May 22, 2017

Two vets and a kid

Three promising newcomers in the USA side are hoping to help their team break its Division Three jinx

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USA cricket welcomes three new faces

Camilus Alexander
Perhaps the coolest cat prowling around the USA squad, 35-year-old legspin allrounder Alexander oozes confidence on and off the field.

The Grenada native was a strong prospect for West Indies in his youth, having been part of the squad that went to the 2000 U-19 World Cup. His team-mates then included future Test players Marlon Samuels, Jermaine Lawson, Narsingh Deonarine and Brenton Parchment. However, Alexander struggled to find a regular place in the Windward Islands side once he graduated to senior level. His mentor Rawle Lewis was entrenched as the first choice legspinner, and offspinner Shane Shillingford was a frequent pick.

"After a while I decided I wanted to try something new and have a different avenue," Alexander said. He got a call one day from Clayton Lambert, the former West Indies opener who had migrated to the USA in the late 1990s and wound up playing for the country at the 2004 Champions Trophy, before later going on to coach the US team. Lambert, based in Atlanta, said one of the club teams in the strong local competition was interested in a bowler who could bat. At age 30, Alexander packed up and came to Atlanta, where Lambert, who works as a truck driver, helped him get a job in the same field. As if that wasn't enough of a helping hand, Alexander also became roommates with Lambert for the first year he lived in Atlanta.

"I came over and gave it a shot and it's just gone on from there," Alexander said. "I knew him from first-class cricket back in the Caribbean, so it wasn't too hard to get along, and he helped me a lot. Coaching-wise, he gave me a lot of inspirational advice and how to go about playing different situations. He helped me in a lot of ways."

"I'm looking to make a name for myself. Try to perform in the best way that I can, try to get at least two or three fifties and get at least 10 to 12 wickets"
Camilus Alexander on his goals for the season

Alexander has been piling up runs after shifting to more of an emphasis on his batting than his bowling, which helped put him on the selection radar. He was the top scorer at the most recent selection camps in Houston. Along with Lambert, Alexander says Lewis and Darren Sammy, who captained him at Windwards for a brief period, were also helpful in developing his game.

"[Sammy] was always an inspirational guy in the Windwards team so we learned a lot from him," Alexander said. "He always told me, 'Nothing comes easy. If you need to achieve something, you need to work hard at it', and he really worked hard at his game and just moved from one level to the next really quick."

Alexander's role in the USA squad is to shore up the middle order - a problem area for USA in the recent past - while also offering spin in the middle overs.

"I'm looking to make a name for myself," he said of the Division Three challenge. "Try to perform in the best way that I can, try to get at least two or three fifties and get at least 10 to 12 wickets. Doing that, the team will benefit and it will help the team to go on and win the cup, which is our ultimate goal."

Camilus Alexander credits his erstwhile captain Darren Sammy as a major inspiration © Peter Della Penna

Ibrahim Khaleel
Though he is new to the USA squad, Khaleel has a distinguished resumé built up over the course of a decade with Hyderabad in Indian first-class cricket. He played for the state, beginning at Under-13 level, working his way up through each junior squad before making his Ranji Trophy debut in 2002, under the captaincy of Venkatapathy Raju.

Khaleel was arguably in his prime around 2008, when he took a chance on the rebel Indian Cricket League. He was named Player of the Series playing for ICL's India XI against a World XI.

"ICL changed me as a batsman, as a keeper, the way I approached the game, it just made me better," he said. "The confidence that Steve Rixon [as coach] gave me was just unbelievable. The work ethic, the way he shows you the drills for wicketkeeping, the way he tells you how to bat, how to approach batting and keeping, it was just unbelievable. He took me to a different level. The confidence level I had was great but he made me a better keeper and a better batsman."

After the ICL folded, Khaleel took the BCCI up on its amnesty offer and came back to the Hyderabad fold, while also trying to find a place in the IPL. He signed a squad contract with Mumbai Indians but never made it into the starting XI, and by 2010 they had cut ties with him.

"ICL changed me as a batsman, as a keeper, the way I approached the game, it just made me better"
Ibrahim Khaleel, who played domestic cricket in India, before moving to the US in his 30s

He was still a regular with Hyderabad over the next few years, though, and one of his biggest career highlights came in November 2011, when he set a world record with 14 dismissals (11 catches and three stumpings) in a first-class match against Assam.

"I didn't know it was a world record," Khaleel said. "We just finished the game and I went back to my room. That's when my phone starts ringing. 'What's going on? I know we won the game but why is everybody calling me?' You just created a record. 'What record?' There was a guy who got 13 [dismissals] and you have 14 now."

In 2013, he married an American doctor, and the couple agreed he would continue to play in Hyderabad, spending the season in India before coming back to Beloit, Wisconsin, where she had established their home near her hospital job. After the 2014-15 season, though, the "commute" was wearing, and Khaleel says he made the decision to stop playing Ranji Trophy cricket for good at age 32.

In the USA full-time, he initially played sporadic league cricket casually in Chicago, a two-hour drive from Beloit, a town of 36,000, just over the Wisconsin border from Illinois. But in 2016, ICC Americas organised a regional combine tryout in Chicago, and a fire that had been barely flickering grew strong once again with the prospect of representing USA. Khaleel already had a green card, thanks to his wife, and the Milwaukee, Wisconsin US Customs and Immigrations Services office fast-tracked his citizenship application. He got his passport a week out from the squad submission deadline to be eligible to play for USA at Division Three.

Khaleel: "Everybody is a fantastic player in our team. When I look at them as a player, as a team-mate, to me the only thing I look at is how confident they are in their approach" © Peter Della Penna

"My wife was like, 'You know what, we decided that you don't want to play cricket and you're gonna chill. Now you're gonna travel?'" Khaleel laughs. "I told her I'd do that but I always wanted to play for the country.

