Harper looks to convert America

Stephen Brenkley talks to the cricket coach hired to head a sporting revolution
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The Independent Online
Most of America may be unaware of their existence but the nation's cricket team mean business. They have hired a former West Indies Test player as their coach, have appointed as their captain another of similar ilk who appeared in a World Cup final and this week embark on their mission to rule the world.

The crucial, early match in this quest - before the going gets properly tough - will be against Ireland on Thursday. Both sides are aware that the winners may also be the team who qualify for the second stage of the ICC Trophy in Malaysia and thus continue the attempt to gain one of three precious places available in the World Cup finals in England in 1999. The losers will have to wait four years to try again.

"This is going to be an extremely exacting tournament," said Roger Harper, the off-spinning all-rounder who played 25 Tests and almost 100 limited overs internationals for West Indies and became the USA's coach last December. "There are 20 teams playing more than 80 matches in one city over three weeks, using every cricket ground there is. Nearly all the players are part-timers and getting them to be a bit more professional will be important. Do that and you're three-quarters of the way there."

The entire tournament is being played in Kuala Lumpur beginning tomorrow. There are four preliminary groups with two qualifying from each. These teams then form two more groups from which emerge the four semi-finalists. The USA and Ireland have been drawn in the same group as Kenya, the tournament favourites, who barely a year ago left the cricketing world in need of a seismograph to record the shattering nature of their defeat of the West Indies in the World Cup.

It is generally assumed - one-day cricket shocks notwithstanding - that the pair are playing for second place. Ireland, astutely led by the former Leicestershire batsman Justin Benson, have won two of their four warm- up matches but like many others may be concerned about the humidity.

"I know from personal experience how good Kenya are," said Harper, recalling that he was in the team so astonishingly beaten in Pune, "and Ireland are more than useful. The most significant aspect may well be who handles the pressure in tense situations. That's what we've tried to work on."

Doubtless, his progress in this regard may have been eased by having as captain Faoud Bacchus, a fellow Guyanan, who now lives in Orlando, represented West Indies 19 times, scored 250 in a Test match and once made 140 against Ireland. For Bacchus this may be a somewhat tortuous route back to the World Cup proper. He was a member of the squad which won the trophy in 1979 and played in the final itself in 1983 when the side lost to India (another seismographic sensation).

Harper had no hesitation in taking the coaching job and although he has not yet formally retired as a player he is unlikely to be seen again. Still only 34, he is excited by the game's potential in the USA. Two weeks ago plans were announced to stage a one-day tournament at Disney World, Florida, involving all the leading nations. Although the USA's ICC Trophy side consists entirely of expatriates, including Alvin Kallicharran's brother Derek, Harper thinks it can appeal to Americans if they are initially fed a diet of knockabout cricket such as eight-a-side games.

It is invariably fascinating to watch the USA try to take to sports it has traditionally disdained in favour of gridiron and baseball. They may have national sides but they still have no presence to speak of in football, rugby or cricket, all so big in other countries. Except that they possess a rich cricket heritage.

America were the recipients of the first international tour, from England. The first match was played between an England XI and a USA XXII (the tourists let them have twice the players and still won) in 1859. The Philadelphia side, a national team in all but name, still played high standard cricket early this century; the great swing bowler J Barton King was top of the English averages in 1908. The next year he took 10 for 53, a career-best analysis. This may or may not be a precedent for Thursday - but it was against Ireland.