An Interview With Ian Holland
Cricket is not a sport one would typically associate with the United States of America.
Compare the fact that there are 29 Major League Baseball stadiums scattered across the States, which when put together have an average capacity of 42,115, with the fact that there is just one ICC-certified cricket venue in the country, Broward County Stadium, which holds 20,000.
With that in mind, it is strange to consider that the United States hosted, and took part in, the first ever international cricket match, when they played Canada all the way back in 1844 at St George's Club in Midtown Manhattan. Yes, as in right in the heart of New York City, with the modern-day site where the club once stood now a little under 300 yards from the Empire State Building!
In the interim, politics, the Civil War, and the rise of professional baseball all combined to stunt the development of American cricket, and it is clear where the country's loyalties lie when it comes to bat-and-ball sports in 2021. Yet, given cricket's greater global fanbase, there are those who look at the USA and see a veritable gold mine of untapped opportunities for the sport in the future.
One man who forms an important part of the multifaceted strategy for unlocking those opportunities is Ian Holland, an all-rounder who plays for the US national team alongside his commitments to Hampshire in England and Australian club side Ringwood, in Melbourne's eastern suburbs.
Ian's Australian accent masks any trace of a connection to the States, but he qualifies to play for the American side through having been born in Wisconsin to an American mother. The Australian part of him comes from his father, and the family moved to Melbourne when Ian was only two.
He recalls his earliest cricketing memories, with his first taste of the game coming in a way that will resonate with many Australians: "I remember playing backyard cricket with my dad, older brothers, and cousins, and once I'd realised how much I loved the game, I was just always in the backyard wanting to play! That's definitely where the love started."
Professional role models play a huge part in keeping young fans interested too, and at the time Ian was growing up, he was lucky to benefit from some of the very best: "Once I'd started to follow cricket, Glenn McGrath, Ricky Ponting, and Damien Martyn were the players I looked up to. They were some of the greats of Australian cricket, and to be watching the Australian team at a time when they just didn't lose a game was unbelievable."
Although it is fair to say the American national team is not quite yet on the level of that Australian side - although let's be completely honest, very few teams were or are - the basic governance structure is the same. It is controlled by USA Cricket, which in January 2019 became officially certified as an associate member of the International Cricket Council, and in November of that year, Ian made his debut for the country of his birth, playing in the West Indies' Regional Super50 one-day competition.
He describes how he embraced the opportunity, even if it was a little unexpected: "I wasn't aware of how the USA were ranked in terms of cricket until they contacted me in 2019. I went over to do some trials in Los Angeles, and after that season I was lucky enough to go on a few tours!
"I really enjoyed being part of the team, and especially once I'd understood the journey that they had taken from Division Four to Division Two in the space of 12 months, it summed up the really exciting things that were going on."
The numbered divisions Ian talks of made up the structure of the ICC's now-defunct World Cricket League, an umbrella term for the various one-day competitions which, for associate members (those who do not play Test matches), resembled the pathway to World Cup qualification.
The competitions have since been replaced by a new format, but the rise of the American team, who now sit 20th in the world and in a very comfortable second place in the ICC League Two - the division just below the Super League, which contains the ICC's full Test-playing members - has given USA Cricket firm belief that their plans to grow the game in the States are working.
As well as the foundation of two new domestic Twenty20 leagues - Minor and Major League Cricket - that will begin play in 2021 and 2022, respectively, the continued growth of the national team remains an important cog in the USA Cricket machine. As one of the few full-time professionals in the American squad, Ian explains how he handles a slightly different role on the international front compared to that of his domestic side Hampshire.
"I'm really grateful to be involved, and also for the opportunity to bring some of my experience to the group. At Hampshire, I'm a mid-experienced player; a solid part of the team, but when we have guys who come back from playing Test cricket, you see the huge experience they have of the game.
