Arunkumar era ends for USA

J Arunkumar, Monank Patel, and Aaron Jones pose with trophies

USA Cricket announced on Wednesday the impending departure of Men’s head coach J Arunkumar, who will move on from USA Cricket following the completion of his contract term at the end of December. On Thursday, USA advertised for the men’s coaching position.

A former first class batsman with 20 centuries to his name, “Jak” brought years of experience as a batting coach in the Ranji Trophy and IPL, as well as some head coaching experience with Puducherry. 

Pre-Arunkumar ODI era

USA Cricket earned coveted ODI status via the 2019 ICC World Cricket League Division Two, with Pubudu Dassanayake at the helm. This accomplishment put USA in the ICC Cricket World Cup League Two cycle, which meant more funding for USA, contracts for national team players, more exposure for potential sponsors, and 36 guaranteed ODI games.

Before USA would play their first ODI, Pubudu Dassanayake resigned as head coach, and USA hired Kiran More to take over head coaching duties. Mere months later, James Pamment took over as interim coach.

USA would go 6-6 in 12 ODI prior to Arunkumar, representing 1/3 of the CWCL2 calendar. In spite of an even record, USA’s final ODI of their third tour was an embarrassing whitewash tour of Nepal including a blowout loss in which USA set an ODI record for fewest runs scored in an innings, with 35.

Following the infamous Nepal tour, the outgoing Pamment lamented the lack of training and infrastructure continuity provided by the USA Cricket administration that would be necessary to sustain a high international standard.

The Arunkumar Era

With USA enduring seven all-out batting innings out of 12, the hiring of a coach with Arunkumar’s skills was a prudent decision.

The Covid-19 pandemic interrupted league play for 19 months before Arunkumar would have his CWCL2 debut. In the meantime, continuity and national infrastructure began taking some shape in the form of National Championships and Minor League Cricket. The spring of 2021 would feature the first ever U19 Men’s National Championship, followed by the ten week long inaugural Minor League Cricket Championship through late summer. 

In September of 2021, the Arunkumar era finally began, with a 1-3 tour of Oman. Eight more months would pass before USA’s next league action.

In early November, USA would dominate the 2021/22 ICC T20 World Cup Americas Qualifier in Antigua, winning all six games against Belize, Panama, Bermuda, Canada, Argentina and Bahamas, earning the right to represent the region at the 2022 ICC Men’s T20 World Cup Qualifier in Zimbabwe. A dramatic Super Over victory against rivals Canada was the highlight of the competition for the red, white and blue. 

Later in the month, USA Cricket staged their inaugural Men’s 50 overs National Championship in Prairie View, Texas

A late 2021 decision to host Ireland for a T20I and ODI series in Florida started in a promising way, with the home team defeating the visiting Irish side in the first of two T20Is. The win gave Arunkumar and USA their first ever victory against a Full Member nation. The landmark success was the first international taste of the fruits of a huge year for American domestic cricket. Three members of that winning eleven were on debut, having earned their places thanks to performances in nationally supported competitions. 

Following a loss in the second T20I, the ODI segment of the tour was cancelled due to a breakout of Covid in the team camps, with blunders by the private organisers of the preceding US Open Cricket possibly to blame. Unfortunately, this meant that a series which was supposed to provide continuity of preparation was yet another victim of the volatile Covid times.

The Houston Challenge, a 50 overs tournament staged by Major League Cricket in early April of 2022, was intended to help bridge the gap for the team to prepare for 20 upcoming CWCL2 games over the next seven months. There, a USA squad would take on teams composed of Major League Cricket contract players. 

May of 2022 saw yet more history for USA Cricket, as Moosa Stadium in Pearland, Texas became only the second ODI approved ground in the nation. USA would christen the ground with a victory against Scotland, but would finish their two home triseries with 4 victories, 3 defeats and a thrilling tie against Nepal, failing to capitalize on home conditions to boost their place in the table. 

Just as the 2022 Minor League Cricket season began in July, USA would head to Zimbabwe for their much-anticipated shot at the 2022 T20 World Cup. As World Cup hosts in 2024, the hope was that USA Cricket could experience consecutive World Cup berths. After convincing victories against Jersey and Singapore, USA had a chance against Zimbabwe to finish in the first place of the group, which would have meant a matchup against PNG in the semi-final. With the two finalists automatically advancing, and USA having clinched at least the second spot in the group, USA would have two bites at the World Cup, though they would be without one of their top fast bowlers in Ali Khan, who had broken his arm from a comebacker against Jersey.

Alas, USA would be overpowered by the hosts, failing to put up a defendable total against a strong Netherlands side in the semi-final, meaning their 2022 World Cup dreams were over. With nothing left to play for, a fatigued and battered USA failed to chase PNG’s 97 run total after bowling them out with 21 balls to spare in the third-place playoff.

Ready to put their T20 failures behind them, USA continued the CWCL2 in Aberdeen in August. A split against Scotland, a win over UAE and an abandoned no result, put USA 2-1-1 on the tour. Momentum seemed to be building slightly, as USA prepared to travel to Papua New Guinea in September to take on Namibia and last place hosts.

But Port Moresby would not be kind, as USA suffered their worst tour results since Nepal, tying PNG in the opener, but losing their other three games to go 0-3-1.

