Tuesday, February 09, 2010

USA cricket - where to from here?


The dust has settled on the U-19 World Cup, and it’s about time that we started looking critically at where we are, and what we need to do. This is a bit long-winded, so I’ll start by summarizing the points I’ve made within, and for those who are interested in where I’m coming from with each one, read on!

  1. Honest Assessment - we need to understand and accept the current level of our cricket before we can actually improve it
  2. Long term thinking - progress does not happen overnight
  3. Out with the politics, self-aggrandizement and vested interests
  4. Professionalism - administrators need to have relevant experience and skill sets
  5. Development - groom and grow cricketers locally
  6. Fundamentals - focus on facilities and playing the game properly
  7. Continuity - create a U-23 squad
  8. 20/20 cricket - embrace it, but not at the expense of core cricketing skills
  9. Pipeline - infuse the senior squad with up and coming young talent
  10. Selection - not just about statistics, look at mental and technical cricketing skills
  11. Mediocrity - quit celebrating it
  12. Coaching - not just physical training, look at technical and mental skills and how to play the game
  13. Understanding - the challenges of an associate nation trying to climb up a level are not the same as those of a test nation
What went wrong in New Zealand

It doesn’t take any great cricketing understanding to deem the tournament a failure for the USA U-19 squad, although let’s not forget that there were always going to be two associate nations (and/or Zimbabwe) playing in the 15th/16th place playoff at the end of the tournament. However, that’s far too simplistic. It was indeed a failure, and an abject one at that, but the failure is less on the part of the young boys who went out to New Zealand and so much more a reflection on the older men who are responsible for their cricket, and for cricket in the US as a whole. It is they who must hold up their hands and accept responsibility, and there is little doubt that it will be they who most pointedly do not do so.

Yes, the boys were found wanting. Yes, they apparently did not know how to go about batting against a good bowling attack. Yes, as some opponents commented, the medium pacers “didn’t try to swing the ball.” But the fault lies not just with the players, but with what was around them.

It should have been no surprise to anyone that batting was the biggest technical problem in New Zealand. That is, quite brutally, the nature of the game. A mediocre bowler can bowl one long hop every over, and you can still keep the opposition under 300. A batsman is finished the first time anything goes wrong. That the coaching staff failed to consider this simple reality ahead of time, indicates that they were not worthy of their positions, plain and simple.

What the boys needed was to be guided along a path that would compensate for the cricketing nous and experience that we simply don’t and can’t have in our environment. The fact of the matter is that our 19 year olds have the cricketing experience and acumen of a 13 year old in Australia. There is no shame in that, but it is therefore the job of the rest of us to give them everything else we can. Tactics, physical readiness, mental approach to the game – we’re not going to become Test cricketers overnight, but we can certainly learn to approach and play the game the right way, and give ourselves a chance to showcase our natural talent.

So what do we need to do?

Realism

Thinking long term is always going to be fundamental to achieving something in our cricket. We tend to tie our hopes and expectations to the players we know and love – the ones we play with every Sunday. That mentality needs to be shed, and shed fast. If we’re going to do something sustainable for our cricket, then it is going to be the next generation and the one after that who get the glory, not us. And if we can’t come to terms with that, and put our egos to the side, then it simply will never happen. A false dawn here and there, and we’ll keep coming back to square one.

The USA U-19 coach went on the record saying that he went to New Zealand expecting to win a few games against the bigger nations. Who was he kidding, apart from himself? Even under ideal conditions, beating the Australian and South African U-19 boys would have taken a perfect storm. Given our background and preparation, it would have been a miracle, and the boys deserve great credit for the bowling and fielding performances in those games.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with a coach thinking positive and being optimistic. The problem is that when you abandon realism, you fail to prepare for what you are actually going to confront. Until we realize and acknowledge the level of our cricket, and the yawning chasms that we have to cross, we are unlikely to put anything in place that helps us raise that standard.

Administration

Our administration, top-down and bottom-up, is an unmitigated disaster, and continues to be so in so many ways. There are flickers of hope that sporadically shine across the country, but we are dominated by an environment of self-aggrandizing ego-fuelled politics, and that’s being generous.

Quite simply, too few people are honestly thinking about cricket and its long term future, and too many people are thinking about how themselves, and their nearest and dearest, can benefit. Unfortunately, with the current global interest in the US as a cricketing destination and minor cricketing power, the incentive to operate in this manner has only increased. The rewards range from an all-expenses paid trip to New Zealand, to a seat alongside legends of the game at ICC meetings and events.

