This week, Team U.S.A. is off to participate in a qualifying tournament for the 2012 World Cup. That’s not news that would stand out to most Americans. We send national teams to tournaments all the time. What would be news to most Americans, however, is that the team in question is the United States Cricket Team, which is off to the United Arab Emirates this week for the International Cricket Council’s T20 World Cup qualifying tournament. The tournament is for so-called “associate nations,” like the United States, that do not have full international status with cricket’s governing body, the ICC. The top two teams out of this tournament will compete in the T20 World Cup later this year.
“One of the biggest challenges our team faces is the unknown, in terms of expectations,” according to Team U.S.A. Captain Sushil Nadkarni. “Going into this big tournament, we have a lot of high expectations from our fans here in the United States, and we have certain challenges because we’re coming off a winter season here, and we haven’t gotten much cricket under our belts.”
Nadkarni, 35, is an all-rounder who will open the batting and also bowls right-handed off-spin. An environmental consultant, he grew up in Mumbai, India, where he was part of India’s national under-19 squad and was one of India’s brightest young cricketers before immigrating to the United States. He was named to captain the U.S. side after the previous captain, Steve Massiah, was arrested in December 2011 for alleged mortgage fraud.
Even without Massiah’s arrest, it has been a tough year for U.S. cricket. The U.S. team was relegated from Division 3 to Division 4 last year after a poor showing in the World Cricket League tournament. Add to that recent political controversies over the leadership and operation of the United States of America Cricket Association, and you have a recipe for disaster. But Nadkarni is confident that the United States can make waves in the T20 qualifier, and remains focused on tournament preparations.
“We are trying to make as much use of the limited resources we have available right now,” Nadkarni says. “We have fitness regimes for each player; we have conference calls, talking to each other, exchanging ideas; we have research going on into our opponents. Almost every opponent we go up against would feel that they probably have an edge over us, but I feel like we are ready to surprise some teams there.”
Part of the reason for that surprise is the young age of the squad. The United States is sending a young team to the UAE. The youngest player is 18 years old, and the average age of the team is about 27, which Nadkarni sees as a strong point not only for the future, but also for this tournament.
“We have a young and fit team. As a unit I feel like we are really strong on the field, and we are fit. I think that’s our strength because T20 is faced paced cricket, and the game changes in a matter of an over or two, so the young legs and the fit legs will help us immensely.”
Nadkarni’s view is shared by the team’s vice-captain, Aditya Mishra.
“This is a very new U.S. team and I think a very good one,” Mishra says, adding “it will be a challenge as far as how we can work together and deliver the results, and understand each other well.”
Mishra, like Nadkarni, is an Indian-born cricketer who immigrated to the United States and eventually found himself back on the pitch and representing his new country. The 30-year-old all-rounder was born in New Delhi. A right-handed bat who bowls leg break googlys and likes to field close to the bat, Mishra’s experience includes playing for Karnataka in India before coming to the United States. In preparing for the tournament, he, too, believes that fitness and youth will be a key for U.S. success. But it’s more than physical fitness which Mishra finds important. It is also mental fitness and toughness.
“I have reached out to some of my old coaches in first class in India I record myself and send my vides—make sure that I’m still batting at a level that is required to succeed at the international level. I’ve been focusing to do well against teams like Ireland, Afghanistan, teams that do well at that level.”
Focus and fitness. They are two words which crop up quite frequently in talking to Mishra and to Nadkarni. Focus and fitness. Take care of those things, Nadkarni says, and the cricket talent will take care of itself.
“As they say, form is temporary but class is permanent. The one thing that differentiates the U.S. team is fitness.” Nadkarni points out that tournaments like the World Cup Qualifier force teams to play back-to back-games.
“In this case we’re going to play about 10 games back to back, which will bring out the fitness level of our team, and all the other teams as well. If we as a team have been sincere about preparing for the fitness level, the skills will sort themselves out. One you get into a high intensity situation on the field, the skill levels are already there for the players. It is the fitness levels which will pretty much dictate our successes in this tournament.”
And in talking with both Nadkarni and Mishra, one also gets the idea that success is expected, whatever might be going on off the pitch.
“In a T20 game, if you have a few players who can have a good day, you can put the other team under a lot of pressure,” says Mishra. “I think we have those players in our team who can, on their day, destroy any opposition.”
“The T20 format is one where I think we would back ourselves,” agrees Nadkarni, “because it is fast-paced and we have some strong kids in the team. We have at least six or seven guys that are match winners, so if they come through and play to their full potential, it will be good for the team.”
That’s not to say, however, that Team U.S.A. is entering this tournament with false expectations.
“All the teams that are in this tournament are there for a reason,” Nadkarni admits. “No team can be taken lightly. We consider ourselves the underdog in every game. That’s the position I’d like to start with. We know what our strengths are, and have confidence in our own abilities, so we just want to come out and surprise some teams.”
Even though, as Nadkarni says, every team has earned its place in the tournament, Nadkarni and Mishra agree that teams with One Day International status, such as Ireland and Afghanistan, are going to be the biggest challenges for Team U.S.A., which finds itself in Group B, along with Ireland, Kenya, Scotland, Namibia, Oman, Italy and Uganda.
“I think Ireland is the toughest in our group,” says Mishra. “Their skill level is high, they are a fit side. However, I think we can do well against them. “We just need our big players to do well and we can give a very good fight.”
The team’s first goal is to be one of the top three teams in the first round, so they can move to the playoff stage. If they finish in the top two there, then they will be off to the ICC’s T20 World Cup tournament later this year, to play against the top level teams in the world.
Team U.S.A.’s quest to make it to the T20 World Cup begins in earnest 13 March with a match against Uganda at the Sharjah Cricket Association Stadium in Sharjah.
TEAM USA First Round Schedule:
-13 March: Uganda v United States, Sharjah Cricket Stadium, Sharjah
-14 March: Italy v United States, Sheikh Zayed Stadium, Abu Dhabi
-15 March: Namibia v United States, ICC Global Cricket Academy Ground No 2, Dubai
-16 March: Ireland v United States, ICC Global Cricket Academy Ground No 2, Dubai
-18 March: Oman v United States, Dubai In2ternational Cricket Stadium, Dubai
-19 March: Kenya v United States, Sheikh Zayed Cricket Stadium, Abu Dhabi
-20 March: Scotland v United States, ICC Global Cricket Academy Ground No 2, Dubai
TEAM USA Personnel*
Sushil Nadkarni, left-handed batsman, right-handed off-spin bowler
Aditya Mishra, right-handed batsman, right-handed leg break bowler
Gowkaran Roopnarine, left-handed batsman
Adil Bhatti, right-handed batsman, right-handed fast-medium bowler
Steven Taylor, left-handed batsman, left-handed off break bowler
Orlando Baker, wicketkeeper, right-handed batsman, right-handed medium bowler
Nauman Mustafa, wicketkeeper, right-handed batsman
Asif Khan, right-handed batsman, right-handed off break bowler
Ryan Corns, right-handed batsman, right-handed off break bowler
Elmore Hutchinson, right-handed batsman, left-handed fast-medium bowler
Andy Mohammed, left-handed batsman, left-handed off break bowler
Muhammad Ghous, right-handed batsman, right-handed off break bowler
Abhimanyu Rajp, right-handed batsman, right-handed off break bowler
Usman Shuja, right-handed batsman, right-handed fast-medium bowler
*Source: Team USA Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_national_cricket_team#Personnel