OUTSIDE THE CRICLE
Heading into World Cricket League Division 2, Saurabh Netravalkar-led side starts as unlikely favourites © Agencies
For those who put stock in status, the United States have long had comfortably the worst international record in the game’s history. Their debut T20I series against the UAE last month did little to help, a wash-out and a 24-run defeat ensuring the USA remain winless in full status internationals. Their only previous full-status matches came at the 2004 Champions Trophy, where back to back blow-out defeats at the hands of New Zealand and Australia arguably set back not only American cricket but also the Associate cause. The tournament banished the Associates for the next edition, and the World Cup would eventually follow suit.
But for those who look beyond full status games, and indeed beyond what happens on the pitch in general, the USA’s tour to the Emirates last month confirmed what has been evident for some months now, namely the remarkable turnaround in American cricket both on and off the field and the overwhelming likelihood that the United States will become an ODI status country later this month.
For long-time followers of US cricket that prospect will have seemed impossibly remote as recently as two years ago. Decades of maladministration, constant debt, social media meltdowns, phantom tournaments and international underperformance had left the USA an Associate embarrassment on the field, and the butt of jokes off it. They received little sympathy from their peers or the media, in part due to habit of USACA (the former US Board) of publicly disparaging and alienating any journalists that paid them any attention, and in part due to the perceived favouritism, both imagined and real, shown by the ICC to the United States.
In pursuit of the fabled “American market” the ICC had been remarkably forgiving of USACA, allowing the national side to continue competing even when the Board’s ICC membership was (repeatedly) suspended, and directing disproportionate amounts of attention and funding toward US cricket. In light of USACA’s egregious incompetence and the national side’s persistent mediocrity, the ICC’s indulgence of the States inevitably bred resentment among their Associate peers, especially north of the border in Canada – long the strongest North American side on the field.
But both this long-running administrative incompetence and decades of competitive underperformance now look to be a thing of the past for the USA. USACA was finally expelled from the ICC in June 2017 whereupon the ICC took a more direct role in administering the sport in the country, as they supervised the establishment of a new administrative body. Their efforts bore fruit earlier this year when USA Cricket became the ICC’s most recent and 105th member.
Now heading into World Cricket League Division 2, the highest level of 50-over cricket the States’ have played since the inauguration of the competition over a decade ago, The Americans, under new skipper Saurabh Netravalkar, wear the mantle of unlikely favourites. Four of the six sides (hosts Namibia, Hong Kong, Papua New Guinea, Oman, old rivals Canada and the USA themselves) will win a place in the new Cricket World Cup League 2 alongside Scotland the UAE and Nepal, and with it ODI status for the coming cycle. Based on performances on their warm-up tour, the USA look a near-lock to claim one of the spots.
They won their 3-match 50-over series against the UAE 2-1, the last match an emphatic 9-wicket thrashing, and in between bested a strong UAE Development XI twice, as well as recording a comfortable 6-wicket win over a visiting Lancashire side. Yesterday, they followed up by winning their final preparation match against a Zimbabwe Select XI at Peterhouse School in Marondera by 90 runs. Division 2 has in recent years been by a distance the most closely contested and unforgiving of the WCL’s tournaments, with nail-biters, improbable reversals, near-misses and remarkable upsets almost the norm, but the USA will arrive in Windhoek without question the best prepared of the teams, with momentum on their side.
Whether the renaissance of American cricket on the field and in the boardroom reflects any real sustainable progress for the game at the grass-roots is of course a different question, and it is undeniable that native-born or produced cricketers remain ararity in the national set-up. More players in this USA side have played for India under-19s than have represented the States at age-group level, and the selectors (chaired by former Windies international Ricardo Powell) continue to make liberal use of the flexibility afforded by the abolition of the ICC’s development criteria for eligibility. Hayden Walsh and Aaron Jones, both of whom have quickly made themselves indispensable to the team, are only the latest recruits to have come up through the West Indian system.
Yet the American selectors can hardly be blamed for picking the best team available to them under the new rules, and whilst the national side remains rather eclectic in origin, they increasingly look a cohesive and balanced unit on the field. Nothing succeeds, as they say, quite like success, and as Patton observed, Americans love a winner. If there’s any country on the planet where international success could drive grass-roots development rather than vice-versa, it is surely the USA.
