Pubudu Dassanayake quickly realized he had a major challenge on his hands. After taking the reins of the U.S. men’s cricket team in 2016, the veteran coach had the tough task of uniting a fractured dressing room infamously known for splintering into ethnic factions.
The U.S. team had a slew of expat players, mainly from the subcontinent and Caribbean, and the cultural differences on-and-off field were palpable. “It was a different environment and not easy to handle because the players had learned the game dependent on where they had come from,” Dassanayake told me.
“It is hard to be a team if everyone isn’t on the same page. It took a couple of years to change the culture but we have got through those hurdles.”
The former Sri Lanka Test player has impressively galvanized the team in a feat made even more momentous considering the upheaval in the backdrop with the USA Cricket Association expelled by the International Cricket Council in 2017 due to governance problems.
A memorable victory over Singapore in the World Cup League Division 3 tournament last November promoted the U.S. and confirmed Dassanayake’s growing coaching reputation in Associates cricket after he had previously engineered a similar turnaround with Nepal.
When he took over, the U.S. languished in Division 4 but are now on the cusp of all-important One-Day International (ODI) status. The U.S. are currently in the UAE in the midst of preparatory tours for the crucial World Cup League Division 2 in Namibia next month, where they will take on Canada, Hong Kong, Oman, Papua New Guinea and the hosts.
They need a top-four finish in the six-team competition to secure ODI status, which only 16 teams currently hold in cricket’s ever present hierarchical system which feels like it should be consigned to a bygone era. Due to a controversial cull, the upcoming ODI World Cup mid-year will only feature 10 teams – down from 14 in 2015.
In the cut throat world of cricket beyond the Full Members – the elite status afforded to only 12 teams – there is funding at stake and moving up the divisions is vital for these embattled teams.
Dassanayake understands the gravity of the looming tournament in Namibia. “It is the most important tournament in U.S. cricket history,” he says bluntly. “Getting ODI status for the next two-and-a-half years would be a huge boost for U.S. cricket. It is really important to have that time to develop and play against really strong opposition.
“We want to be the number one Associates team in the world within the next few years.”
Understated and certainly not prone to hyperbole, Dassanayake’s words pack a punch. Qualification for the new Cricket World Cup League Two would enable the U.S. to play ODIs against some of the top Associates teams, including Nepal, Scotland and the UAE.
The tournament is part of the qualification pathway for the 2023 World Cup held in India.
Dassanayake believes it is crucial for the U.S. to qualify for a historic first World Cup. “We cannot miss out on that. It is very important for us to be on the big stage,” he says. “It would be great to have that status as a World Cup team and would be positive for the sport’s perception in the U.S.”
Through vibrant grassroots competitions fueled by an increase in expatriate communities from the subcontinent, the U.S. could very well be the sleeping giant of cricket. And hopes are high of a more stable governing body through the establishment of USA Cricket with the new governing body led by chairman Paraag Marathe, who is the San Francisco 49ers President of Enterprises and Executive Vice President of Football.
Cricket administrators have long coveted the U.S.’ untapped goldmine with every effort being made – earning favoritism claims from rivals – to ensure cricket there doesn’t flame out.
For the sport to really start making waves, the U.S. national team needs results. Dassanayake says he is in a quandary – the talent is rich but often frustratingly slips away. “I have been really impressed by the 14-16 age group and I think the talent is comparable to a Full Member nation,” he says.
“The problem is we struggle to retain them. Cricket is not seen as a viable career like the major sports here. Players from a subcontinental background are usually told to concentrate on studies by their parents who don’t see a pathway for cricket in the U.S.”
Moves are afoot. There are plans for a domestic professional Twenty20 tournament starting within the next couple of years and Dassanayake hopes it will become a marquee destination for “big names”.
There is also anticipation that a World Cup – most likely T20 – will be staged in the U.S. within the next decade. “A World Cup in the U.S. could have a similar impact to the soccer World Cup in ’94,” Dassanayake says. “Cricket already has a strong base here but exposure through the World Cup would create more widespread interest.”
It is all exciting to foreshadow but, right now, there are important hurdles to overcome.