stretch, including one-time England Test opener Haseeb Hameed in a six-wicket win over Lancashire, and now franchise cricket opposition was getting a taste of his all-round offerings.
"I think it's a very unique package that I offer," Walsh Jr. said. "I take wickets with my fielding as well, so if you can get a run-out or two in a game then… the person who is just taking 2 for 20 or 3 for 20 whereas I'm taking 2 for 20 with a run-out, it's a plus."
Walsh Jr. ended with seven wickets in just four matches for the Knights, tied for second on the team, giving them a late-season surge with his bowling as they went to the final before losing in a Super Over to Winnipeg Hawks. Despite skipping the USA squad camp and formally rejecting their central contract offer, he was still keen to play for USA. But the early signs of instability that began with Dassanayake's departure started to grow more alarming on tour in Bermuda in August. Entering the regional T20 Qualifiers as favorites, USA fell well short of expectations, losing four of six matches - getting swept aside by Bermuda and Canada - to fall short of advancing to the T20 World Cup Qualifier in the UAE.
"I personally think that I was bowling well, I didn't lose my rhythm at all," Walsh Jr. said. "The thing I think that went wrong was I don't think there was any clarity in what our plans were or what my role was to do. Going into the game, it was just a free-for-all. I didn't know what the plans were. Sometimes it was like everyone is looking around to see who is gonna bowl and what's gonna happen now."
"What you'd find happening is someone is shouting from the boundary, 'Do this!' Someone is right next to the captain telling him what to do. You'd see three people around the captain telling him, 'Okay, we're gonna do this!' It happened more than once. It just kind of seemed like everything is just not in place, everything is a little flustered and it has a trickle-down effect into the captain, whoever is on strike and whoever has the ball in their hand."
With 14 runs left to defend, Walsh Jr. took the ball for the 19th over in USA's do-or-die match against Bermuda on day four of the tournament. They had lost to Bermuda and Canada once already, sitting on two points with a win over Cayman Islands. Lose again and they were eliminated with two days to spare, and it would be Bermuda and Canada who would advance to the UAE. Deunte Darrell struck two sixes off Walsh Jr. straight down the ground to clinch the match with seven balls to spare.
"I was disappointed for sure," Walsh Jr. said. "But I don't think that I put myself down too much because we didn't start off playing very well so it just summed up the whole tournament."
Two days later, Walsh Jr. wasn't given the ball at all in a consolation win over Cayman Islands, then bowled just a solitary over on the last day against Canada, taking 1 for 8 in another loss. He says that though it may have looked to outsiders like he was being "punished", he did not interpret the tactical decision that way saying, "I know I can't be judged off of one over where I didn't get the team over the line."
However, the entire atmosphere around the national team structure since Dassanayake left made him reluctant to turn out for USA's first home ODI series in September in Florida. Three teammates - Xavier Marshall, Aaron Jones and Saurabh Netravalkar - wound up choosing USA over the CPL after receiving central contract offers. But Walsh Jr. and Ali Khan decided to continue keeping their options open.
"I wasn't too happy about the contract situation," Walsh Jr. said. "Honestly, I felt like I was being underrated and after GT20 I thought that the contracts they were offering me didn't suit how much I think I was worth. So I just wanted to give myself the best opportunity to show my skills, show the world what I've got, and to show [ACE] that I'm worth more than what they're offering me."
Walsh Jr. made the decision with eyes wide open about his CPL prospects. Unlike Khan, who was a first-choice player in the starting XI during Trinbago Knight Riders' title-run in 2018, Walsh Jr. spent most of last year at St Kitts & Nevis Patriots sitting behind Sandeep Lamichhane. At this May's draft, Lamichhane was taken by the Tridents for US$ 70,000 in Round 5 whereas Walsh Jr. was the Tridents final selection in round 17 for US$ 3000. But from the moment he arrived in a Tridents team run by Phil Simmons and captain Jason Holder, Walsh Jr. says he felt far more comfortable than he had around the new USA staff headed by Kiran More and Sunil Joshi.
"This atmosphere is very clear," Walsh Jr. said. "Everyone knows what their role is. So when I came in, I knew that my role was to be a bowler. I'm probably not gonna bat that much and I knew that with Sandeep being here, probably might not get any games until he leaves. So all I have to do is to be prepared when he leaves or if he's injured to be that back-up spinner."
Walsh Jr. started on the bench for the season opener in Guyana, but joined Lamichhane in the attack for the next two matches against the Patriots and Jamaica Tallawahs, taking two wickets on each occasion. He went back to the bench for the next three matches when conditions favoured seam and Lamichhane was used as the lone specialist leggie, though Walsh Jr. utilised the chance to soak up what he could from the Nepal teenager.
"When Sandeep was around, I've been spending a lot of time with him," Walsh Jr. says. "His mental belief, he believes in himself a lot and I really think that rubbed off on me. Even though I've been practicing a lot and I haven't been getting a lot of games, I know that I've put in the work so all I need to do is just believe that I've done enough work and I can do what I know I'm supposed to do in the games."
When Lamichhane left for national team duty, it was Walsh Jr.'s turn to come back into the XI against Trinbago Knight Riders. He took 5 for 19, the only five-wicket haul across the entire tournament in 2019 in a big win over the defending champions.
"My confidence skyrocketed," Walsh Jr. said. "Before the five-wicket haul, I'd been having lots of chats with JP Duminy about performing and how to deal with nerves, life and all that stuff. My talks with him have been very influential in helping me perform. Before, I would say sometimes I would get nervous but now the nerves don't get to me. JP Duminy has been a mentor to me and I really have to thank him for that and for what he's done for me."
After two more wickets in a one-run loss to the Patriots, the Tridents were staring at elimination from playoff contention at home against the St Lucia Zouks. The Zouks needed 29 off 24 balls with five wickets in hand and captain Darren Sammy at the crease. But Walsh Jr. was given the ball and took three wickets in the 17th, including that of Sammy, before icing the match in the 19th with 4 for 26 in a stunning win. His over to Darrell in Bermuda was the furthest thing from his mind.
"I forgot about that a long time ago," Walsh Jr. said. "I live for those moments where it's, 'this is the moment of truth and we need someone to step up and be counted.' I think I perform better in those moments than when there's nothing really going on and there's nothing to play for. When I got the last wicket, Fawad Ahmed, the whole of Kensington Oval literally erupted. That is when I know this is something special because we were really down and out and we had to do or die."
He's taken two more wickets in every match since and also shown his merciless fielding with a momentum-shifting run-out of Kieron Pollard in the de facto semi-final against Knight Riders. If Walsh Jr. was a menace in the field before, fielding coach Trevor Penney has lifted him to a world-class level. Even on days he wasn't in the XI, Penney would give Walsh Jr. "50 catches every day".
The contributions of Simmons, Holder, Lamichhane, Duminy, Penney and everyone else at the Tridents have moulded Walsh Jr. into a player now on the West Indies and the IPL radar. Walsh Jr. says he intends to put his name in the IPL auction pool for December and acknowledges he's had discussions with people in the West Indies set-up to gauge his interest if they were to pick him for their November tour of India for 3 T20Is against Afghanistan.
It would force him to choose whether he wants to still represent USA or switch allegiance to the team he grew up "dreaming of playing Test cricket" for as a boy in Antigua. He says he'll cross that bridge if and when he gets to it. For now, he's focused on winning a CPL title.
"I feel like we're on a roll and anything is achievable right now," Walsh Jr. says. "I'm really pumped up for this final and I think we're gonna win it."
Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent @PeterDellaPenna