Fourteen years ago in the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, suburb of Cooper City, one of cricket’s most extraordinary individual performances in the game’s oldest international rivalry took place.
On Memorial Day weekend 2004, Canada captain John Davison top-scored with 84 in Canada’s first innings before almost singlehandedly wiping out one of USA’s best ever batting line-ups twice in a 104-run win in the first year of the ICC Intercontinental Cup. He also finished with 17 wickets, the biggest match haul in first-class cricket since England offspinner Jim Laker took 19 in the 1956 Ashes Test at Old Trafford.
“He basically was a one-man team,” says Lauderhill Mayor Richard J Kaplan, looking back. “The Canadians are a good team but he made that team so much better, far stronger than the USA team. If it wasn’t for him, the USA team would’ve won.”
The lead-in began a few months earlier, at the ICC Six Nations Challenge in the UAE. Canada arrived on the back of a World Cup campaign where they beat Bangladesh handsomely and ran Kenya down to the wire, before being wiped out for 36 by Sri Lanka in what remains the second-lowest completed score in the history of ODI cricket.
Then, in spite of Davison’s 66-ball century, they lost to West Indies, and subsequently to South Africa and New Zealand in lopsided fashion. Still, they finished above winless Full Member Bangladesh to avoid the wooden spoon, commendable for an Associate nation playing in their first World Cup since 1979.
USA had never been to a World Cup, but with the recent addition of ex-West Indies opener Clayton Lambert, they were a formidable outfit. Under the coaching guidance of former captain Faoud Bacchus – himself another former West Indies batsman, who moved to Florida after being shunned at home for his participation in a rebel tour to South Africa – USA won the ICC Six Nations Challenge to clinch a spot in the 2004 Champions Trophy.
In their showdown against Canada in Dubai, Canada were bundled out for 126 (Davison was absent), before USA wicketkeeper Mark Johnson bashed 67 off 51 balls to clinch victory with 26 overs to spare.
“We had a whole lot of good cricket at that time that both teams were playing,” said Johnson, a Jamaican who had moved to south Florida via New York in 1989. “For me that was probably one of the better times of playing with the USA team in terms of success. It was fierce playing against them. Going onto the field there was always something to prove.
“We were gelling at that time. They were more established than us because they were World Cup players. We hadn’t gotten to the World Cup but we were playing good cricket.”
Prior to USA’s stunning performance in the UAE, there had been a growing movement among a group of Florida politicians and businessman to put together a plan to bid for 2007 World Cup games to be played in the region. A part of that was a proposal for a new cricket stadium in Lauderhill. Once USA had legitimised itself on the field as a top Associate, with the possibility of potentially playing in the World Cup if they claimed one of five berths available for Associates at the 2005 ICC Trophy, those plans were kicked into gear.
“At the time, we were still trying to get the attention of [USACA president Gladstone] Dainty and trying to get the bid for the World Cup and the stadium built, all at the same time,” recalls one of Mayor Kaplan’s staffers, Leslie Tropepe. “We were trying to show we could do events and we could do cricket. So we offered to sponsor the games and produce the games on behalf of USACA.”
South Florida was home to a thriving cricket scene and less than a year earlier, a turf wicket had been put in place at the sprawling at Brian Piccolo Park. Named after one of Fort Lauderdale’s most famous local heroes who went on to play for the NFL’s Chicago Bears before tragically dying of testicular cancer at age 26 (as recounted in the Hollywood film Brian’s Song, in which Piccolo is portrayed by James Caan), the park has six softball fields, two baseball fields, three soccer pitches, basketball and tennis courts, and a velodrome.
It was a popular location to attract crowds. As part of the efforts to “make our bid for hosting World Cup games more legitimate”, according to Kaplan, the city of Lauderhill paid to fly Sir Everton Weekes up from Barbados for the match. He and fellow West Indies legend Lance Gibbs, a longtime local resident of Miami, came to the middle of the pitch to “bless the wicket” ahead of the first international to be played at the ground.
Very little was actually known about how the wicket would behave, but Davison was licking his lips at the toss. “I remember being pretty excited by the look of the wicket,” he says. “It looked like a clay court in tennis and I knew it was going to turn.”
