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Sunday, Nov 17, 2019

United States vs Papua New Guinea: Playing - Reborn in the USA

Kenjige, 28, had moved to this distant city, far removed from the balmy, serene coffee estates of his hometown, Chikmagalur, to escape cricket.

cricket Updated: Sep 13, 2019 17:06 IST
Abhishek Paul & Ankit Kumar Singh
Abhishek Paul & Ankit Kumar Singh
Hindustan Times, New Delhi/ Mumbai
Representative image.
Representative image.(Getty Images)
         

Nosthush Kenjige sat astounded. An object he had grown ‘allergic’ to, lay in his just unpacked suitcase. He had no idea how. Sitting in his cousin’s apartment in Washington DC, it was not the start the young engineer was expecting to his American dream in the autumn of 2015. It was a cricket ball. Kenjige, 28, had moved to this distant city, far removed from the balmy, serene coffee estates of his hometown, Chikmagalur, to escape cricket.

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It could have been otherwise. Had Kenjige’s exploits been more fruitful in the ultra-competitive cricket arena in India, the ball that his mom, Keerthi, had secretly slipped into suitcase would have spun a web in the Ranji Trophy or maybe for the Indian team. But as things stood, it was a dream that Kenjige wanted to move far away from.

“I was playing the zonals, the clubs in Bengaluru but not the state (Karnataka),” he says. “I was 24-25. That was the time I decided to move on. Priorities change. I had done my masters in engineering, so I decided to move to the US for work. At that time I was so allergic to cricket, I was done with the game. It was the last thing that I wanted to do.”

Kenjige’s life settled into a 9 to 5. In 2016 he moved to New York and got a job in a hospital as a bio-medical engineer. Cricket, at most, was a few weekend matches with friends, when he could find the time.

Then he heard of trials for an US national team.

“I got to know from a friend,” he says. “They were done in other places like Dallas, California, DC. They were just left with New York. I told myself, I have played cricket all my life, I have nothing to lose.”

Kenjige submitted videos of his left-arm spin, made his way through the New York trials, went to Florida for a second round.

He had left the game but somehow, just like the ball, cricket had slipped back into Kenjige’s life.

“All this while, I did not mention anything to my parents. I did not want them to be disappointed again with my cricket,” Kenjige says.

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In mid-2016 a call from former West Indies player Ricardo Powell, the US chief selector, put an end to Kenjige’s apprehensions. He was among the chosen 30 for the American national team.

“I am not sure whether my parents cried, but I did,” Kenjige says.

In April 2019, three years after his return to cricket, Kenjige found himself spinning the US team—a once disparate bunch of backyard players—to ODI status, just one level below the top cricket playing nations in the world, the 12 full-members of the International Cricket Council (ICC).

Journeymen

Kenjige’s story is that of every other member in the US team—not making the grade as a cricketer in their homeland, leaving for the US in search of a livelihood, only for the game to come bouncing back into their lives.

There’s former India U-19 player and captain Saurabh Netravalkar, 27, a left-arm seamer, who moved to New York from Mumbai to pursue a degree in computer science at the Cornell University. There’s Sunny Sohal, 31, also a former India U-19, Punjab Ranji player, and unused IPL draftee. There’s vice-captain Jaskaran Malhotra, 29, a top order batsman who had played for Himachal Pradesh. There’s Ali Khan, a fast bowler who left Pakistan as a teenager. Or Roy Silva, 39, a veteran of first-class cricket from Sri Lanka.

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And do you remember Xavier Marshall? The West Indies ‘bad boy’ who in 2008 broke Sanath Jayasuriya and Shahid Afridi’s record for most sixes in an ODI before off-field problems saw him vanish from the game? It’s his century for the US that propelled the team to a win over Hong Kong in April and elevated them to ODI status.

The Pubudu touch

The man who brought this team together is cricket’s itinerant miracle-worker; a man who, as Canada’s coach, led them to their unlikely qualification for the 2011 World Cup. Then he did the same with Nepal, taking the tiny nation to the 2014 World T20. His name is Pubudu Dassanayeke. He played briefly for the Sri Lanka national team as a wicket-keeper before being overshadowed by Romesh Kaluwitharana in the 1990s.

He then went and played for Canada, before turning coach.

Taking on challenges came naturally to Dassanayeke, according to his former teammate Sanath Jayasuriya.

