Well before USA took the field in Malaysia for the start of ICC World Cricket League Division Three, there were warning signs that the tournament could end up more as a charade than a celebration for the side. USA's relegation might seem jarringly sudden for some but it was more than a year in the making. Here's a breakdown of the key factors that contributed to USA's relegation and the road ahead for the side.
A T20 tournament to prepare for a 50-over one?
USACA's canceled pre-tournament preparation trip to Jamaica just a week out from the start of Division Three may be fresh in everyone's minds, but the seeds of this current debacle were sown much earlier. After USA's third-place finish at the previous WCL Division Three in Bermuda, USACA's then chief executive, Darren Beazley, was determined to revive the dormant national championship, but as a Twenty20 event with a television contract in mind.
Beazley tentatively secured a deal in January to have a T20 national championship streamed on the internet live from Indianapolis. In February, though, he resigned and by May, the three-year hosting agreement to hold the USACA championship in Indianapolis was terminated by the city. Inevitably, the broadcast agreement fell apart. Despite knowing they no longer had to cater their event to any broadcast demands, USACA stubbornly proceeded with plans for a T20 tournament instead of a 50-over event that could have prepared the players better for the WCL.
Inconsistent selection policies
Rain affected more than half the scheduled matches in Florida but the USACA T20 National Championship was rendered irrelevant by a haphazard selection process. Nisarg Patel, who was named the USACA Tournament's most valuable player and has played more cricket on turf wickets over the last five years than probably anyone else in the USA, was omitted from the 14-man WCL squad. Meanwhile, multiple players who did not show up for the national tournament were selected for Malaysia.
When ESPNcricinfo contacted a USACA selector to find out why some other USA regulars were not chosen, an example was given of Orlando Baker, who came home early from USA's last tour due to an ankle injury and had also recently suffered a back injury that forced him out of the national championship. The selectors felt they could not evaluate his fitness for a tour without seeing him at a selection camp and, as there was no selection camp after the nationals, the prudent move was to leave him out.
Multiple team sources in Malaysia, however, revealed that three players, including Sushil Nadkarni and Jermaine Lawson, had arrived with pre-existing injuries. Nadkarni played one match in Malaysia before sitting out the rest of the tour while an arm injury flared up for Lawson after the abandoned match with Nepal, nullifying the side's most potent pace weapon.
The third player, Srini Santhanam, apparently carried a shoulder injury into the event. Santhanam is a bowling allrounder but did not send down a single over at the USACA championship in August, which should have raised a red flag. He was unable to bowl in Malaysia either and as a result was forced into a top-order batting role he was ill-suited for. Senior batsman Aditya Thyagarajan also broke down midway through the tour. With Thyagarajan and Nadkarni out, USA had to play two batsmen short while allrounder Santhanam had to be hidden in the field.
A proper selection camp in September, something USACA stated they intended to hold, would have caught these issues before the team departed. Instead, USA's 14-member team wound up with arguably 10 fit men on tour, a massive handicap in WCL's structure of back-to-back matches. The 30-degree Celsius heat and 80% humidity in Kuala Lumpur only exposed USA's below-average fitness levels.
Impact of team management
After USA were relegated from Division Three in January 2011, former India allrounder Robin Singh was appointed coach in place of Clayton Lambert. The overriding view was that Lambert had done well to take USA from Division Five up to Division Three but someone with an elite coaching pedigree was needed to carry USA forward into Division One.
However, the results, across age groups, have not improved under Singh's stewardship. USA had participated in two of the previous three Under-19 World Cups before Singh's arrival, but have since missed the last two despite counting Steven Taylor, arguably the best young Associate batsman in the world, in their ranks. They have dominated a diluted competition pool at ICC Americas regional tournaments but USA's men have been poor in global events, ending in 12th and 15th place at the last two World T20 Qualifiers.
Singh has an impressive resume in the domestic T20 tournament circuit. He has been an integral part of the Mumbai Indians staff during their IPL and Champions League T20 titles, coached Uva Next when they won the Sri Lanka Premier League in 2012 and, most recently, coached Barbados Tridents during their Caribbean Premier League championship win in August. But Singh's schedule means USA is put on the back-burner.
Lambert may not have been a perfect coach, but he was based in Atlanta and made the effort to get around and see as many players as he could at various tournaments around the country, tracking their development in between appearances with the national team and giving help where he could. USA needs a coach willing to show a strong commitment to be available locally to its players, not just before a tournament.
USACA is faced with two options to avoid the same results: find the money to pay Singh and employ him full-time in the USA - an unlikely scenario given the board's debts in excess of $3 million and Singh's lucrative commitments in other T20 leagues - or hand the reins over to someone based in the USA who can operate within the constraints of USACA's financial state.
The road ahead
Steve Massiah, the USA captain, made the side's highest individual score of the tournament - 74 against Nepal - and is still an important player in the 50-over format. However, USA's next scheduled engagements are in T20s leading into next year's World T20 Qualifier, a format where Massiah offers little value.
Massiah is an influential figure in USA cricket so the likelihood of him being pushed out is slim but, at 35 and with no possibility of USA participating in the next edition of the WCL Championship, he may decide to walk away on his own. Thyagarajan, Nadkarni and USA's leading wicket-taker at this tournament, Usman Shuja, are all 35 or older. After the 2011 relegation, three senior players- Lennox Cush, Kevin Darlington and Carl Wright - and a coach exited the national team and the same could occur after the result in Malaysia.
There are glimmers of hope, though. Fahad Babar was meant to be a reserve batsman at the start of the tour but opened the batting in all but one match due to Nadkarni's injury. Babar ended the tour as USA's leading scorer by some distance, finishing fourth overall at the event with 247 runs. Batting allrounder Adil Bhatti finished third on the USA run charts and their roles in the ten-wicket win during the 5th place playoff against Bermuda showed what can happen when young, hungry players are given an opportunity to perform.