We desperately need to get professional and get accountability into the mix. Transparency of operation is paramount – every appointment, every decision, should be open to public scrutiny and able to withstand that analysis. This is easier said than done, but if we’re serious about this, we have to start with a clean slate. Bring in people who have relevant experience, professional skills that can be leveraged, and crucially, where possible, no direct skin in the game. The old guard, to a man, need to step aside. Not because all of them are bad, but because every one of them comes with baggage that limits our ability to do things the right way.

Infrastructure and Development

This is really the bottom line when it comes to putting cricket, or indeed any sport, on the road to long term success. Quite simply we have no infrastructure and no path for cricket development, and we need to focus strongly on setting that straight.

We will give ourselves a chance for success when we’re able to identify a talented 13 year old and groom him so that not only does he do a job at the age group level, but most importantly, he develops to a peak in his mid to late twenties and becomes a long-term contributor at the senior national level. When we can point to a few players who have followed that path, then we can point to a system that nurtures and develops cricketing talent.

Instead what we have is two separate and distinct cricketing worlds. One of them is for U-19 cricket, and the other for so-called adult cricket. The composition of the senior national squad tells a story. It doesn’t matter so much that none of the players were born in this country – we are after all a nation of immigrants. It doesn’t even matter that they are ageing, though I comment on that elsewhere. What is telling is that not one of the players was developed in this country. They all learned and evolved their games elsewhere and came to us as formed cricketers. They may have been honed and fine-tuned a little on these shores, but they weren’t grown here. Not one of the players from the 2006 U-19 team is in the picture, and really, nothing more need be said to illustrate the problem

In fact, I would be so bold as to say that we see talent not only not going forward, but moving backwards. We have a tendency to overplay U-19 achievements, as if playing at the U-19 level is the pinnacle of your cricketing career. If that is the message we send out to the players, then combined with the complete absence of any coaching or development infrastructure to take them beyond that stage, it can be no surprise that their cricket suffers and ultimately settles into the mediocrity that surrounds them in our local leagues.

We certainly should encourage our young cricketers, but we have to stop celebrating mediocrity and start searching for true quality. Our U19 squads, both regional and national, should be playing together through the year, every year. The opposition doesn’t have to be other international teams, as the objective is to have them learn how to play the game. At 19 and 20, we aren’t going to create cricketing talent out of nowhere, but what we can do is help them evolve into thinking cricketers, for as you go up the ladder, it is in the mind (with temperament, strategy and tactics) that games will be won and lost.

I would actually advocate the creation of a national U-23 squad that should play against the national senior team and against regional senior teams every year. This would help keep our U-19s in the game beyond their U-19 days, and with the right guidance and mentorship hopefully help turn them into cricketers that can serve the country for a long time.

In parallel, we need to focus on cricketing fundamentals at the grass roots levels. Forget about trying to jazz up the game with white balls and colored clothing – let’s look at getting cricketers to play the basic game properly in the first place. The party stuff can come later, or elsewhere. Yes, we absolutely need proper pitches and outfields, but we also need cricket balls that swing, and bowlers and batsmen who can learn to deal with that. We need to have youngsters understand that a properly compiled 30 may actually set you on the way to a far better cricketing career than the slogged 50, and we need to follow through on that.

Foster quality cricket, create some continuity for the youngsters and a lot of what Peter Della Penna raised in his excellent article back in November 2009 will be addressed as a consequence.

Selection

Selection is going to be controversial at the best of times, and it’s even harder in our environment. Once again, short-termism and politics are controlling how we pick our teams, and we simply plan to worry about tomorrow if and when the sun rises again.

The first thing we need to address in our selection, particularly at the senior level, is the objective of a team. It’s very easy for an established cricketing nation to simply select the best team to win each game or tournament as it comes. For one that is seeking to establish itself on the world stage, the challenges are a lot greater. It’s not sufficient to simply try and win today, because you need to prepare to win tomorrow and the day after to maintain a certain standing in the game.

This may be my most controversial contention, but I submit that the US needs to be willing to dare to make some short term sacrifices in order to reap the long term rewards. Peter Della Penna nailed this one too in his aforementioned article. Our stated objective today is to make it to the 2015 Cricket World Cup. In my eyes, the objective really should be to ensure that we can make it to the 2019, 2023 and 2027 World Cups without having to worry about it unduly as we get closer to those events.

