2023 Minor League Cricket Final: Kenjige, Sheikh lead Mustangs past Cavaliers

The Dallas Mustangs celebrate their 2023 Minor League Cricket Championship in Grand Prairie, Texas. Photo courtesy of Minor League Cricket.

It might have been 88 degrees fahrenheit at game time in Grand Prairie, Texas, but the ebbs and flows of the scorecard could convince league followers that this Minor League Cricket Final occurred in the east. And for the New Jersey Somerset Cavaliers to have a chance to defeat the favored Dallas Mustangs, they needed to muddy up the game enough to resemble a typical Eastern Division street fight.

The Somerset Cavaliers journey to the league final was gritty and audacious, but more than anything, it was unlikely. 

After starting the regular season 1-2-1, the Cavaliers closed out with five wins and one loss to finish tied for third with the New England Eagles in points. Since the Eagles held the tiebreaker, thanks to a 2-0 record head to head, the Cavaliers season could have been finished. Only three teams from the East were meant to advance to the postseason. But two forfeits on the final weekend of regular season play from division rival Empire State Titans clouded the playoff picture. 

Apparently unable to finance the rest of the season or pay their players, the Titans cut their season short, giving New England two free wins. Thankfully, for those who prefer things to be settled on the field, the Eagles and the Cavaliers played a winner take all playoff, and the Cavs came out on top by 66 runs to claim sole possession of third place.

The 2023 Somerset Cavaliers pose after advancing beyond the Atlantic Super Four. Photo courtesy of Minor League Cricket

While this was the Cavs’ first playoff berth in Minor League Cricket, few could doubt their ability to beat any team on their day. In 2021, the Cavs finished sixth in the East Division, though they set a league record with a 252 run explosion in Atlanta in just their second MiLC match. In 2022, the Cavs again finished sixth, winning only four of 14 games, though all four wins came consecutively. The 2023 edition was stacked with current and former USA national team players, and players with First Class and List A experience.

In the Eliminator round, Somerset would defeat the New Jersey Stallions, a team that had made it to Finals Weekend in each of the last two seasons. With the Stallions nine down and trailing by six with one ball remaining, Sachin Mylavarapu came to the crease and smashed the final delivery over the rope to force an unlikely super over. Kennar Lewis unceremoniously sent the Cavaliers to the Super Four with a maximum just three balls into the super over chase. Again, it wasn’t pretty, but the Cavaliers found a way to move on.

Still, few would have predicted the sustained form the Cavs would ride to advance to the league final. Especially after the first Super Four “result”. 

Though they won the first Super Four game between the lines, it was ruled a forfeit, due to the inclusion of Chanderpaul Hemraj in the Cavaliers playing eleven. League rules state that for a player to be classified as a domestic, that player must either meet the requirements for USA national team eligibility, or he must retire from his home nation, declare the intention to qualify for USA (not necessarily the intention to represent USA), and then continue to follow the necessary pathway to qualification. Hemraj, who started the 2023 season as a domestic for the Cavaliers, left to represent Guyana as a domestic in the Caribbean Premier League. This put Hemraj outside of Minor League Cricket’s requirements for domestic qualification when he returned. 

Prior to the start of their first Super Four game against the Philadelphians, the league informed the Cavaliers that if they were to proceed with both Hemraj and Kennar Lewis in the playing eleven, they’d forfeit the game. Per league rules, only two players not qualified as domestics can play in the same playing eleven. The Cavaliers failed to heed the warning and submitted a team sheet with both players listed. The game was still played, per league rules as an exhibition, but points were awarded to Philly.

While the forfeit launched their single round robin Super Four campaign with zero points, there was no Net Run Rate penalty applied – unlike in the case of Empire State Titans, who had 20 overs and zero runs added to their league batting totals for each of their two forfeits. With no NRR hit applied, and after defeating the Atlanta Lightning in their second game by 6 wickets with 33 balls to spare, the 1-1 Cavaliers would only need to defeat the 2-0 Atlanta Fire, last year’s Atlantic Champs, to advance to the League Final. 

Thanks largely to USA Cricket veteran Gajanand Singh’s 72 from 35, the Cavaliers did enough to get past Atlanta  by 11 runs and advance to Grand Prairie and represent the Atlantic Conference. 

The Dallas Mustangs could be considered the home team of this Championship Final, thanks to their namesake as well as their collective experience at the ground. While only one member of New Jersey Somerset Cavaliers had prior experience at Grand Prairie Stadium (Gajanand Singh, with LA Knight Riders of MLC), the Dallas Mustangs had played four league games with Grand Prairie as their home ground. 

Nosh Kenjige of the Dallas Mustangs prepares for a ramp shot in the 2023 Minor League Cricket Final. Photo courtesy of Minor League Cricket

A reasonable favorite to win the league from the start of the season, the Mustangs featured eight Major Leaguers on their roster, most of whom were coming off of relatively successful MLC campaigns. Nauman Anwar and Corey Anderson were the top two performing domestic batters in Major League Cricket, Andries Gous helped his Washington Freedom into the playoffs, and USA’s Nosh Kenjige was a key roleplayer for the league champion MI New York franchise. Nosh was joined in the New York side by former Pakistan pacer Ehsan Adil and 2021 MiLC MVP Hammad Azam. Sujith Gowda didn’t see action with the Freedom, but has scored over 1200 runs in Minor League Cricket, and USA Cricket young gun Ali Sheikh was the LA Knight Riders U23 selection. 

