A rare high for the USA in Ireland
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For the first time since they started playing international cricket, the USA team returned from an international tournament with a perfect zero. They lost every single match it played in the ICC Trophy in Ireland, from the warm-ups to their final defeat.
As they head home while the winners of the preliminary rounds divide up their cricketing spoils, there is a sense of shock in US cricket at this abysmal performance, shared even by those critics of the USACA who had excoriated it for its poor selection process and team management. This has been a far, far worse performance than anyone expected. And the agonising reappraisals are only just beginning.
Even their performance at the Champions Trophy, where the USA were held up to ridicule for fielding the oldest team ever in an ODI fixture, was better than this. USA very handily defeated Zimbabwe in a warm-up game last year, and performed creditably against Bangladesh; its crushing defeats came at the hands of New Zealand and Australia, who no-one seriously expected them to challenge.
In the Sharjah Challenge series a few months earlier, USA had beaten ousted Scotland, UAE and Denmark to win a place in the Champions Trophy. Two years earlier, they had soundly defeated Bermuda and Ireland in Toronto in the 2002 ICC Trophy. These were the very teams it was to play in this years' ICC Trophy, and even a cautious handicapper would have given them a decent chance to repeat their earlier performances.
Here is the first clue to what happened to the USA team in Ireland. The squad was practically the same team that had played in Sharjah and London; down to the heavily criticised team management. The others teams were not. Scotland and Ireland had revamped their sides and were fielding a large number of new and promising players; Bermuda had overhauled their selection and training practices, and were working with a promising new set of performers led ably by ex-West Indian cricketer Gus Logie. Even Canada, which earlier had nearly as poor a record in selection and training as the USA, had done some rebuilding around John Davison, who holds the record for the fastest ODI century in the last World Cup, and this was clearly working to their advantage.
And what of USA's approach to these new challenges facing it in Ireland? It was as if they never existed. Most supporters of the USACA argued against introducing too much new blood into the team -- let those players who won it for us at Sharjah be given the opportunity to win a place for USA in the World Cup as a sort of "last hurrah", and we can worry about new players after that place is secured.
Critics panned USACA's selection procedures, unresolved issues regarding nepotism and mismanagement, and the rampant cronyism that they saw in the appointment of officials for the ICC Trophy team. But even they failed to fully appreciate the dry rot that had crept into the USACA over years, which was to be the final nail in the national side's coffin.
Besides Malcolm Speed and Ehsan Mani, who had identified the underlying issues facing US cricket a year earlier, only Bernard Cameron of Major League Cricket pointed out the problems and came up with a plan to resolve them over time. But he was an outsider to USACA politics, had ruffled more than a few feathers among US cricket politicos with his forthright if brash statements, and anyway most of them were looking for "quick fixes" and not long-range solutions.
The results were -- and are -- plain to see. In going with experience, the USACA selectors ignored nominations from two-thirds of all the US regions, and after teasing the ICC with the promise that it would look at younger players, ignored them all and settled for mostly a hard-core of board loyalists.
The team trials were a farce -- many players marked for selection did not even attend, and several younger players who did show up claimed they were given no chance to display their skills. Once again, the USACA decided to hold a training camp in the Caribbean as it did for the Champions Trophy, ignoring the pleas of the cricketers that they should go to Ireland and the UK like the other teams were doing, to acclimatise themselves to the tournament conditions.
And the match-by-match team selections proved to be as bizarre as in the Champions Trophy, with in-form players being rested for no apparent reason and then called on to perform at their peak on immediate recall. It was as if the team was on an amateur holiday tour, where all paying members are expected to play to make their outlay worthwhile. One observer said the USA side looked like a disunited collection of individuals taking on well-drilled and passionate opposition.
Through all these months of cricket, two USA players stand out gallantly in defeat. Clayton Lambert, the former West Indies Test cricketer, was a lion-hearted performer whose bat had carried USA through Sharjah. But as the tournaments came and went, the old warrior's legs simply failed him -- his spirit was no match for younger legs, and faster fielders. Steve Massiah, the youngest player on the USA side, showed evidence of increased confidence and fluency, and his age and form augurs well for the future.
The bowling deteriorated badly over the year as age got the better of many so-called fast bowlers and there was no consistent spin bowling to speak of. As to fielding, the 50-odd extras conceded by the USA in their last match against Bermuda speaks for itself.
This USA squad has more than run its course. Its senior players need to find more sedentary pursuits, and leave the field to the players of the future.
Deb K Das is Cricinfo's correspondent in the USA