Picking the Team

The International Cricket Council is running trials to select the U.S.A. women’s cricket team in Indianapolis this weekend. I went up to watch some of the action, and to reconnect with another cricket fancier.

Twenty-four women are competing for 14 spots on the national team. It’s an odd sort of event, and not really a tournament. It’s a weekend of T20 cricket matches that are entirely unimportant in themselves, but are part of an earnest competition with significant stakes. In this post, I’ll use test the FEPS framework to see if it can lend any insight into the event, particularly the central role of fairness.

The one FEPS element that might seem entirely unimportant here is Spectacle. There were a grand total of three spectators on Saturday, including myself, and we paid nothing for the privilege of setting up our lawn chairs in the shadow of the sight screen.

In another sense, however, the entire event was organized for the benefit of a set of official spectators – the selectors who were charges with choosing the U.S.A. team. This favored set of observers was allowed to dictate the play. They divided the players into a “red” and a “blue” team, and kept shuffling players from one team to the other.

And the selectors instructed the players to play in ways likely to produce the action they wanted to see. Between the morning game and the afternoon games, word was apparently passed to play more aggressively on both sides. A more attacking field was set, and the batsmen played to stretch more shots for an extra run. As a result, the fielding, which was lackluster in the morning, became much tighter (and more interesting) in the afternoon.

When the morning’s T20 game was won by one side in the 16th over, the players were sent back on the field to play the last four overs anyway – the selectors wanted to see more cricket.

Participation was clearly an important value. One of the difficulties for the U.S.A. team is that the better players are widely dispersed over this large country. One of the chief objectives seemed to be helping a group of strangers play as a group. Again, this showed itself particularly in the fielding, which improved markedly with only a few hours of play.

Efficiency is also important, as always. It is expensive, in both the ICC’s money and the candidate players’ time, to bring this group together. One reflection of this is the relatively small number of players invited – barely enough to make two sides and play real matches. This allowed the selectors to keep pretty much everyone playing in all of the games, to learn as much as possible about the top candidates. Of course, it’s also possible that the selectors felt that there simply weren’t any more women worth a look. There was certainly a wide range of skill levels on display, and if those not invited were, on the whole, less capable than those who were, perhaps it’s just as well to let them stay at home.

Having nodded in the direction of the other elements of FEPS, we come to the dominant consideration for the event: Fairness. Fairness is important in almost any tourney, but it is the very essence of this one. The main point of the trials is to select the best possible team to represent the United States in international play, and that’s exactly in line fairness (C), the fairness that is observed when the best player or team wins.

In an ordinary tourney, fairness (C) is, we hope, an emergent quality of the competition. Here, it is the competition. It matters not at all whether the “red team” or the “blue team” wins the cricket games. The real competition is to determine which of the 24 players will be invited to join the national team.

In this particular case, however, I suspect that fairness (B), the fairness of equal opportunity, is at least as important. To understand this, it’s helpful to know something about the cricket scene in the United States.

Start with the curious fact that the national team is being selected under the auspices of cricket’s international governing body, the I.C.C., rather than the national body, the U.S.A. Cricket Association, or USACA. That’s because the I.C.C. is in the final stages of ejecting USACA from its membership (for reasons that I won’t go into here). But promoting cricket in the United States is a high strategic priority for the I.C.C., and so the I.C.C. has taken over some of the responsibilities that would ordinarily fall to the national association until it can finish ejecting USACA and forming a new national association it finds more satisfactory.

Add to this a few observations about the distribution of cricket talent in the U.S. Nearly all of the best cricket players in the U.S. are immigrants from (or expatriates of) countries which have a longer cricket tradition. The two largest groups are South Asians, from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh; and West Indians, from Jamaica, Trinidad, and the other Caribbean counties where cricket is popular. These players are widely dispersed within the U.S., with fairly large cricket leagues in California, the New York City area, and in greater Houston, but there were players from various other parts of the country at the trials also.

Thus, as much as the I.C.C. needs to pick a U.S.A. women’s team that can compete successfully in international competition, it is also essential to it to make these trials a demonstration of its ability to unify a deeply divided cricket community in the United States, paving the way for a strong national association that it hopes can take over the role of USACA.

Thus, in addition to sending a credible Team U.S.A. to Scotland in the fall, the I.C.C. hopes to send the 24 aspirants back to their local leagues with the feeling that they were well and fairly treated, and that the I.C.C. can restore sanity of cricket governance in the United States. For the long term health of cricket in the United States, this may well be the more important goal.







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