With a top three CWCL2 finish realistically out of their reach, USA would fly to Namibia in November for their final guaranteed ODI series. Facing the realistic possibility of falling out of the top five, which would place their ODI status at the mercy of the outcome of the 2023 ICC Cricket World Cup Qualifier Play-off, the stakes for USA Cricket couldn’t have been higher.

USA would experience perhaps their best series during the Arunkumar era in Windhoek, winning their first three games before falling to Namibia in the final game to put USA at 3-1 for the series. This meant that USA would end the competition at 16-17-1-2 in a very temporary third place, and every team below them in the table with games in hand. Namibia would pass USA in the table after their very next game. 

The high note finish means that Arunkumar concluded his USA Cricket tenure with a Cricket World Cup League Two record of 10 wins, 11 losses, 1 no-result and 2 ties, as well as a T20I record of 9-4.

Legacy

During Arunkumar’s tenure, USA Cricket suffered many challenges and low points, but also celebrated notable accomplishments and improvements. 

Not afraid to be creative with the batting order, Jak moved natural opener Jaskaran Malhotra to the number five position in ODI, remarking at times that he believed Jaskaran displayed skills for big hitting that were on par with some of the best in the world. That intuition paid off for a stretch, as Jaskaran averaged 48.33 with 290 runs in the role, though 173 of those runs came in a record setting performance against PNG

Against Ireland, Jak utilized left/right partnerships throughout the batting innings to keep Irish bowlers from settling in, a strategy which helped lead USA to their first Full Member victory.

But it was his willingness to make bold moves which led to what was perhaps the most controversial moment of Jak’s USA career. 

Following Ali Khan’s injury in the T20 World Cup Qualifier, Siva Kumar Duvvarapu was called in as a replacement. The 32 year old veteran of 42 first class matches and Morrisville Raptors (MiLC) star arrived in Zimbabwe on short notice and was immediately inserted in the lineup for the T20 Qualifier Semifinal against Netherlands. This was sure to be the biggest game in recent history for USA. 

Playing throughout the 2021 Minor League Cricket season as an all rounder, Duvvarapu struggled through the start of the 2022 season with injuries that typically kept him from playing on consecutive days. Due to his inconsistent availability, the Morrisville Raptors had him batting lower in the order, though he remained a reliably economical bowler. 

Had Duvvarapu played specifically as a bowler, little could have been made about his inclusion in the squad. Instead, he played at the expense of Sushant Modani, who though at times can be slow scoring, was a hero in the brief Ireland T20 series. 

Duvvarapu entered at number five with the USA at 73-3 halfway into the 9th over, with a need to steady the ship and rotate strike before Jaskaran Malhotra could ideally come in to score in a hurry. This was a position in which Duvvarapu found himself many times over the course of the 2021 Minor League Cricket season, bridging the gap between Morrisville’s openers and their limited finishing options.

By the time Duvvarapu departed at 7 from 13, USA were 98 for six with two balls to go in the 13th, and in the midst of a collapse. USA would only be rescued in the aesthetic sense by a 28 run boost from Nisarg Patel before USA were all out with six balls to spare. 

In the chase, Duvvarapu was only used for two overs, going for 11 runs with no wickets. The surprise move in such a big game for USA Cricket puzzled fans, and may have harmed Duvvarapu’s chances of being considered by selectors again. Ultimately, it was a gamble on an out of form player that went wrong.

In spite of some underwhelming results which failed to live up to the expectation of a nation generally thought to be on the rise, Arunkumar absolutely delivered in the batting department. 

In the 12 games prior to Jak’s arrival, the average USA team innings in the CWCL2 was 185.42 runs, at a loss of 9 wickets, and a team batting average of 20.6. During the 23 league innings during Jak’s term, the average USA team innings was 219.78 runs, at a loss of 7.9 and a team batting average of 27.77. That’s a per game improvement of 18.5% on the scoreboard, and an improvement of nearly 35% in team batting average. 

Jak lowered USA Cricket’s all-out percentage from 58% to 30%, as USA suffered only 7 all-out innings in 23 games compared to 7 in 12 games before his arrival.

Jak also developed a reputation for his work with and support of younger players. Working out of the Bay Area, Jak personally instructed young prospects such as Sanjay Krishnamurthi, Vatsal Vaghela, Rahul Jariwala, and more. 

Prior to his tenure, USA rarely gave senior chances to teenagers or players in their early 20s. The current crop of younger players more than proved their worth through nationally supported competitions, and this was recognized by the selectors and by Arunkumar. 

USA going forward

USA Cricket’s regular administrative shortcomings all but ensure that eras won’t be defined by players or coaches, but by administrations and their scandals. Yet even as USA mortgaged the future financially, the year of 2021 stands out as a high watermark.

For a time, domestic pathways emerged giving the nation a taste of long overdue continuity. But it is harsh and foolish to expect international results from a single year of competence.

Thanks to financial hardships, USA Cricket did not conduct a Men’s or Men’s U19 National Championship in 2022. Employees and contractors remain unpaid after the better part of a year. With the ebb of 2022 leaving behind a drying and cracked seabed, the high watermark of 2021 might sadly require a commemorative plaque.

Without the benefit of such continuity, whomever USA Cricket turn to as the new coach of the Men’s national teams will surely have their work cut out for them.

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