Friday, June 30, 2006

US U-15 and U-13 National Tournament

With a World Cup, Wimbledon and plenty of other sporting contests occupying the public imagination, not many would have spared a thought for the first ever US National Junior (U-15 and U-13) Cricket Tournament that was held last weekend in Northern California. For budding young cricketers across the nation however, there was only one thing on their mind. To take full advantage of this phenomenal experience and opportunity.

Or at least that's how it should have played out. But as we all know, in this country, cricket goes hand-in-hand with politics, and sure enough, thanks to the political machinations of has-beens and never-weres across the country, multitudes of 12 and 14 year olds were denied the opportunity to participate in what could, and should have been a grand event.

That aside, I was fortunate enough to be able to witness at close quarters a smattering of the talent that may be available to the USA in coming years.

In the Under-13 category, just three teams came to the party, and two of them were from the host region - Northern California. The California Cricket Academy Pros walked away with the title, beating the California Cricket League (also Northern CA) and the SouthWest Mustangs (from Los Angeles) twice each in the group stages, and handing a veritable thrashing to the CCL youngsters in the final.

Despite the one-sided nature of the games, there was certainly some raw talent on display. Pros thirteen year old captain Pranay Suri dominated the statistics, scoring more runs, taking more wickets and holding more catches than anyone else in the competition. His side played intelligent and aggressive cricket, and along with Arsh Buch, an all-rounder who models himself on Irfan Pathan, Suri could be a name to watch for the future.

The Under-15s provided a lot more excitement than their younger counterparts. The Central East Region were the one national region that managed to organize itself into a squad for this tournament, and their relative quality showed as they crushed New Jersey, the SouthWest Cougars and the NorthWest Gold on their march to the final.

The real competition for CER came from the NorthWest Centurions (yes, two teams from the region once again). In the final round-robin game, the two teams met in what proved to be a dress-rehearsal for the final.

A very tight game, marked by some quality batsmanship on both sides, came down to the wire, with the Centurions needing 2 to win and 1 to tie off the last ball of the game. A tie would indeed have been the appropriate result, but in the mayhem that ensued as the Centurions scrambled for that single, the umpire failed to notice that the CER bowler had dislodged the bails with his leg, and gave a run out that never should have been, leaving the CER to claim a controversial 1-run victory.

That set the stage for the final, in which the bowlers on both sides showcased their talents, before the Centurions pulled off a tight victory with just an over to spare.

More interesting than the details of the game were the cricketers on view. In particular, the two captains - 14 year old Akash Jagannathan and Abhijit Joshi - had 'cricketer' stamped all over them. I've been fortunate enough to see and play in top quality youth cricket around the world, and these two youngsters could hold their own anywhere.

Jagannathan bats with a wonderfully compact and orthodox technique, reminiscent, dare I say it, of Sunil Gavaskar. He bowls some tidy off-spin, with a mastery of flight beyond his years, has a good arm and pair of hands in the field, and just for good measure, in the final he took the gloves for a couple of overs and pulled off a pair of top-notch stumpings.

Joshi was the pick of the medium pacers on display at the tournament, bowling with a yard more pace than anyone else. His batting technique was not quite so orthodox, but he is temperamentally sound. He was also far and away the standout fielder of the week, but going beyond that it was his leadership that impressed - most notably his reading of the batsmen's strengths and weaknesses, and his willingness to go against the advice his coach.

Okay, so that last comment is an interesting one to make, no doubt. It's something I'm sensitive about, dating back to a game many years ago. We were defending 125 in 50 overs against a Sri Lankan line-up that included Kumara Sangakkara, Hemantha Boteju, Shanta Kalavitigoda and several others who went on to play Test and ODI cricket. You would think the only hope we had, faint as it was, would be to get them all out. But no, our coach, a native Sri Lankan, and quite ridiculously wearing his Sri Lanka team shirt on the day, ordered us to set a defensive field and try and contain them. I wasn't having it, bowled for wickets, and we took a few to give them a bit of a scare. We lost in the end, and I was chewed out by my coach for not listening to him, but I stand by my actions to this day.

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