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USA's spearhead moves to number one

Few fast bowlers in the USA are as canny and cagey at working batsmen over and getting them out as Usman Shuja

Usman Shuja has become USA's all-time leading wicket-taker in 50-over matches  •  Peter Della Penna

Usman Shuja has become USA's all-time leading wicket-taker in 50-over matches  •  Peter Della Penna

A record that stood for more than a decade fell way out in the fringes of Kuala Lumpur on Thursday, being passed on from one class act to another. With the wicket of Janeiro Tucker, his third in an opening six-over burst against Bermuda on the opening day of ICC WCL Division Three, Usman Shuja became USA's all-time leading wicket-taker in 50-over matches with 48 scalps in 31 games. Shuja surpassed former USA captain Zamin Amin to achieve the new landmark.
It is a rich reward for a fast bowler who has worked tirelessly, and often thanklessly, over his career with USA. A lot of hard work had to be put in just to convince decision makers in the USA Cricket Association that a 35-year-old Shuja was worth a recall for this tour after being cut loose ahead of the previous Division Three tournament in Bermuda. USA finished third at that event without Shuja, who some team-mates have described as USA's heart and soul. Arguably, Shuja's greatest trait is his work ethic and the sting of being dropped gave him extra incentive to dig deep in training to find a way back into USA's squad for this tour.
Shuja came to America from Pakistan in his late teens to attend the University of Texas at Austin, but at one point traveled to Australia to study fast bowling under Dennis Lillee, as he continued to harbour hopes of making it to the international level. He achieved it for his adopted homeland through a high degree of talent and skill, but also through perseverance and determination. No matter what he does on the field, he frequently sets a shining example for younger players on how to approach the game. In all of his actions and mannerisms, he is the most professional looking player in a squad of amateurs.
Other traits of his game that set him apart from so many others around the USA are his toughness and hustle. On USA's 2011 trip to Hong Kong, Shuja played most of the tour with a broken index finger but refused to be hidden at fine leg once his bowling spells were complete and on one occasion took a blistering catch on the boundary at long-on, gritting his teeth through the pain. Most Associate players also struggle with fitness levels due to the professional demands of day jobs and family life while trying to fit in cricket on the weekends. However, Shuja always shows up to tournaments as the most fit and best conditioned player for USA. If he could pull it off, it became harder for anyone else to make excuses.
Shuja has also developed a knack for coming through in clutch situations. After being hammered in one of the tour warm-up matches ahead of 2010 WCL Division Five, Shuja was forced to sit on the bench for the first four matches of the tournament. Yet, on the last day of the group games in a must-win match against Nepal in front of 15,000 screaming fans in Kathmandu, Shuja came out breathing fire in his opening spell to silence the crowd. His returns of 1 for 19 from eight overs do not do justice to what a massive role he played to set the tone for USA as they held Nepal to 162 for 9 in a five-wicket win that clinched promotion to Division Four later that year in Italy.
He was at it again against Nepal in Italy, scything through the top order in another showdown which this time produced rewards of 3 for 17 in eight overs as USA once again defeated their World Cricket League arch-rival. Shuja claimed a pair of five-wicket hauls during a golden run in 2008, but one could argue these two spells against Nepal were far more impressive and more meaningful to USA's success.
His batting has never reached the heights in a USA uniform that it probably should have and he has often batted down to his position in the lower order. However, his highest score came in an improbable performance in a situation where it once again mattered most. A day after USA had been shot out for 44 by Papua New Guinea, they were 20 for 7 against Oman at the 2011 WCL Division Three in Hong Kong when Shuja entered at No. 9 and calmly grafted his way to 43 not out, including an unbeaten 71-run ninth-wicket stand with Asif Khan, to give USA a memorable two-wicket win.
While his record-setting performance on the opening day of this Division Three tournament shows he still has plenty of gas left in the tank, it's unclear how much more time Shuja will want to continue pressing on for USA. As savvy as he is with a cricket ball in his hand, he's just as shrewd off the field. Shuja received his MBA from the prestigious Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University to start off the decade. He has since worked as a consultant with multiple Fortune 500 companies before branching out and joining a start-up. He and his wife had their first child in May and the responsibilities of family life are more acute for an amateur player in the Associate world than they are for professionals at Full Member level.
There are plenty of bowlers around the USA who may bowl faster than Shuja, especially one former Test player currently in the same squad with him in Malaysia - Jermaine Lawson. However, few fast bowlers in the USA are as canny and cagey at working batsmen over and getting them out. USA's pace spearhead is once again on the prowl for wickets. For however long he is committed to continue lacing up his fast bowling spikes, USA will be privileged to have him.

Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent. @PeterDellaPenna