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Major League Cricket's conundrum: who exactly is an American player?

MI New York showed it's possible to be successful while using USA players, but will MLC mandate their inclusion in future?

Nosthush Kenjige trapped Martin Guptill lbw in the first over, Los Angeles Knight Riders vs MI New York, Major League Cricket, Grand Prairie, July 16, 2023

Nosthush Kenjige has a better economy rate than Rashid Khan in MLC 2023  •  Sportzpics

As the first year of Major League Cricket builds to a crescendo on Sunday night in Grand Prairie, Texas, the tournament final will feature an MI New York side whose stars have dominated the stats columns in the event.
Nicholas Pooran enters as the leading scorer with 251 runs as well as the most sixes in the tournament 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 in the tournament with 16. Trent Boult is the tournament's leading wicket-taker with 19, eight more than the nearest bowler. There's also a spinner in the MI New York squad who is very impressively leading an important category in T20 cricket. But it isn't Rashid Khan.
This name might not have been on the tip of the tongue of any casual fan at the start of the tournament when asked to name one of the event's best bowlers. But left-arm spinner Nosthush Kenjige's league-leading 5.58 economy rate stands out for another very important reason in this fledgling American T20 franchise league.
Dallas metroplex resident Kenjige, 32, is one of just nine US-born players on MLC rosters, and one of only two to actually make anyone's starting XI along with MI New York team-mate Steven Taylor. He has been a USA national team player since 2017, much-loved and respected within the US community for his unrivalled work ethic, yet one who was very much unheralded on the global stage before this tournament began. But the support that he and other USA players have received from MI New York management is a blueprint for promoting local players in MLC going forward.
"I think you have to win and develop at the same time," MI New York head coach Robin Peterson said during a post-match press conference at the halfway stage of the tournament when discussing his team's selection policy regarding the visibility of USA players in their squad. "It's not either or. That's the job we're here to do. Players from the Associate nations and the USA national team, they need to become used to and ingrained in the pressure of having to perform. That's part of their development in this league. Yes, we do have a keen development angle, but at the top of our mind is always trying to win and you can learn a lot from winning."
When other franchise leaders were asked the same question during the tournament, the answer was generally that winning comes first. But MI New York has shown that it is possible to walk and chew at the same time.
Heading into the tournament final, a total of ten players with USA caps have made 56 appearances in the starting XI in 18 matches. But MI New York have led the way with 21 of those selections spread across four players. Aside from Kenjige, opener Shayan Jahangir is third on the team's runs chart behind Pooran and David with 154 at an average of 25.66. MI New York has also picked Taylor and USA captain Monank Patel for more than half the matches played. They also took three other USA players in the draft - Kyle Phillip, Jessy Singh and Saideep Ganesh - and when Phillip was ruled out of the tournament after his bowling action was reported at the World Cup Qualifier in Zimbabwe, his place was taken by another US-eligible player in Slade van Staden.
But most of the other franchises have fallen short when it comes to giving USA players a platform to shine. San Francisco Unicorns, who failed to make the playoffs, did not start a single capped USA player. Yet it is not just the what but the how this has come about that is of particular note.
On one hand, players like Saurabh Netravalkar for Washington Freedom and Cameron Gannon for Seattle Orcas have shown that, given a chance, USA players are more than capable of holding their own. Former USA captain Netravalkar registered the tournament's best bowling figures of 6 for 9 against Unicorns and ended with a team-best ten wickets. Dual national Gannon, who last represented USA in 2019 but on either side of that appearance has committed his time to Sheffield Shield cricket in Australia, is the joint-leading wicket-taker for the other tournament finalist Orcas with 11 wickets at an average of 14.09.
On the flip side, most franchises have exploited MLC's nebulous definition of "domestic player" to mainly pick non-USA eligible players - many of whom had a negligible impact - to fill their domestic quota. Contrary to the Global T20 Canada and the UAE's ILT20, a pair of leagues who mandate a minimum number of three and two domestic players respectively in each starting XI - and clearly define them as someone who is eligible for or has been capped for Canada or the UAE - MLC officials determined that a player could meet that standard simply by merely 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 12 months for three consecutive years".
It opened the door for the farcical situation of Chaitanya Bishnoi, who landed in the USA merely days before the MLC draft for domestic players in March but was taken in the fourth round for $40,000. Though not as egregious an example, former Pakistan international Mukhtar Ahmed was playing domestic cricket in Faisalabad as recently as September 2022 before being taken as a domestic player in March's MLC draft for the second round price tag of $65,000.
Bishnoi went on to make 52 runs in four innings (entering at No. 8 in three of his four innings) and bowled three overs for Unicorns. Mukhtar's returns were perhaps even more negligible: occupying prime real estate at No. 3 in the batting order 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 raises pertinent questions. A: Why are players who have played internationals for other countries being regarded as locals if they have not qualified yet by ICC rules to play for USA? B: Shouldn't a player like Mukhtar, who is currently ineligible to play for USA and has played for Pakistan previously, be regarded as overseas and have to compete for overseas slots with the likes of Shadab Khan and Haris Rauf? C: Did any such player genuinely raise the standard of the league, thereby perhaps justifying the leniency in the rules that allows such picks in place of a US-eligible player?
There is another wrench in the equation of local players though. There are cases like England's Liam Plunkett, New Zealand's Corey Anderson and Sri Lanka's Shehan Jayasuriya - players who married American citizens and migrated to the USA for family reasons totally unrelated to MLC.
Plunkett has made considerable efforts to establish links in the local Pennsylvania sports cricket community, mainly through academy coaching, and the same is true of Anderson in the Dallas area. But Plunkett is not eligible to play for USA and few, if any, promotional media segments organised in the build-up to the tournament have attempted to identify him as anything other than one of England's heroes from the 2019 World Cup final win. He was even introduced in his opening spell of the tournament to TV audiences around the world by MLC broadcast commentator Pommie Mbangwa as the "50-over World Cup winner from England".
It would not seem unreasonable to establish a middle-ground category for players like Plunkett who are in a type of limbo: England international career done, but now firmly entrenched in the US cricket community despite not being eligible to play for USA. Why not ensure a minimum number of US-eligible players in the XI while also making room for a few "wildcard domestic" players? At least it would go some way towards ending the charade of pretending to portray Plunkett as something he is not, nor has Plunkett ever tried to be, while also curbing the practice of declaring players "domestic" at the 11th hour.
It's also worth noting that the Global T20 Canada's policy of three Canadian players in the starting XI was not always so. In year one, the GT20's original rules stated that four Canada players needed to be drafted into each squad, but there was no mandate to play any of them in the starting XI, and many teams chose not to. It was only Saad bin Zafar's magical Player-of-the-Match performance in the tournament-final win by Vancouver Knights that seemingly opened eyes to the fact that Canada players could and would shine, if only given a chance.
Time will tell if MLC adjusts their roster policy for the second year of the league to mandate a minimum number of US-eligible players in the starting XI in the same way that GT20 and ILT20 do. Until that time comes, MI New York have led the way in showing that whether by force or by choice, USA players are capable of holding their own both against and alongside some of the biggest names on the global T20 franchise circuit.

Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent @PeterDellaPenna