Davison won the toss and chose to bat on day one, when it was 89 F (31.6 C) but the 91% humidity made it feel far more oppressive – even for someone who came up through the Australian system, as Davison had. Midway through the opening session, he retired ill on 26. Not long after, he was doubled over in the Canada bench area.
“I remember him throwing up,” said Canada batsman and former captain Zubin Surkari, who also played with Davison at Toronto CC. “With the heat, he wouldn’t have eaten anything for awhile. He was dry-heaving and puking up some fluids and bile. It couldn’t have been too comfortable.”
Canada soon found themselves in trouble. Surkari replaced Davison and lasted just 11 balls before he was caught behind off legspinner Nasir “Charlie” Javed. Promptly, Ian Billcliff and Ashish Bagai too fell cheaply to Javed and left-arm spinner Zamin Amin to make it 69 for 4.
Javed gained significant assistance in the opening session. “It was doing a whole lot of stuff,” USA wicketkeeper Johnson said. “Keeping wicket to Charlie, I got hit in the face. It wasn’t just that it was turning, it was bouncing. The ball was popping up from right under your bat, right under your eyes. There were a lot of close catches, but we also dropped a lot of those catches close in.”
Nicholas de Groot and Hani Dhillon steadied things before de Groot fell to medium-pacer Donovan Blake on the stroke of lunch, at 106 for 5. Having rested, Davison felt okay enough to come back out in the second session. He was also fuelled a bit by an unintentional jibe: he was used to having people call him “Davidson”, but the ground announcer at Brian Piccolo Park kept introducing him as “David Johnson”.
With a clear head, Davison knuckled down and forged an 88-run stand with Dhillon. Lambert’s part-time offies eventually claimed Dhillon, opening up the tail for Javed, who ran through it. Davison was ninth out, run out, and Canada finished on 221 at tea, but any hopes USA had of driving home an advantage before close of play quickly evaporated.
“Our opening bowler got hit for 8 or 10 off the first over of the match, and I said, ‘That’s it, I’m on at that end,'” says Davison. “I just locked myself in for the game that end. Sunil Dhaniram bowled at the other end, left-arm orthodox, bowled really economically and built pressure. So I benefited from that in terms of my wicket haul.”
Johnson was out leg-before for a golden duck to Ashish Patel’s medium pace early in USA’s reply, but it was Davison who claimed six wickets in the 34 overs before the close of play. After Johnson, not a single wicket fell bowled or lbw. Taking a page out of USA’s field settings for Javed in the first innings, Canada crowded USA with close-in catchers.
“If you have a bowler of his quality, who has unlimited overs on a pitch like that, with his knowledge and experience, never mind five wickets, you’re looking at six or seven,” Surkari said. “I don’t think anyone expected eight or nine in an innings, but on a day like that, anyone with that ability could pull it off. He was an underrated spinner.”
In 45 first-class matches in the Sheffield Shield for Victoria and South Australia, Davison had only taken five twice. He claimed two more wickets the next morning to finish with 8 for 61 in the first innings, but even with a night’s rest he was still suffering physically from dehydration in the heat.
“As the match wore on, I started to cramp up pretty badly,” Davison said. “Whenever I turned around and got down to appeal for lbw, the cramping would get me. I’d hit the ground and it was hard to stand back up.”
Instead of opening Canada’s second innings, he opted for a bit of rest. He didn’t get much, though, because Canada were soon 45 for 5, and he needed to come in at No. 7. Davison lasted just eight balls before USA captain Richard Staple nabbed him with more part-time spin.
Dhaniram, who had a long first-class career with Guyana before he migrated to Canada, entered at the fall of Davison’s wicket and produced a vital 65 not out, before Javed, Lambert and medium-pacer Howard Johnson worked their way through the tail at the other end. USA were set a target of 231.
Leon Romero fell midway through the final session, caught behind off left-arm spinner Zahid Hussain, and Staple was out in the next over, to Davison. Forty-year-old Johnson reprised his excellent form from the win a few months earlier in Dubai, in a valuable stand with 24-year-old future USA captain Steve Massiah.
