MI New York demonstrated that success can be achieved with US players, but will MLC require their presence in the future?
The tournament final will feature a MI New York side whose stars have dominated the stats columns in the event as the maiden year of Major League Cricket comes to a close on Sunday night in Grand Prairie, Texas.
Nicholas Pooran enters the competition as the leading scorer with 251 runs and the most sixes with 21, while Tim David is also in the top five in runs scored with 199 at an average of 49.75 and a strike rate of 171.55 and the second most sixes with 16. Trent Boult leads the tournament in wickets with 19, eight more than the next closest bowler. In the MI New York side, there is also a spinner who is leading an important category in T20 cricket. However, it is not Rashid Khan.
When asked to name one of the competition’s finest bowlers, this name might not have been on the tip of any casual fan’s tongue before the start of the tournament. However, left-arm spinner Nosthush Kenjige’s league-leading 5.58 economy rate stands out in this embryonic American T20 franchise league for another very crucial reason.
Kenjige, 32, of the Dallas metroplex, is one of only nine US-born players on MLC rosters and one of only two to make anyone’s starting XI, along with MI New York teammate Steven Taylor. He has been a member of the USA national team since 2017, much loved and revered within the US community for his unrivaled work ethic, but he was mostly unknown on the global scene before this competition. However, the backing he and other USA players have gotten from MI New York management provides a model for boosting local players in the MLC in the future.
“I think you have to win and develop at the same time,” MI New York head coach Robin Peterson stated during a post-match press conference at the midway point of the tournament when discussing his team’s selection approach in terms of the visibility of USA players on their roster. “It isn’t either/or. That’s what we’re here for. Players from the Associate Nations and the USA national team must become accustomed to and steeped in the pressure of performing. That is a natural aspect of their progression in this league. Yes, we have a keen development viewpoint, but at the forefront of our minds is constantly trying to win, and winning teaches you a lot.”
During the tournament, when other franchise leaders were asked about the same topic, the general response was that winning comes first. However, MI New York has demonstrated that it is feasible to walk and chew at the same time.
Prior to the tournament final, eleven players with USA caps had made 56 starting XI appearances in 18 matches. However, MI New York has topped the list with 21 picks split across four players. Aside from Kenjige, opener Shayan Jahangir is third on the team’s run chart, trailing only Pooran and David, with 154 runs at an average of 25.66.
Taylor and USA captain Monank Patel have also been selected for more than half of the matches played by MI New York. They also drafted three more USA players in the draft: Kyle Phillip, Jessy Singh, and Saideep Ganesh, and after Phillip was pulled out of the event when his bowling motion was noticed at the World Cup Qualifier in Zimbabwe, Slade van Staden took his place.
However, most other franchises have fallen short of providing a platform for USA players to excel. The San Francisco Unicorns, who did not advance to the playoffs, did not have a single capped USA player. However, it is not simply the what that is noteworthy, but also the how.
On the one hand, players like Saurabh Netravalkar for the Washington Freedom and Cameron Gannon for the Seattle Orcas have demonstrated that, given the opportunity, USA players are more than capable of holding their own. Former USA captain Netravalkar finished with a team-high ten wickets and the tournament’s top bowling stats of 6 for 9 versus the Unicorns. Gannon, a dual national who last represented the United States in 2019 but has since committed his time to Sheffield Shield cricket in Australia, is the joint-leading wicket-taker for the other tournament finalist, the Orcas, with 11 wickets at an average of 14.09.
On the other hand, most franchises have used MLC’s ambiguous definition of “domestic player” to complete their domestic quota mostly with non-US-qualified players, many of whom had little influence. In contrast to the Global T20 Canada and the UAE’s ILT20, both of which require a minimum of three and two domestic players in each starting XI, respectively. MLC officials determined that a player could meet that standard simply by pledging to “hold a ‘qualified visa,’ have established their ‘primary and permanent residence’ in the US, and will continue to satisfy the ICC’s guideline regarding ten out of twelve months for three consecutive years.”
It created the comical circumstance of Chaitanya Bishnoi, who arrived in the United States just days before the MLC draft for local players in March but was selected in the fourth round for $40,000. Though not as heinous, former Pakistan international Mukhtar Ahmed was playing domestic cricket in Faisalabad as recently as September 2022 before being selected as a domestic player in the March MLC draft for $65,000 in the second round.
Bishnoi went on to score 52 runs in four innings (batting at No. 8 in three of them) and bowl three overs for the Unicorns. Mukhtar’s returns were possibly even more insignificant: batting at No. 3 in every match for Freedom, he scored 78 runs at an average of 13.00 and a strike rate of 105.40, with a best of 20.
This presents interesting questions. A: Why are players who have played internationals for other countries considered locals if they have not yet qualified to play for the USA under ICC rules? B: Shouldn’t a player like Mukhtar, who is currently ineligible to play for the USA but has previously played for Pakistan, be considered overseas and compete for overseas slots with the likes of Shadab Khan and Haris Rauf? C: Did any of these players actually elevate the league’s quality, possibly justifying the relaxation in the rules that allowed such picks in place of a US-eligible player?
However, there is another complication in the equation: local players. There are cases such as England’s Liam Plunkett, New Zealand’s Corey Anderson, and Sri Lanka’s Shehan Jayasuriya, who married American citizens and moved to the United States for reasons unconnected to MLC.
Liam Plunkett, he of 2019 World Cup England fame, is now at MLC•Getty Images.
Plunkett has worked hard to create connections in the local Pennsylvania sports cricket community, primarily through academy coaching, while Anderson has done the same in the Dallas region. Plunkett, however, is ineligible to play for the United States, and few, if any, promotional media segments organized in the run-up to the event have sought to identify him as anything other than one of England’s heroes from the 2019 World Cup final victory. MLC broadcast commentator Pommie Mbangwa even identified him as the “50-over World Cup winner from England” during his debut period of the event to TV audiences across the world.
It would not seem unreasonable to create a middle-ground category for players like Plunkett, who have completed their England international career but are now firmly ingrained in the US cricket culture despite being ineligible to play for the USA. Why not ensure a minimum number of US-eligible players while still providing provision for a few “wildcard domestic” players in the XI? At the very least, it would put an end to the charade of portraying Plunkett as something he is not and has never sought to be, while also limiting the practice of declaring players “domestic” at the eleventh hour.
It’s also worth noting that in the Global T20, Canada’s strategy of fielding three Canadians in the starting XI was not always the case. The original GT20 rules stated that four Canadian players had to be drafted into each squad in year one, but there was no mandate to play any of them in the starting XI, and several teams chose not to. Only Saad bin Zafar’s stunning Player-of-the-Match performance in the Vancouver Knights’ tournament-final victory seemed to expose eyes to the reality that Canadian players could and would flourish if given a chance.
Time will tell whether MLC changes their roster criteria for the second year of the league to require a certain number of US-eligible players in the starting XI, as GT20 and ILT20 do. Until then, MI New York has led the way in demonstrating that, whether by force or choice, USA players are capable of competing with and alongside some of the greatest names on the global T20 franchise circuit.
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