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cricket:image:1440366 [900x506] (Credit: ICC/Getty Images)

Griner It means everything to wear USA jersey

Aaron Jones has had a lot to take in over the last three days. On Thursday he came home, but as the captain of USA. On Friday he officially stood to a beautiful rendition of Rally 'Round The West Indies only for the second time in his life. The first had been in an ODI when West Indies were forced to go into the World Cup Qualifier last year. But this was different: at his home ground, the Kensington Oval, in front of his own people, with David Rudder himself performing the regional cricket anthem.

Later, Jones walked out to a huge cheer from his people, hit a huge six onto the roof of the Kensington Oval, then tried to take on fellow Barbadian, two years his senior, offspinner Roston Chase and lost his leg stump. The shot was on, the match-up was on, but it went a little like the whole night did for USA. By the time Jones was getting done with the media, he got a call from another fellow Bajan.

Jofra Archer, his friend - school-mate at both primary and secondary school - soon to be his opponent on Sunday, called him and told him he had reached with the England team and checked in at Hilton, the same hotel where USA are staying. Jones couldn't finish his formalities in time, and spent the Saturday linking up with his family and people.

On Sunday, perhaps at the breakfast, or on the field, Archer and Jones will meet each other. Two kids who had spent their childhood and adolescence dreaming about playing cricket together for West Indies now under two non-West Indies flags playing at their own theatre of dreams in the T20 World Cup 2024. The two spent practically every single day of school playing cricket together. When they were not playing formally, when they were not talking about cricket, they were playing with a tape ball or on hard courts or playing road tennis.

Road tennis is a Bajan sport that originated as a response to its time. During the exclusionary racist times of the 1930s in Barbados, when the locals, originally brought to the Caribbean as slaves, were not allowed to play tennis in private clubs, they invented this sport. The kids collected stray tennis balls that flew out of clubs, shaved off the skin, took the inner core and played tennis with it on the streets. The net would be a wooden plank not higher than a foot generally, and the rackets were carved out of wood, giant table tennis rackets if you will. It actually is a bit of a table tennis played with a tennis ball and an underarm serve but on the road.

A quick sport, it requires a low centre of gravity and comes with a good working over of the back, glutes and knees. Importantly it has gone from a silent rebellion to being a symbol of inclusiveness. What started as a poor man's sport is now a low-key national passion. It is now a formalised professional sport that found big resurgence during the Covid-19 pandemic. Prime Minister Mia Mottley has even pitched it as a potential Olympic sport.

Around the time road tennis was making a resurgence, Jones was making a tough life decision, following in the footsteps of his friend Archer to move to the USA and play international cricket for them. He had started playing for USA just before the pandemic, but now decided to move to North Carolina - hot summers, winters cold but no snow, beaches far and nearly not as good as Barbados - to avoid travelling so much.

The reason for Jones and Archer to move away were more or less similar. Don't go by West Indies' declining fortunes in international cricket, both Archer and Jones swear by the abundance of talent and the stiff competition into the Barbados side. It is similar in other traditional cricketing islands, you would imagine. The problem is, there is no level before it keeping a second team ready. Perhaps it has got to do with finances.

When Archer moved to England, he did so when he got injured, having started bowling fast only at 17. He knew he would have to spend seven years qualifying to play for England, but he knew he had no future in Barbados once he failed to make the Under-19s because of injury.

Jones stuck around for longer, but didn't see a clear pathway even if he kept fighting it out. "I think that if I had stayed in Barbados and worked hard enough that I probably would've played for West Indies eventually," Jones tells ESPNcricinfo. "But I was in and out of the Barbados first-class team. A lot of West Indies guys come from Barbados. So me being a guy that didn't represent West Indies, it was hard for me to find a place in the starting XI every game. My career was really and truly stagnant at that time. So I just took the opportunity to go to US and see if I could get another opportunity to play at the world stage there and the rest is history."

Never underestimate the significance of being able to make a living as a cricketer either. He actually had an opportunity to make the move before he actually did but he kept giving it a shot for as long as he could. Phil Salt, Chris Jordan and Nicholas Kirton are three other Bajans playing this World Cup from other countries. Life can come in the way of dreams.

Both Jones and Archer love their adopted countries, but feel so at peace when they come back to the island of their birth, where they dreamt those dreams. Jones saw all the signs that make Archer so good back in school even though at that time he was the better cricketer. And he should know: they both went to Hilda Skeene Primary and Christ Church Foundation together.

'We went primary school and secondary school together," Jones says. "It was always a competition. He's very competitive regardless the situation. Even outside cricket, when we played soccer, when we played road tennis, anything to be honest. He's a very competitive person.

"It's actually really an amazing journey, growing up as kids and then obviously branching off the plane. At that time we couldn't imagine playing for other countries. We always thought that we would play for Barbados and then West Indies. We got opportunities elsewhere and here we are now."

Being such good athletes, they were both popular boys in school but "good boys", staying out of trouble. Archer hadn't yet become a fast bowler. He used to do everything else: bat, bowl legspin, keep wicket. They met as recently as when both the teams happened to be in Antigua at the same time. They keep abreast with each other's lives.

Just before the 2019 ODI World Cup, which it is fair to say Archer won for England, Jones had just made his international debut for USA. Before the big final, Archer actually called up Jones, congratulated him, told him he was looking forward to playing against him, and asked him to stay ready for a bouncer first ball. Now the moment has arrived. England will be facing USA for the first time ever.

"Oh if he hits my helmet or anything, he will talk about it for the next three years for sure," Jones says. "If I can hit it for a six, I will definitely hit it for a six. If it's a good one, I will just let it go."

To somebody on the outside, this comes across as a highly unfortunate scenario. It helps that Jones is not an overtly emotional person. Or perhaps you need to learn to get better of your emotions when you have to leave home for work. However, there are times when he does wonder what might have been.

"I thought about it a few times," Jones says. "I mean that was the plan when we were younger. I don't know.. we can't really know how we'll feel now because we are not playing for West Indies. But definitely it would have been good because we've been close since we were young. And then we know we could bring a lot to West Indies cricket as players so it would've been good for sure to play for West Indies together."