USA Cricket stepping up foreign recruitment to live up to ODI status
South Africans a particular target due to transformation issues and end of Kolpak status in UK
ODI status is spurring an ambitious recruitment drive by USA Cricket that could eventually lead to it fielding active internationals from around the world. That is part of a strategy with its commercial partner ACE (American Cricket Enterprises) to bring in professionals for its Minor and Major Cricket League setup, eventually putting players - potentially the likes of Sami Aslam and Corey Anderson - on a three-year residency path to switch allegiances and represent USA internationally.
Pakistan Test opener Aslam has been the most recent target of such efforts while multiple sources have indicated that New Zealand allrounder Anderson is another, potentially as a marquee player for the Major League T20 franchise based in Dallas. Anderson has not been picked for New Zealand in more than two years and has spent most of the Covid-19 pandemic in Texas, where his fiancée is based. According to sources, he has been spotted over the northern summer at local cricket matches around Dallas and has not played any part for Auckland in the Plunket Shield nor the Ford Trophy at the start of the 2020-21 New Zealand domestic summer.
The Major Cricket League's plans have received a shot in the arm recently, with the news that the Knight Riders Group - owners of Kolkata Knight Riders and Trinbago Knight Riders - will invest in it, as well as own a franchise.
"It's about the long-term sustainability of developing the sport in this country," USA Cricket CEO Iain Higgins told ESPNcricinfo earlier this year, ahead of the launch of Minor League and Major League Cricket initiatives.
"It's a balancing exercise. In an ideal world, we would have our entire squad made up of people who had been born in the USA, learned their cricket in the USA, had got into the junior pathways, represented USA at age group cricket, graduated, got selected into the minor league team, became a professional in the major league team, and then eventually get selected to play for the national team. That's where we're trying to head to. It's a question of how we get there from where we are right now.
"We want to win cricket games. We want to qualify for World T20s, we want to qualify for World Cups. We want to win cricket matches. By winning cricket matches, we're able to - we don't do this very well at the moment but we need to do this better - we build heroes and role models that are wearing the stars and stripes, and we need to amplify those stories. Sometimes those will be people who have come through the US and sometimes those will be people that come into the team because they have a passport or have qualified on residency grounds. But we want the USA team to be in the forefront of the international cricketing community's minds."
Sameer Mehta, ACE co-founder, confirmed in a recent press conference that some players had already relocated to the US. But the plan is for any such arrangement to go beyond just appearing in the national side.
"We just want to make sure that cricketers who relocate to the US are doing it for the right reasons," Mehta said. "In most cases, they're doing it to help grow the sport in the US, which means coaching in our academies, playing in the local leagues and of course playing international cricket. I think we'll be in the unique place where we'll have international-quality cricketers who will relocate to the US and play in our local leagues and be part of the fabric of the local community."
Rusty Theron made his USA ODI debut in September 2019 following a three-year residency qualification period, since when a slew of former South Africans have also been targeted. With CSA pushing for tougher transformation targets over the next few years which could limit the number of white South African cricketers in the national side to four, that could be fertile ground. ESPNcricinfo understands at least four young South African players are close to signing for the league.
Theron retired from South African cricket and moved to Florida to pursue a teaching degree before rekindling his professional career through USA's T20 club scene. He ultimately ended with a USA Cricket central contract. Theron's route, however, may become increasingly rare.
Dane Piedt was specifically recruited by ACE to come to the USA and given a contract earlier this year. Similarly, 23-year-old allrounder Willem Ludick - who represented South Africa at the 2016 Under-19 World Cup before playing in the last three Plunket Shields, was convinced to leave New Zealand for an ACE contract in Texas, despite being the second highest wicket-taker in the competition this past season for Central Districts. With the Kolpak route to the UK soon to be curtailed after Brexit, USA has fast become an appealing option to South Africans looking to earn good money, with contracts reported to be in the $100,000 range per year.
Overseas American passport holders have also become prioritized targets over local players in the last two years. Aaron Jones, Hayden Walsh Jr, and Karima Gore were plucked from Barbados and Antigua in the build-up to USA securing ODI status in 2019. Subsequently, the Australian trio of Cameron Gannon, Cameron Stevenson and Ian Holland have all made USA debuts in the last year. Attempts have also been made to recruit 2019 World Cup winner Liam Plunkett, whose wife is from Pennsylvania where the England bowler regularly spends his winters and he could potentially secure a US passport through her.
While the strategy means a new earning outlet for long-time overseas pros, it poses a potential obstacle for domestic talent to be able to work their way through a local pathway to the national team. At the moment, the only regular in the USA men's national team who has come up through the USA U-19 system is Florida native Steven Taylor.
Higgins said that ACE and USA Cricket established guaranteed roster slots for USA junior players in Minor League squads in the hopes they will enhance their skills to the standards comparable to what is seen overseas. However, Higgins said it would be naive for USA not to pick professional players brought in by ACE once they meet ICC eligibility criteria.
"It's very much our objective to invest now in the U-17s so that in two years time we have a very strong Under-19s team that we can go to a group qualifier for and go to the Under-19 Cricket World Cup and perform extremely well there," Higgins said. "Of course if people are performing at that level, whether or not another ten Rusty Therons turn up, then there's no reason why they would not get picked in the national team two or three years from now.
"We'd like nothing more than a national team to come from people who have all been born here in the USA and learned their cricket here. We've just got to be careful about picking the right balance. If someone has got a passport or someone has come and they meet the ICC regulations, then they meet the regulations. There's probably not a team in the world at the moment that don't want to pick their best team in accordance with the ICC regulations."
Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent @PeterDellaPenna