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Youth to the fore as historic USA-Ireland series soldiers on despite Covid complications

Local administrators are hoping to carve out a cricketing niche during the festive period

Andy Balbirnie and Monank Patel, the two captains, pose at the Dania Beach Pier  •  Peter Della Penna

Andy Balbirnie and Monank Patel, the two captains, pose at the Dania Beach Pier  •  Peter Della Penna

On the American sports calendar, the time between Christmas and New Year is typically reserved for college football bowl season, blockbuster made-for-TV NBA holiday match-ups and the tail-end of the NFL regular season. Local cricket administrators are hoping to carve out their own niche in the landscape over the traditional Boxing Day period in a country where that particular holiday doesn't even exist, with Ireland set to take on hosts USA in sunny south Florida in a series of T20Is and ODIs stretching from December 22 to 30.
There are an awful lot of historic firsts set to happen in Florida during the series. At the top of the list: these are the first bilateral matches USA will host against a Full Member on home soil. Broward County Stadium has seen its fair share of Full-Member cricket over the last decade, starting with New Zealand and Sri Lanka in 2010 before later visits by West Indies, India and Bangladesh. USA were relegated to spectator status, hiding in the background, but on this occasion, they'll be taking centre stage with their far more illustrious opponents.
On the Irish side, this won't be the first visit that their team has ever made to the USA. Way back in 1879, the Gentlemen of Philadelphia hosted the Gentlemen of Ireland in Germantown, Pennsylvania, a place once known as a hotbed of American cricket. The rivalry between the two sides continued into the early 20th century, including a three-day affair at Germantown in 1909 where the famed John Bart King took 10 for 53 in the first innings and a hat-trick in the second as part of an innings win for the hosts. A week later, the American legend took 7 for 48 before he scored an unbeaten 54 to set up another innings win as King capped off his all-round show with another 4 for 12 in the second innings.
Ireland's last tour to the USA in 1973 was also their first against an official USA national team as they made it out to the west coast to play under the Hollywood sign at Griffith Park. Brendan O'Brien opened the batting scoring 21 while iconic bowler and future Ireland team manager Roy Torrens top-scored with 24 at No. 9 as Ireland struggled again in a three-day match culminating in a 42-run win for the hosts.
A lot has changed in the half-century or so since then. Ireland are no longer doormats for USA. In the T20 era, Ireland have never lost to USA, trouncing them on four consecutive occasions at T20 World Cup Qualifier tournaments from 2010 to 2015.
The O'Brien era appears to have finally come to an end as well. Brendan's sons Niall and Kevin, mainstays of the last two decades in Irish colours, both of whom made massive contributions on Ireland's road to Test status, are no longer in the squad.
Niall made his retirement several years ago on his own terms, but the selectors may have pulled the final plug on 37-year-old Kevin's international career as they look to turn a corner following a poor 2021 T20 World Cup, in which they were knocked out by Namibia in the first round.
Though recent performances have not been noteworthy, Ireland's golden run from 2007 to 2017 - which took them from fledgling Associates to Test status - is something their American counterparts dream of replicating.
Though there were certainly a few prominent expatriates who were part of the core of the Ireland set-up, Trent Johnston being at the top of the list, the majority of the nucleus then and now that has sustained Irish cricket has been homegrown talent. Whether it's the O'Briens and William Porterfield, or the current leadership core headed by Andy Balbirnie and Paul Stirling, and on to the youngest members of the touring squad - Josh Little, Neil Rock and Ben White - grassroots development is a hallmark of the Irish system.
For decades, expatriates have overwhelmingly dominated the American cricket scene. USA once went a 20-year stretch, from 1982 until 2002, between the first and second American-born players (John Reid and Amer Afzaluddin) getting picked to represent the men's limited-overs side. The dominant presence of talent developed overseas was also instrumental in USA securing ODI status in 2019.
A squad captained by ex-India Under-19 bowler Saurabh Netravalkar also featured Xavier Marshall, Hayden Walsh Jr and Aaron Jones - a trio who learnt all their cricket in the West Indies first-class system - as each played pivotal roles when USA finished in the top four at 2019 WCL Division Two in Namibia to lock in a place in the seven-team Cricket World Cup ODI League Two. But USA's squad selection for this series shows that such habits may become a thing of the past.
Taking a page out of the USA Women's playbook - five American-born teens debuted at the ICC Americas Women's T20 World Cup Qualifier in October - California teenagers Rahul Jariwala and Vatsal Vaghela have both been given their maiden senior team call-ups. When a Covid-19 outbreak knocked out four players 72 hours before the start of the series, three of the players drafted in were from USA's Under-19 training group, including a pair - Ritwik Behera and Yasir Mohammad - who learnt all their cricket at academies in their birth states of Maryland and New Jersey.
Rarely, if ever, has the USA administration shown such faith in local development systems. To do it against a Test nation adds another key layer to the occasion.
But that doesn't mean veteran team-mates will be thrilled if debutants become starry-eyed on the occasion instead of showing that they are capable of standing toe-to-toe with a more professional unit.
"It's a really great time to be a part of USA cricket right now," Ali Khan, their star fast bowler, told ESPNcricinfo ahead of the series. "A Test nation, a Full-Member nation, is visiting. This is our biggest series at home.
"Some guys are missing but whoever comes in, it's a great opportunity for them to come in and showcase their talents. We will see those names hopefully coming up in this series. Ireland - of course, they are a big side, they will be favourites. But we have to just do our basics right, stick to our strength and hopefully give them a good time."
At one point, Covid-19 threatened to prevent the series altogether, whether due to new restrictions that came about as a result of the Omicron variant or as a consequence of the string of positive tests produced by both the Ireland and USA squads.
But administrators are forging ahead. Ali Khan made reference to finding creative solutions to continue playing sports in the age of Covid-19 as being part of "the new normal". As the matches get underway, both sides might also be showcasing a different kind of new normal: the youth brigade driving the next generation of cricket in their respective countries.

Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent @PeterDellaPenna