by Peter Della Penna
(ESPN CricInfo).-The Guyana pipeline has supplied numerous players to the USA national team over the years but the cricketing bond between the two countries is somewhat ambivalent, something not touted by the USA with chest-thumping pride. The link has sometimes been a source of derision for critics of USA’s administration, both from internal and external observers, due to the impression created that a dependence on Guyana expats results in a nonchalant approach to developing homegrown talent.
A rare exception to the griping has been the appearance of a grizzled left-arm spinner who now resides in New Jersey. Neil McGarrell, 41, has been a recognisable fixture in local leagues since 2006 and his rise to the USA national team after representing West Indies more than a decade ago is a microcosm of his cricketing journey, one marked by relentless hustle to outwork and outperform others.
“I’m the eldest in the team, but my work ethic compared to some of the other fellas is different,” McGarrell told ESPNcricinfo. “I may be older than them, but once you put your mind to certain things you can do it. Once you are willing to work hard, you can go anywhere you want to go.”
McGarrell developed this attitude thanks in no small part to the environment he was reared in, being the 10th out of 11 children. His parents were separated when he was young and his mom migrated to New Jersey when he was a teenager. McGarrell’s older sisters stepped in to help raise him in Guyana and even though he says “food was always on the table”, his living situation presented its share of challenges. Cricket for McGarrell began as a neighbourhood game he enjoyed with his three brothers but as time wore on it became clear that the sport could provide a path to a better way of life.
“Cricket was the only means of getting out,” McGarrell said. “It opened up a lot of doors for me in terms of traveling and seeing the world.” Originally a left-arm medium-pacer, McGarrell says he decided to switch to spin when it became clear that opportunities would be limited with the plethora of fast bowling options available in the West Indies during the ’90s.
“With my little medium pace I’d have never made it anywhere. So I just switched it around and started bowling breaks. Even at my club there were five legbreak bowlers, but I ended up getting in front of them because of my fielding.”
It was mainly through McGarrell’s hard work and intensity in the field that he earned the nickname “Beast”. McGarrell says he spent more time on his fielding than anything else with special attention given to targeting the stumps.
“I’d get out of work in the afternoons and I’d throw balls at the stump, go pick it up and walk back. I’d spend more time fielding than I batted. I used to get myself out just so I could go bowl or field. I’d just get a couple of balls and pick up and throw. If I was lucky I’d get somebody who would throw the balls back to me. That used to be my training, just pelting the ball at the stumps.
“Most of the time, I’d be training on my own. I liked fielding because most of the time you spend playing cricket you’ve gotta be in the field. I made the West Indies team originally as a fielder. In order to limit your time in the field you’ve got to be able to hit the stumps.”
On his West Indies debut in an ODI against England in Port-of-Spain in 1998, McGarrell was responsible for three run outs and a catch in a 57-run win for his side. Despite his fielding exploits, he was never able to fully lock down a spot in the West Indies team. He managed four Tests and 17 ODIs with his final appearance wearing the maroon coming in 2001.
Five years later, he played his last first-class game for Guyana and came to the USA but not quite permanently yet. McGarrell split his time between Newark, New Jersey, and Guyana, where he was still part of the limited-overs sides. While his career in Guyana may have been on the wane, he was a formidable presence on the New Jersey club scene. McGarrell says, though, that he never entertained serious ambitions to play for USA when he first arrived and only meant to use cricket as a means of staying off the couch.
“The main thing was to play cricket just to keep myself in shape. I’m accustomed to being active and that was the only way to do it.” His performances were too good to ignore and by 2010 he had made his way into the Atlantic Region side as an allrounder. USACA tried selecting him for ICC WCL Division Three in Hong Kong in 2011, but he had not yet met the ICC’s four-year residency requirement by virtue of not having spent enough days living in the country during his first few years in New Jersey while he was still going back and forth to Guyana.
In the summer of 2011, he made a splash at the USACA Twenty20 National Championship by captaining the Atlantic Region to the tournament title. Their spot in the final was sealed when he took four wickets in four balls in the final over to defeat a powerhouse New York Region side captained by Steve Massiah by five runs. By November 2012 he had made his USA debut against Canada in the Auty Cup. This past spring, he was USA’s leading wicket-taker at ICC WCL Division Three in Bermuda with 12 in five games at an average of 14.58 and an economy rate of 3.55.
When Massiah relinquished the USA captaincy in September, McGarrell emerged as a strong candidate to take over and he was eventually announced as the leader of the 15-man squad that went to the UAE for the World Twenty20 Qualifier. While he says it’s an honour to captain USA, McGarrell also recognises the challenges posed with logistics to form a competitive team, not to mention the different styles and cultures involved on so many levels from players all over the country.
“You’ve got to find different players from all over the place and try to gel everybody, get them organised for a big tournament knowing that our fellas don’t play as much cricket as they should be playing, especially on turf wickets,”McGarrell said. “We’re only playing Saturday or Sunday cricket and then we come into a tournament playing three or four games one after the other. It’s difficult. It’s hard with our players.”
USA has found the going tough in the UAE, winning just one game during the group stage and as a result failed to qualify for the playoffs. The tour has been a disappointing one and McGarrell knows his time in a USA uniform may be short, but regardless of the result he hopes that he can set an example for others with his work ethic that may help them down the road.
“The main thing is to be seen as a hard worker,” McGarrell said. “That’s my legacy, someone who works hard and tried his best to do what’s necessary for the game of cricket in the USA.”