During umpteenth travels across the Atlantic, Liam Plunkett constantly found himself in a quandary about possibly relocating to the U.S, where his wife Emeleah is from.
As a professional cricketer, with the pace bowler having represented England from 2005-19, his employment prospects in the sport appeared rather slim in a country where the British bat and ball game is merely a curiosity at best.
“I started flying back and forth to America after I met my wife 15 years ago,” Plunkett told me in an interview.
“As we got more serious, I could see myself living in the U.S. but I didn’t know what I’d be doing there. What does that look like?”
Plunkett’s last international game proved his career highpoint having helped England to a momentous World Cup triumph on home soil in mid-2019.
But it ended on a bitter note as England sought to focus on younger bowlers, with Plunkett blindsided by management’s shift in direction as he suddenly found himself pondering his future.
“Do I stay in County cricket (in the UK) or go into coaching or mentorship?” he thought at the time.
Fortunately, Major League Cricket – a pro T20 franchise league hoped to spur the unfulfilled potential of cricket in the world’s biggest sports market – came calling and after numerous setbacks will finally launch on July 13.
The league’s hierarchy has sought particular expertise from veteran players with an American link.
“I got a phone call from MLC and they said ‘listen, we understand your wife’s here. Do you want to come on board with Major League Cricket?’,” said Plunkett, who jumped at the opportunity and in 2021 made the move to his new home of Pennsylvania.
Plunkett has been tasked with helping set up MLC and making it “more professional”, while running cricket academies in Philadelphia.
“You have kids here in America, under 11s and 13s, who are as good as anywhere in the world,” he said.
“The drop off comes at 15 because there hadn’t really been that next next pathway here. There’s no real sustainable revenue to make a career out of it.
“We are hoping academies will provide a pipeline for those who are still developing their skills to have more high performance training.
“Hopefully MLC can show that it’s possible to make a living through cricket.”
Plunkett will be one of the headline players for San Francisco Unicorns, led by former Australia captain Aaron Finch, but the tournament’s ultimate success could hinge on emerging national cricketers.
Spinning all-rounder Sanjay Krishnamurthi will be Plunkett’s teammate at the Unicorns with the 20-year-old having already played international cricket for the U.S.
Arizona-raised Krishnamurthi developed an affinity with cricket from his India-born father, but truly fell in love with the sport when India memorably won the 2011 World Cup on home soil.
Just a few months later, Krishnamurthi and his parents moved to India where his skills developed quickly amid specialist training and intense competition.
“There are so many players at a high level in India, whereas in the U.S. we have a few really good players but it drops off,” he told me in an interview.
Krishnamurthi returned to the U.S. seeking greater playing opportunities and represents the type of emerging talent hoped to capture the imagination of local fans.
“If I can help a few kids pick up the game and fall in love with it like I did…that would be exciting,” he said.
Realizing that American cricket needs homegrown heroes, like Krishnamurthi, Plunkett has resisted the temptation to play in next year’s T20 World Cup co-hosted by the U.S.
“That was never really my ambition to play,” he said. “I feel like players who are younger or who grafted hard deserve to play. U.S. cricket will get better with these youngsters being exposed to professional cricket.”
Plunkett, however, will soon be lining up for Unicorns in MLC’s opening season as they build a brand from scratch in a world famous sports city.
Visibility will be tough initially with the Unicorns still in the midst of developing a cricket stadium in Santa Clara. The inaugural MLC season will be played in Dallas and Morrisville, North Carolina.
“It will be tricky in the first couple of years for the whole league until every franchise has their stadium,” he said. “But there’s a lot of cricket that is played in San Francisco, so there is a cricket base.
“We will need to hit the right market to help it grow. It would be good to get some big athletes involved like Kevin Durant investing in the Philadelphia Union in Major League Soccer.”
Even before launching, MLC has caused a stir with the tournament to be played in peak summer, a quieter period in the congested American sports scene but clashing with England’s cricket season.
The well-heeled tournament – already boasting funding of over $100 million – has lured opener Jason Roy, who cancelled his England deal to sign a larger contract with MLC.
Plunkett has suddenly found himself torn in the middle, having experienced the exhilaration and pride of representing England across formats, but now resembling a recruiter.
“People (England cricketers) do reach out to me. I still speak to a lot of the guys. It’s piqued the interest that’s for sure,” he said.
“They want to know how it (MLC) is going. Hopefully there are opportunities for guys to get across and that it can coexist with the England season.”
In similar sentiment expressed by MLC’s hierarchy, which they hope is a notable point of difference to other leagues, Plunkett believed the glamorous American sports market can lure those reluctant to go on the T20 franchise merry-go-round.
“It’s very exciting for players,” he said. “Sports is so big in America, that if we can crack the market then there are other opportunities for players to network and open up streams of revenue in terms of commercially and sponsorship.”
Pressure is on for MLC, which will finally be unleashed after Covid-19 delays and well-worn tumult within American cricket, but there is confidence from within that it can become a harbinger for the sport in coveted terrain.
“I want people tuning in from the U.K. and Australia to recognize an amazing product, but it feels American as well,” Plunkett said.
“If I can be one of the people who spearheaded this and made it grow then that will be a pretty amazing legacy.”