As USA approach the start of WCL Division Three in Uganda, head coach Pubudu Dassanayake said the team had improved significantly from the group that won Division Four on home soil in November. According to Dassanayake, if the team chemistry and spirit is at its peak to match the talent on paper, "I don't think anybody can come close to us."
USA's three successive failures at Division Three in 2011, 2013 and 2014, prompted a reevaluation of their preparation methods. In 2014, a scheduled warm-up tour to Jamaica was scuttled due to a combination of lack of funds and inability for some players to get visas and as a consequence the team arrived in Malaysia a few days before with little cricket under their belts. Unsurprisingly, they finished in the bottom two and were relegated.
This time around, the team gathered in Los Angeles for ten days of training, which included four warm-up matches against a strong local XI that featured a calibre of player such as former India U-19 medium-pacer Saurabh Netravalkar. They then traveled to Potchefstroom, South Africa where they had two more warm-up matches against a North West Invitational XI featuring numerous first-class players and captained by former South Africa U-19 allrounder Lesego Senokwane.
The second match was an especially good simulation for the pressure USA will be under in Division Three. After setting their opponents a target of 281, USA were rocked in the field by former North West U-19 opener Louren Steenkamp, who blitzed 126 off 115 balls. After 34 overs, North West needed 82 to win with six wickets in hand and Steenkamp still at the crease, but a pep talk at the final drinks break resulted in a furious comeback in the field and USA eventually won by 11 runs. Dassanayake said it was just the challenge USA needed heading into their first match against Oman on Tuesday.
"Overall I'm very satisfied," Dassanayake said. "I think from Los Angeles we got a lot. Everyone has put in a lot of hard work in those 10 days. Coming to South Africa for five days, two games and a couple of practice sessions - the games, I could not ask for better. The first game we had to chase. All the batters were exposed to conditions and we got through. The second game was the best scenario where the batters set up nicely for 280, then we didn't start well in the field so I think it was a good wake-up call for the team in the whole tournament.
"The South African team batted really well and to come back from a situation where we were in a very bad position, I think that game gave confidence to the team how you can turn around a game. The bowling attack, a couple of bowlers who came back at that time, we were discussing a lot who was going to get a wicket so everyone was exposed to situations and I cannot ask for better preparation."
One player who starred in that match was left-arm spinning allrounder Mrunal Patel, who scored 45 off 43 balls coming in at No. 5 before taking 3 for 43, including the wicket of Steenkamp. Mrunal was in USA's 2015 World T20 Qualifier squad, but missed selection trials for Division Four in 2016 because it clashed with his wedding. Available again, he impressed at the team's trials in Houston and has been in superb form, with Dassanayake giving strong indications that he will be in the starting XI for the first match.
"He's one of the guys who can handle spin and pace well," Dassanayake said. "He has the temperament and he's very knowledgeable. When you ask him to bat through the innings and hold down one end, he's been doing that from LA in many games. So I'm very happy how he's shaping up and looking at the top order, with some of the senior guys and having him in the number six position, I think our team is going to be a very, very strong batting unit. I think he's earned his place."
The only cause for slight concern for USA at the start of the tournament is that opening batsman Fahad Babar has been ruled out after failing to recover from a hand injury two weeks ago sustained during the team's LA training camp. Babar, who was USA's leading scorer at 2014 WCL Division Three in Malaysia, suffered a gash on his right-hand ring finger that required five stitches. He had the stitches removed on Tuesday but did not play in either warm-up match in Potchefstroom. Though he was able to bat in the nets, his hand is still not allowing him to field with the finger still wrapped in bandages.
It means that 20-year-old Sagar Patel, who was the leading scorer for USA U-19s at the ICC U-19 World Cup Qualifier in Malaysia in 2015, will come into the squad. Dassanayake indicated Sagar will not just come into the 14 but straight into the starting XI, as a like-for-like replacement opening the batting. Sagar has been in decent form during the team's warm-up matches, top-scoring with 83 in one of the games in Los Angeles.
"Fahad, we tried until the last minute checking that he's going to be okay or not," Dassanayake said. "He's getting better and better but he's not ready to play tomorrow. We don't want to take a chance so we made the switch. Sagar got the opportunity to play in every warm-up game and I think he proved that he's capable of performing at this level.
"I've been watching him for awhile and I think he's capable of scoring runs at this level. In the last two weeks, he's gotten opportunities to play and more than anything one of the key things that helped me make the decision was that he's a good player against spin as well. So looking at these conditions, he's ahead of Fahad and looking at all of these things contributed to the decision."