‘We can take any side down’: meet the USA’s T20 World Cup cricket squad

One summer night in Centerville, Ohio, in 2010, a scattered band of club cricketers gathered for their regular Wednesday practice session in Stubbs Park. One had brought a new recruit, his 19-year-old nephew Ali Khan, who had only just come over from his village in Attock, Pakistan. Khan had only ever played with a tape ball, but after his first over with a real one all the other players stopped to watch his second. “Everyone,” Khan remembers, “was like: ‘Wait, who’s this kid? Where’s he from again?’” They put him in the first team that very same weekend.

Over a decade later, Khan, now 33, has just finished the second of three games against Bangladesh at the Prairie View ground in Houston, a warm-up series for the World Cup. USA were one-nil up and one win away from their first-ever series victory against a Test-playing nation, but the game was getting away from them. Bangladesh only needed 21 runs from the last 18 balls. They had four wickets left, and one of them was Shakib Al Hasan, one of the world’s very best all-round cricketers, who was 30 not out off just 22 balls.

Khan’s first ball back bowled Shakib off his inside edge. His fourth was a yorker, which pinned the new batsman lbw. And his 10th, delivered in the final over, was edged and caught by the wicketkeeper. The three wickets cost 11 runs, only eight of them off the bat. USA won the game by six runs. “It was a big achievement to take down a top-10 T20 side,” Khan says two days later. But he believes there are even bigger ones ahead. The tournament proper starts with their opening match against Canada in Grand Prairie this Saturday.

“I am so excited for this World Cup,” Khan says. “I believe we are capable of taking any side down. We have four games in our first round and we’re looking forward to every one of them.”

Whatever Khan came to the US for, it wasn’t cricket: “I didn’t even know there was any cricket in the US,” he says. But soon after that first net in Dayton, he was playing across the midwest, travelling anywhere he could get a good game. “Me and my friend Farhan, we used to drive from Ohio to Chicago, to play weekend games, 40 overs, we would drive five hours, stay overnight, play the game, and after it we’d drive right back again because the next day we had work.”

Back then, he was making a living as a mobile phone sales rep. These days, he does it playing cricket. He was spotted by Courtney Walsh in 2015, and won a spot with the Guyana Amazon Warriors in the Caribbean Premier League. He had a rough couple of years with injuries, but was spotted again by Dwayne Bravo while they were both playing in Canada, and got a second chance in the CPL with the Trinbago Knight Riders. He did well enough to win himself a shot in domestic leagues in Bangladesh and Pakistan, and, eventually, the Indian Premier league.

He doesn’t get to play too much club cricket with the boys back in Dayton anymore. “The trouble is they play in parks, you know, so the grass is long and you can’t wear spikes, or have a full run-up. As a bowler, it’s a bit of a struggle. There’s a lot of talent in the US, but in terms of facilities they’re not that great right now.” He is very fond of this US team though, which is mostly made up of men who, like him, moved to the States to start over.

Ali Khan says ‘there’s a lot of talent’ in American cricket. Photograph: Alex Davidson-ICC/ICC/Getty Images

The squad has more talent and experience than you might expect. There are a couple who were part of India’s Under-19 World Cup team in 2010, and a couple more with some IPL experience; two who played a good amount of first-class cricket in South Africa before they moved, another who played Under-19s cricket for Pakistan, the former New Zealand Test player Corey Anderson, and the old Canada captain, Nitish Kumar. They’ve all got their own stories about how they ended up here, playing for the USA, some came because their parents wanted a better life, others to study, some for the money.

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Khan is sending some of his earnings back to his old village of Jafar, in Pakistan, where he dreams of one day building a new cricket ground.

Cricket may not be an American sport, but the team has a lot of American stories.

“I mean, that’s why it’s called the land of opportunities,” says Khan. “You know, people come here from all across the world looking for different opportunities, and we all ended up here playing cricket. We would have never imagined that, but here we are. And that’s what makes this team special too, because we are bringing all these different nationalities, different cultures, and different backgrounds together, into one unit to play in this tournament, and that’s pretty special.”

The Guardian