In the longer term, cricket’s potential recognition by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, understood to be a key (if likely distant) goal for the new board, could be potentially transformative for the sport in the USA and beyond. A combination of the newly-shortened residence criteria for national eligibility, a growing US college cricket scene, and generous athletic scholarships could see gifted youngsters flocking to the States from across the cricketing world in years to come, with the pick of them eligible for national selection upon graduation.
The road to the brink of ODI status and the prospect of a run in the top-flight of Associates competition has been a long one for the States, testing the patience of players and fans alike, not to mention the ICC development arm – whose indulgence, investment and guidance has for decades gone seemingly to waste. But if Netravalkar cosmopolitan band can maintain their winning streak next week, and their successes eventually filter through into the American sporting consciousness, then that perseverance may yet pay off.
The 2020 Under-19 World Cup in South Africa is the first global event for which Nigeria have ever qualified ©Getty
If the United States are waiting in the wings of cricket’s biggest stage, it’s fair to say that Nigeria have thus far been confined to the cricketing equivalent of ill-attended improv nights in village halls. Africa’s most populous country has long punched considerably below its weight, never ascending higher than the 5th division of the World Cricket League, nor placing better than 5th in African regional qualifying events. But here too there have been hints of a turnaround, culminating in a headline-grabbing triumph at the African under-19 World Cup Qualifier last month.
Since taking office some 18 months ago, the Nigeria Cricket Federation’s new Board under Yahaya Ukwanya has focused on grassroots and youth cricket, championing the “Naija Kids” schools cricket project. The ICC has also taken more of an interest of late, running a Commercial Strategy and Development workshop in Lagos in February, whilst Abuja was included on the World Cup’s trophy tour and Nigeria was awarded it’s first ever ICC tournament last year, hosting the West African Sub-Regional T20 Qualifier in April.
Home advantage seemed to suit the senior side, qualifying behind Ghana to make it to the Africa Qualifier Final to be held in Kampala next month, whilst the women’s side recorded their first series win in recognised internationals in January besting Rwanda 3-2 in a 5-match T20I series.
Such successes pale in comparison to what the under-19s achieved in Windhoek, however. The 2020 Under-19 World Cup in South Africa is the first global event for which Nigeria have ever qualified, indeed it’s the first time they’ve even come close. To get there they had to get past hosts Namibia, who as recently as 2016 had finished 7th at the main event ahead of Afghanistan, Ireland, Zimbabwe, South Africa and New Zealand. Also standing in the way were the much-fancied Uganda, as well as Kenya, both established associate sides. Nigeria went unbeaten.
It is in the nature of such short, sharp tournaments to throw up upsets, of course, and Nigeria had the benefit of a five-match series against Zimbabwe under-19s to prepare. Yet there are reasons to believe that the result may be more than a fluke. The wickets were shared around the attack, and though Elijah Olaleye certainly stood out the batting was likewise something of a team effort. Nigeria look to have the makings of their best ever side, and at least with the ball the potential to overtake their African associate rivals.
Demographics at least are on their side. As long-time associate-watcher Russell Degnan points out, Nigeria is not just a populous country, but a remarkably young one. With a median age of barely 18, as many as half of Nigeria’s 200 million people are minors. Only in China and India are there more children under the age of 16.
The NCF can only hope to reach a tiny fraction of Nigerian youth, of course. 5,000 every year is the current, and ambitious target. Despite a history spanning over a century – Nigeria played its first international against Ghana in 1904 – the game is still very much in its infancy, yet the same is true of the wider sports market in Nigeria. Whilst USA Cricket faces the daunting task of promoting a niche sport in a crowded sports market (and one where international competition is often seen more as a curious novelty than the pinnacle of sporting ambition), the game faces rather less competition in Nigeria.
Though football is by some distance the dominant sport, reporting a quite remarkable 65% participation rate last year, the women’s game lags markedly behind, as does commercialisation – the Nigerian sports sponsorship market is worth less than 15 billion Naira annually, disproportionately little for an economy of Nigeria’s size. The potential for cricket to grow with the market, and grow up with the country, could see the NCF replicate organically what the ICC has long sought to construct in the USA through decades of funding and forbearance.