“I remember his Test debut against South Africa in 1993 at Moratuwa. I wasn’t playing that game. I had been dropped,” Jayasuriya says. “Allan Donald was bowling when he went out to bat and that’s not the debut that you look forward to. Then from the other end it was Brett Schultz, who was as quick as Donald. Pubudu is a small man compared to someone like Brett, who was 6 foot 3 or 4 inches tall. We were having quite a chuckle in the dressing room. But he showed lot of guts and didn’t give away his wicket.”

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Taking over the helm of the US team in 2016 required similar bravado. Not only was the side in the Division 4 then, the second-lowest echleon in the cricket world, but their association had been suspended by the ICC thrice by then due to “significant concerns about the governance, finance, reputation and cricketing activities” despite being the first non-Commonwealth country to be inducted in the ICC in 1965.

But with the world cricket body bullish about making inroads into the US market, there was no dearth of support. After the fourth expulsion of the USA Cricket Association from the ICC in 2017, a new governing body, USA Cricket, was put in place under the leadership of Paraag Marathe, the executive vice-president of football operations for the San Francisco 49ers. The onerous task of building a team from nothing was given to Dassanayeke.

“The associate teams needs discipline to bring their standards up,” Dassanayeke says. “When I took over the team in 2016, I was fully aware of the pathway to the ODI status. We (team management) started building the team slowly but steadily, selecting the best players and building the right culture.”

That tough road took Dassanayeke and his support staff to every nook and corner of the USA. ‘Open Combines’ or selection trials were conducted, where players like Kenjige and Netravalkar were discovered. As the team took shape, they got the opportunity to play in the domestic ODI circuit of the West Indies, and to go for developmental tours to the UAE and Zimbabwe.

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“The methodical planning that went into this preparation under the leadership of Pubudu was second to none,” says Wade Edwards, USA Cricket project officer. “I’ve heard stories of the past where national players would arrive at the airport prior to departing for an international event and meet their teammates for the first time. Given this past, and the highly diverse set of cultures in the team, we placed a large focus on team culture and the values that underpin this team and have been working on it from tour to tour.”

Part of that culture-building is language.

Considering there are 19 players of South Asian-origin in the US squad, there is a strict rule on speaking only in English in the dressing room.

“Not everybody is going understand our mother tongue and we shouldn’t be disrespecting anybody by speaking our mother tongue,” Kenjige says. “This is the US team, which has many cultures.”

Upward swing

With the team spirit high and a detailed plan in place, success did not elude Dassanayeke’s men for long. The US team won the ICC World League Champions Division 4 in 2016 at home. In 2017, they won the traditional Auty Cup for the first time by defeating Canada 2-1. The following year saw US getting promoted to Division 2 by finishing second in the ICC World Cricket League Division Three.

The giant leap came in April 2019, when the US defeated Hong Kong by 84 runs in the fourth round of ICC World Cricket League Division Two in Namibia to go up to Division One, and the ODI status that comes with it.

“Now we will get a guaranteed 36 ODIs over two and a half years, both home and away games,” captain Netravalkar says. “There is also the opportunity of scheduling ODI games with the top full member teams whenever these teams tour nearby, like in the West Indies.”

There will be monetary benefits too. There will be central contracts offered to the members of the US squad, all of whom otherwise depend on day jobs for their income.

“There are seven teams (US, Oman, Namibia, Papua New Guinea, UAE, Nepal and Scotland) which are going to play the 36 ODIs,” Netravalkar says. “The top three teams are going to qualify for the World cup qualifiers for the 2023 World Cup in India. That’s the dream, to make it to the ODIs pinnacle.”

Next step

For Dassanayeke, the 2020 World T20 in Australia is a target too.

“The current batch of players is one of the best in associate cricket,” he says. “But they need to sharpen their fitness and game sense to perform at the next level. The upcoming youngsters are as good as any youngster in a full member country. We have made the foundation by reaching as an ODI country. Next step is to build the system around this team.”

Should US qualify for the World T20, it would also mark their comeback on the global stage after 2004, when they played the ICC Champions Trophy, before sinking towards the bottom of world cricket.

For the US cricketers it would be the culmination of hours of hard yards, juggling between work and passion.

“A major challenge is to manage a full-time job with the cricket training and it keeps getting tougher as the team is progressing to higher and higher levels of professional cricke,” Netravalkar says. “On weekdays, I work as a software developer at Oracle for eight hours, then drive one hour to an indoor cricket facility where I practice twice or three times a week. During USA cricket camps or tours, I usually do my Oracle work remotely before and after my training sessions.”

For Kenjige, there is the dream of a homecoming.

“It will be great for me to come to India and play against India, may be in Bengaluru, that is one dream I want to accomplish,” Kenjige says.