"She's one of the biggest reasons that I'm here, because she supported me a lot. She knew that I always wanted to play for the country, and when I had this opportunity, she helped me with all my stuff, getting the paperwork done for the citizenship and stuff, and then when I got selected, she was just very happy for me."

Even with worn knees and a sore back from 20 years' worth of wicketkeeping through the Hyderabad system, Khaleel's skills with bat and gloves are still undeniable. He was USA's second-leading scorer - behind USA's Jamaica Tallawahs allrounder Timroy Allen - on their warm-up tour in Potchefstroom ahead of landing in Uganda, and hopes some of his experience will rub off on his new team-mates.

"My experience is all about confidence," Khaleel said. "Everybody is a fantastic player in our team. When I look at them as a player, as a team-mate, to me the only thing I look at is how confident they are in their approach. The only thing I go and tell them is just back yourself."

"My wife was like, 'You know what, we decided that you don't want to play cricket and you're gonna chill. Now you're gonna travel?'"
Khaleel on his wife's reaction to his decision to play for USA

Nosthush Kenjige
The two other USA debutants have more than two decades of first-class cricket between them. Kenjige on the other hand is neon green by comparison, in terms of his high-level cricket experience. But the 26-year-old left-arm spinner's work ethic goes a long way towards helping bridge that gap.

Born in Alabama, where his father worked as an agricultural researcher at Tuskegee University, he and his family moved back to India before he had turned one, to Chikmaglur, outside Bengaluru, where his father runs a coffee farm. Kenjige played university cricket in Bengaluru, as well as for Jawans Cricket Club in the city's Sir Mirza Ismail Shield competition.

The only one in his family with American citizenship (since he was born there), he decided to move back to the US in 2015, first to Virginia and then to New York, where he found work as a biomedical technician. He applied and was granted an invite to the New York Combine organised by ICC Americas in June 2016, where he impressed enough with his left-arm spin to be named in USA's 30-man training squad ahead of Division Four at the end of July.

Kenjige: "To just have stars and stripes on the chest, it's a dream for anybody" © Peter Della Penna

Though he holds a USA passport, a quirk in the ICC's eligibility criteria for Associate teams below the WCL Championship meant that Kenjige had to fulfill 100 days of "community service" to become eligible. This can consist of playing in matches, coaching players, or undertaking other development activities. So desperate was Kenjige to play for USA that he would commute one to two hours - depending on traffic - from Manhattan to New Jersey after work, three days a week, and again on the weekends, to the CricMax complex in Old Bridge, the nearest indoor facility where he could train and coach.

Officially, eight hours equals a day of credit for the ICC 100-day stipulation so if he made it by 6pm and stayed until 10pm, he could log a half-day on weeknights, and then put in two full days on the weekend. The owners gave him a set of keys to lock up if he was the last to leave. After starting his mission in August, Kenjige met the threshold in February, in plenty of time to be eligible for Division Three.

"It's just that I enjoyed cricket and I didn't necessarily count it as commitments or service of any kind," Kenjige says. "The fact that I was just enjoying the work that I was putting in every day, even though the commute was bad. I could have given a thousand reasons [to stop] but it was just the passion in me. I just loved to go to the place and get myself working at it and just get better every day. I think everybody in my position would have done it if they loved cricket."

So desperate was Kenjige to play for USA that he would commute one to two hours from Manhattan to New Jersey after work, three days a week, and again on the weekends, to the CricMax complex in Old Bridge, the nearest indoor facility where he could train and coach

Kenjige took a brief period off work in January to train in South Africa with the Knights franchise before returning to New York. At the team's selection camps in Houston this March and April, he finished as the leading wicket-taker. That achievement, and his phenomenal fielding - he is often stationed at backward point - made him a shoo-in for the tour to Uganda. He said it was "the happiest day of my life" when he got the selection call.

Kenjige's fanatical quest to give himself the best chance of being selected came at a price, though. Just before leaving for Uganda, he was fired from his job. He says he saw it coming, considering the amount of time he had taken off from work and to go to selection camps, but says without hesitation that he would do it all again.

"It was always my dream to play for the US. It was a no-brainer. If they hadn't asked me to leave, I would have left at some point, because this is where I've always wanted to be. Looking back at it 20-30 years from now, I don't think I'm gonna regret it.

"Any sportsperson for that matter, when we start playing cricket, you always dream of playing for the country. To just have stars and stripes on the chest, it's a dream for anybody. You know that you're playing for your country, you represent your country. It's been a dream so I can't ask for anything more."

Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent. @PeterDellaPenna

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Ashok on May 25, 2017, 6:09 GMT

    I think it is perfectly fine for qualified immigrant citizens to join the US team.

  • Jigar on May 24, 2017, 13:06 GMT

    Whats wrong with US Selection? Again a bunch of 30 years old to represent USA? Seriously stop this politicking.

  • Andrew Briscoe on May 24, 2017, 8:28 GMT

    A great article. It is refreshing and heart warming to see that in some far flung places off the traditional cricketing radar (Wisconsin, New Jersey, Atlanta etc), there are guys out there slogging their guts out and making huge sacrifices in order to play the game they love and ultimately represent their country. It made me want to go out and watch them play their next game.

  • Jose on May 23, 2017, 13:22 GMT

    Khaleel!

    I remember, one among the 'forbidden fruits', that is the ICL, which got slayed, for being a rebel! Yes, a rebel tournament, the anemic precursor of the modern giant, IPL. With a patron saint of the status of Kapil Dev. Yet a rebel tournament, promoted by a rebuffed broadcaster, a la Packer!

  • Iain on May 23, 2017, 9:10 GMT

    Peter, are there any promising USA born and developed players coming through to join Steven Taylor?

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