Peter Della Penna is a journalist based in New Jersey
After spending the last year licking their wounds following a last-place finish in Hong Kong, USA return to ICC World Cricket League action this week in the Division Four tournament Malaysia, trying to rediscover the form that saw them finish Division Four champions in 2010 in Italy.
Much has changed since then. Gone are Lennox Cush, Kevin Darlington and Rashard Marshall, three key contributors to success in that event. Cush had helped steer the side out of trouble to win the last group match against Argentina, scoring a half-century after USA were reduced to 17 for 5, before throttling Italy with a 55-ball century in the final. Darlington was a steady and miserly presence with the new ball while claiming 10 wickets. Marshall made his first and only century for USA in that event, clubbing 122 off 84 balls to complete the turnaround against Argentina.
Charlie Javed was brought on tour in Italy as a 44-year-old leg-spinner. Today he is on tour in Malaysia serving as USA's bowling coach. Steven Taylor was a nervous 16-year-old, who was dismissed for a six-ball duck batting at No. 6 in his only appearance of that tournament. Two years later, he enters as arguably USA's most devastating batting threat at the top of the order.
Some fresher faces have been infused into the squad along with Taylor. Abhimanyu Rajp made his debut in March at the ICC World Twenty20 Qualifiers and wound up as his team's leading wicket-taker along with Muhammad Ghous with 10 wickets. Aditya Mishra scored two half-centuries in the same event, including one that took the team to an upset win over Scotland. Akeem Dodson, Andy Mohammed and Ryan Corns have found opportunities in the senior team after coming through USA's U-19 programme, just like Rajp and Taylor.
Steve Massiah comes back after negotiating his way through a four-month battle with the U.S. legal system. He is also bidding to reverse his diminishing form in a USA jersey. Massiah hasn't scored a century in tournament play for USA since 2006. Aditya Thyagarajan and Timroy Allen return to the fold as well, each player out to prove they can still contribute after battling injuries.
Even though the squad's identity has changed immensely since victory in Italy, the expectations remain high. The squad may not have developed much chemistry, but they are talented enough to come out on top once more.
Standing in their way will be three sides playing in familiar conditions. While Malaysia are the hosts, both Nepal and Singapore have plenty of experience playing in Kuala Lumpur through Asian Cricket Council tournaments. The conditions in Malaysia are not altogether different from those in Singapore either so it can be argued that the home-field advantage is shared by two teams in the tournament.
The weakest opposition is likely to be Tanzania, a team USA trounced by 10 wickets in Italy. While USA beat Denmark in a warm-up match ahead of the tournament, it will still be very fresh in the minds of both teams that Denmark derailed USA's experience at WCL Division Three in 2011. A day after defeating eventual tournament champions Hong Kong by 7 wickets, USA were beaten by Denmark in the round-robin stage by 30 runs then again in the playoffs by 84 runs. These two defeats ensured that USA finished with the wooden spoon.
But perhaps the biggest obstacle for USA will be to avoid the temptation of looking too far ahead to Division Three. Awaiting them will be Italy, a team USA beat comprehensively by 8 wickets on Italian soil two years ago in the Division Four final. The other three teams in Division Three won't strike much fear in the hearts of whoever gets promoted from Division Four either: Bermuda, Uganda and Oman finished 13th, 14th and 15th respectively at the 2012 ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier and while this is a different format, it is a strong indication of their talent level compared to fellow Associates. USA finished 12th in that event while fellow Division Four participant Nepal finished 7th in the UAE.
The most important thing for USA will be to get off to a winning start. USA have tended to be a front-running side and it won't be easy for them to dig out of a hole if they get into one. They have shown in the last three WCL tournaments they've played in that they are capable of neutralizing home-field advantage after defeating Nepal, Italy and Hong Kong in Divisions Five, Four and Three. They'll need to repeat that again on day one in Kuala Lumpur against Malaysia to get on the path back toward promotion and the 2014 ICC World Cup Qualifier