The Mustangs took a much more traditional path to the league final. They simply won their division outright with an 8-2 record with the best NRR in the Pacific and then swept the Pacific Super Four group stage with a +2.26 NRR. Though they were without Corey Anderson, who averaged over 75 with a strike rate of 187 during the regular season, the Mustangs faced little trouble in the Super Fours, and entered the final on an eight game winning streak with eventual league MVP Andries Gous at the top of his game. 

But that was before Sunday’s street fight. 

Najaf Shah set the tone against Dallas’s star opening pair of Gous and Nauman Anwar. Shah, who played for the Mustangs in 2021, had captained the Cavaliers from the first game of the 2022 season, but missed the first half of 2023 with an injury. The Cavaliers’ red hot run coincided with his return to the team. 

Two runs from the first six balls demonstrated that swing and seam would play a serious role in the outcome of the innings. 

Junaid Mahsood’s second ball angled in, beat the dangerous bat of Gous and crashed into off stump to draw first blood for the Cavaliers. As the first four overs played out with Mahsood and Shah, the Gous wicket felt bigger and bigger. Adil Bhatti entered the attack with the usually galloping Mustangs barely trotting at 21/1, with six of those runs coming from extras. 

Bowling mostly a wider line at length and swinging the ball away, Bhatti found the outside edges of Sujith Gowda and Anwar, both caught behind. By the time Bhatti concluded his incredible spell of four overs, two wickets and only four runs conceded, the Mustangs were in a 47/5 hole after 11. 

The fourth and fifth wickets were equally important, courtesy of leggie Sunny Patel. With the third ball of the tenth over, Hamad Azam took a greedy whack at a full delivery on the line of his heel, but struck it hard and flat right down Syed Abdullah’s throat at deep backward point.

But Ali Sheikh and Nosh Kenjige would show that the Cavaliers weren’t the only team with grit, as they crafted a 56 run partnership to give the Mustangs a fighting chance. Sheikh demonstrated his trademark confidence, smashing 36 from 25 when that kind of production seemed like nothing more than a hope and a prayer, before finally falling caught and bowled to Mahsood with 13 balls left in the innings and the Mustangs at 106/6.

Prathamesh Pawar thumped 11 from 5, but found himself stranded at the non-striker end in the 20th over as the Mustangs lost their seventh and eighth wickets. A final ball two from Ehsan Adil set the total at 121/8. 

Surely the Mustangs had their work cut out for them in the chase. Surely they’d need to take early wickets and limit the run rate early if they wanted to win the game.

Nursing an injured knee, Ehsan Adil was whacked for 23 runs in his first two overs, as Kennar Lewis muscled the Cavaliers to 30/0 after three. Six more runs on byes didn’t help the cause. But lefty quick Rumman Raees was up to the challenge and conceded only three runs from his first two overs to limit the damage. But on the first ball of his third over, the sixth of the chase, Raees finally conceded a boundary, as Lewis smashed a full, straight delivery on fourth stump line deep to midwicket for six. 

The Cavaliers looked destined for victory, sitting at 44 without loss with five deliveries remaining in the power play. The early strikes that the Mustangs needed were evading them. 

Raees would have his revenge on the very next ball, pitching full on leg stump line to beat Lewis’s bat and get the red hot slugger LBW for 27 runs from 18. Ten balls later, with Nosh Kenjige five balls deep into a maiden over, Katwaroo would gift a catch to long off and the Cavaliers would begin to unravel.

The pressure of eleven straight dot balls built desperation in the batting pair of USA Cricket heroes Syed Abdullah and Gajanand Singh. On the first ball of the eighth over, Abdullah blocked a Hamad Azam delivery to gully, and Gajanand called for the run. Nosh Kenjige raced in, scooped up the ball, and torpedoed it into the stumps to dismiss Singh for a diamond duck.

Kenjige continued his rampage, claiming Abdullah’s wicket in the 9th and Yasir Mohammad’s in the 11th to put the Ccavaliers in a near-identical predicament as the Mustangs had been earlier – 50/5 after 11 overs. Kenjige displayed his talent for coming up big in key moments during the inaugural Major League Cricket season with the ball, and with big catches and runouts in the field. Here in the Minor League Cricket Final, on the same ground as the Major League final, Nosh had just taken the Mustangs almost single-handedly back to a strong position. 

And while Nosh played a key role in the Mustangs rebound from a collapse in the first innings, the Cavaliers would try to do the same without their own “Nosh”. Like Kenjige, Karima Gore is lauded for his world class fielding, his brave left arm orthodox bowling, and his ability to contribute with the bat. Unfortunately for Somerset, Gore was called for Leeward Island trials ahead of the Super 50 team selection, and so he wasn’t with the Cavaliers on Sunday.

Somerset idled for a couple more overs, until Ehsan Adil bounced back with the wickets of Shawn Findlay and Sunny Patel in the 14th over. Hamad Azam would claim Ghazi and Mahsood in the 16th, and the Cavaliers were finally put out of their misery in the 18th. Adil Bhatti, Somerset’s final desperate hope, was beaten coming back for two by a brilliant throw from U21 Rushil Ugarkar at deep square leg, and the Mustangs dugout erupted onto the field. 

For his efforts to help salvage the innings with the bat, his timely play in the field, and his domination with the ball, Nosthush Kenjige was awarded player of the match. 

Andries Gous, who added 161 postseason runs to his 355 in the regular season for a total of 516 runs in 12 innings, was awarded League MVP for 2023. Gous finished the season as league champion for the second consecutive season, having won the league in 2022 with Seattle Thunderbolts.

Three full seasons of Minor League Cricket have now concluded, and though the league continues to face challenges, progress has not been lost on Somerset’s captain, Najaf Shah. “Every season this Minor League is getting better,” Shah said in his post game interview, “American cricket is getting better, and that’s a really good thing for all of us.”

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