"When you compare that to the USA, where I'm one of only a few guys who have actually played first-class cricket, I have to try and take on more of a role in terms of helping the team develop. The team is super-talented and there are really good players coming through the system now though, so it's going to be cool to see how it progresses over the next few years. I'm really keen to stay involved as much as I can."
That positive attitude is something that is very much required when taking on a challenge of this magnitude, because breaking into the top tier sides is incredibly difficult to do in cricket. Of course, as we've already established, the USA is not a particularly conventional choice of national side to play cricket for, but then again, very little about Ian's career has been conventional.
Most professionals enter their regional side's age development system at a young age, and work their way up through various age group and academy sides, before breaking into the promised land of the first team.
Ian went on a reality show. Cricket Superstar was broadcast on Australian channel Fox8 in early 2012, with the premise being that 15 players would compete against each other in challenges over a series of weeks, with one being eliminated - or 'dismissed', as the show called it - every week until a single winner remained.
That winner turned out to be Ian, and his main prize was a one-year rookie contract with his home state side of Victoria. He also earned himself a scholarship to the Australian Cricket Centre of Excellence in Brisbane, which is without doubt the part of the prize he remembers the most fondly: "I spent four months basically playing against the Australian A team!" he smiles.
"A lot of the current Australian side were in that system at the time, and I was thrown into this environment where I was basically a club cricketer but living and playing with guys like Pat Cummins, Mitch Marsh, and Mitch Johnson, day in and day out!
"It was probably one of the most challenging periods of my life, trying to build myself up to play alongside guys that I'd watched on TV! I did have thoughts like 'I don't deserve to be here,' but I realised pretty quickly that if that's my mindset, I wasn't going to get anything out of the next four months, so you have to build yourself up quickly.
"It was a great experience for me as a cricketer, though, and also as a person."
Hearing Ian talk about challenging circumstances is really quite interesting, because as he himself would admit, he has had to overcome rather a lot of them in his career. The rookie contract with Victoria did not really work out, and Ian was released two years later without playing a game.
A brief return to the full team in 2016 to play one first-class game was forthcoming following a series of impressive performances for the state's Under-23 side, but in between, Ian relocated to England to play for Lancashire side Fleetwood in the Northern Premier League.
However, redemption with regards to his top-level career arrived in 2017 in the shape of an old friend from home, as he explains: "The connection with Hampshire was definitely [former captain] Dimi [Mascarenhas], who was born in Melbourne, and after he'd finished playing for Hampshire, he relocated back there.
"I crossed paths with him when I was in the Victorian system, and got to know him through club cricket as well. He thought I'd be really suited to playing in England with my style of play, and he connected me with Hampshire, so I got to know people like [director of cricket] Giles White.
"They kept the channels of communication open while I was in Australia, and it turned out to be a really good year for me when I signed for them."
Ian's career on the south coast has gone from strength to strength, as he has proved himself to be a very valuable all-rounder, with a top score of 143 and best innings bowling figures of 6-60.
However, something that runs through all professional sportspeople, and something I've particularly noticed about Ian as our conversation has gone on, is the hunger for more, and an almost-involuntary inability to shy away from a challenge.
I asked Ian about the targets he has set for himself over the next few years, and whether he might be focusing more on domestic success with Hampshire, or continued international development with the USA.
"I think really a mix of both! I want to win a County Championship, or really any silverware, with Hampshire, because it would be great to be part of a group that could go on and win that.
"In terms of the USA, I still view that as a massively exciting opportunity, especially considering I didn't know too much about it until a couple of years ago. With them, the chance to play in a World Cup would be just unreal, and I really do want to stay involved with them as long as I can make the balancing act with them and Hampshire work.
"Ultimately, as a cricketer, I just want to make the most of the opportunities that are in front of me, and look for the best challenges while being the best cricketer I can be.
"That's the way I've always gone about things."
It was a pleasure to talk to Ian and I want to thank him very much for taking the time to speak to me. I wish him all the best in the upcoming season and the years to come for Hampshire (except when he plays against Yorkshire, of course!), and for the USA.
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