Davison during his record-breaking hundred against West Indies in the 2003 World Cup Getty Images
“When Steve and myself were batting, we figured we’d take it as it comes because it got easier as we went along,” Johnson says. “Leave alone most of the balls and take whatever was in your half to score, as opposed to the first innings, when we wanted to just hit and score and the false strokes lost our wickets.”
USA ended the day on 87 for 2, their confidence high. Word started to get around for fans to show up on Sunday, the final day of the match, on Memorial Day weekend. About 500 turned up, big by USA standards, though Tropepe says she was confused by the hype among the locals.
“Everyone was trying to explain to me, because I was the new girl. They were saying, ‘This is a big deal, Leslie. This is going in the record books. This is history!'” says Tropepe, an Italian-American who was attending her very first cricket match, in her role as Mayor Kaplan’s director of public relations and cultural affairs.
“For perspective, I come from the championship days of UM [University of Miami],”she says. “The 1991 championship was my freshman year. I graduated with Warren Sapp and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. So understand that when I hear, ‘Things are gonna be great.’ But they were excited to see USA v Canada in Florida, to see their guys at home.”
Johnson came back out to bat on day three but only added four to his overnight score before he fell to Davison, bowled in what he says were controversial circumstances. “It was a slog sweep, trying to hit to midwicket. I think the ball came off the wicketkeeper’s pads onto the stumps. I walked. They said I was bowled, but something didn’t seem right, but you couldn’t do anything. I guess in the spirit of the game you just walk, but in retrospect, I think I should have stood my ground.”
Johnson’s wicket triggered a collapse. The match didn’t make it to lunch. Davison took 9 for 76, and USA were all out for 126. Johnson was the only one of Davison’s 17 wickets out bowled. The rest were all caught, the majority of them taken by close-in fielders. It remains the second-best haul in an international first-class match.
“I don’t think anybody knew the significance of it, no,” Surkari says. “I knew about Laker, I remember watching clips of him, but I didn’t know it was going in the same first-class statistical records, and I don’t think anyone thought anything of it.
“I think it probably gets overlooked because everyone always thinks about [Davison’s] [World Cup] hundred. It was on television against the West Indies. Everyone forgets that he’s got the best first-class record in a match since Laker. Those who were there [in Florida] would remember it fondly.”
The two teams went on divergent paths after the match. Canada went on to qualify for their second straight World Cup a year later, at the ICC Trophy in Ireland. USA were throttled by New Zealand and Australia in their two Champions Trophy matches later that summer in England, and then finished tenth out of 12 at the following year’s ICC Trophy to fall well short of reaching the World Cup. The first of three ICC suspensions for poor governance came before 2005 was over.
The proposal to play World Cup games in Florida also fell through, though approval was later granted to build a scaled back version of the originally planned $70m cricket stadium at the Central Broward Regional Park. It hosted its first T20 international in 2010, between Sri Lanka and New Zealand. After more visits by West Indies, India and now the CPL, Kaplan copyrighted Lauderhill as the “Cricket Capital of USA”.
“In the long run, considering what happened with the 2007 World Cup games [in terms of the financial loss], they probably did us a favour,” he says. “We could’ve lost a lot of money.”
Leslie Tropepe is now Leslie Johnson. She met USA wicketkeeper Johnson on the first day of the 2004 game, where she was organising the squad’s transportation to Brian Piccolo Park. Five years later, they were married. So for Johnson, the game is much more memorable than for Davison’s 17 wickets. He still smiles when thinking about his old sparring partner from Canada.
“I always liked him, even though he was a cocky son of a gun,” Johnson says, laughing. “He did so much for Canada cricket. He took it to a level which was good.”
Davison continued to play for Canada for another seven years, retiring after the 2011 World Cup and going back to Australia, where he has since become a spin-bowling coach in the national set-up. He remembers his days with Canada fondly, and though he will always be known best for his World Cup hundred against West Indies, the Intercontinental Cup win against USA is a very fond memory.
“It was probably one of the funnest games I’ve played in terms of an individual performance,” he says. “To have that sort of impact on a game was great.”