Doing that, however, starts today. It starts with everything else I’ve talked about, but it also starts with picking players with an eye to the future. Just as a quite random example, taking Saqib Saleem to Nepal would have done a lot more for US cricket than taking Sudesh Dhaniram, regardless of how good Dhaniram is. This is the time to start giving the players of the future exposure, and introducing them to the game at increasingly higher levels.

There’s plenty of experience in the team in the form of the likes of Massiah, Thyagarajan, Usman Shuja and others. Take a few thirty year olds to lead on the field, surround them with the exuberance of youth, and all of a sudden, you’ll not only be developing those individuals, you’ll be showing every cricket playing youngster in the country that there is something to strive for. You will naturally create a pipeline, and that pipeline will keep flowing. No longer will you have to pray weekly that a few more good cricketers leave India, Pakistan and the Caribbean and come to the US to seek their fame and fortune. You’ll already have them.

The second thing we need to radically alter in our selection, this time particularly at the youth level, is the type of player we select. We need to recognize the substantial difference between cricket in our local leagues, and cricket at a higher level. We have to learn to look beyond the statistics, and look at the sort of cricketer who is worth the long term investment. Often times we’ll find that the guy scoring thirties every week is actually going to be a better perfomer at a higher level than the one bludgeoning his way to big scores on a cow pasture with the aid of sloppy fielding and short boundaries. We need to look at how players think, how strong they are mentally in both comfortable and challenging situations. In short, we need to look at their core cricketing skills – but I’m not even sure that today, we understand what core cricketing skills are!

Coaching

It’s hard to overstate how poor the coaching and preparation for the U-19 trip to New Zealand appears to have been. The icing on the cake was the coach, a former Test cricketer no less, indicating that the grassy tracks surprised him. A complete lack of homework and preparation was betrayed by that single comment.

There was clearly no thought given to what the team was going to be up against, no consideration of what they needed to do to raise their game a level, and even less time spent working out how a team needs to operate and manage itself over the course of a month long tournament on foreign soil. Instead we had a wonderful boondoggle for the management and coaching staff with a few games of cricket on picturesque grounds thrown in for good measure. Oh, and some hobnobbing with a few cricketing superstars.

There is no point in playing the percentages when you’re the weaker player. You can only punch above your weight if you throw some punches, and what that translates to is playing positive cricket from the start. The time for playing the percentages is in the years before the big tournaments, when skills are being developed and refined. When it comes to the crunch, you need to bring out your best.

The thing to understand is that positive cricket does not equate to slogging or bowling bouncers galore. It means playing with intelligence, it means applying pressure throughout, it means bowling to take wickets, and batting to score runs. Sounds simple in writing, but it can only be put into practice when youngsters are given the appropriate foundation. Coaches in local leagues need to start teaching our youngsters how to bowl for wickets, how to field aggressively, and how to bat assertively without losing your head.

We need to be able to identify young talent around the country. We need coaches and cricketing mentors who can train them in how to play the game. Instead of celebrating small achievements with excessive hyperbole, we need to make sure the youngsters understand that they have a long road ahead of them, and then guide them along the way. We need proper coaches who can actually resolve technical flaws at an early stage. We need proper coaches and leaders who can help cricketers understand how to play the game. As I keep saying, it’s a mental game when you step up a level, and that is where we are sorely lacking.

Conclusion

There is a long, long way for US cricket to go, but for the first time, even if it might be for all the wrong reasons, we have a global vested interest in our success. Opportunity is knocking, and if we have the guts to do so, we can take full advantage of it. Build something sustainable, and our epitaphs will read “left a lasting legacy that allowed cricket to flourish in the USA” rather than “had a drink at Lord’s with Clive Lloyd and Sunil Gavaskar.” I hope I’m not alone in thinking that it’s the first one that reads better.

5 comments:

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Anonymous said...

Now that the US T20 team has been excused from the Dubai competition, questions have to be asked as to why someone like Aditya T who clearly has ability is not played in the first match and sent low down the order in the other two only to score 72 out of 120 odd in one match. I cant help but think that "who plays" and "when they play" decisions are dictated by "outside forces" and not by team management as incompetent as they often are. Until and unless people born and brought up in this country run cricket like other sports are run, I don't see any hope for the ones who somehow seem to run US cricket now are hopelessly corrupt expats.

Carl said...

Points are excellent and amazing and also about the New Zealand information is just great to read,good to share.

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I am agree with you on your point about the embrace it, but not at the expense of core cricketing skills on T20, excellent work friend!

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Chintan Brahmbhatt said...

Nice Post...!!

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