USA Cricket: From MLC scrapheap to T20 World Cup showstopper, Aaron Jones becomes USA’s improbable hero

2024 Jun 02 by DreamCricket USA

In March, Aaron Jones was an afterthought on the domestic T20 franchise circuit after going unselected in the 2024 MLC Draft. After his record-setting performance against Canada, nobody in American cricket will ever forget him. 

Photo credit: ICC/Getty Images

By Peter Della Penna in Grand Prairie, Texas (Twitter/X @PeterDellaPenna)
Ten weeks ago at the 2024 Major League Cricket draft, Aaron Jones ended the day as a cricketer without a franchise in USA’s premier domestic T20 tournament. By going undrafted, Jones was in essence deemed to be not among the top 54 domestic category T20 cricketers in the country. 
Prior to season one of MLC, Jones had been taken at a value of $35,000 in the fifth round of the domestic player draft – and 25th overall – by Seattle Orcas. The Orcas wound up going all the way to the tournament final before falling to MI New York. 
Among those taken ahead of Jones were surefire USA national team players for $75,000 in the first round: Harmeet Singh, Andries Gous, Steven Taylor, Corey Anderson, Ali Khan. But there were several others taken in rounds two through four who were able to capitalize on slightly higher profiles. Jaskaran Malhotra, who was still basking in the limelight of his six sixes in an over against Papua New Guinea during an ODI in 2021, was taken in the third round by LA Knight Riders. Saurabh Netravalkar, USA’s all-time leading wicket taker, and Nosthush Kenjige, who is in the top five for USA in limited overs wickets, were both snapped up in the fourth round and went on to excel for Washington Freedom and MI New York respectively. The same goes for dual national Cameron Gannon, who wound up winning the Bart King Award as the best US domestic category player as a key wicket-taker for the Orcas. 
Still, for someone like Jones who was taken in the fifth round, the broad expectation walking out of 2023 MLC Draft night at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas was that anyone taken in the first five rounds of the domestic player draft stood a high probability of being in their franchise’s opening day starting XI. This was due to the the fact that tournament rules stipulated that each franchise had to field a minimum of five domestic category players in each game. 
Yet the only time Jones took the field for Seattle Orcas in their opening match at Grand Prairie Stadium during MLC 2023, or at any other stage of the tournament, was to run drinks on as 12th man. Combine that with his modest record for USA in T20I cricket as of MLC Draft night in March 2024 – a career-best of 50 against Bermuda, 289 T20I runs in 19 matches at an average of 26.27, a strike rate of 105.09 and only 8 career sixes in the T20I format – and it was no surprise during the roster reshuffling that not only did Seattle Orcas choose not to retain Jones, but the other five franchises also politely declined the opportunity to pick him up. 
It's now ten weeks later, and all six MLC franchises must be kicking themselves after what they and the rest of the cricketing world witnessed on Saturday night when USA rallied back from a perilous position in their chase against Canada needing more than 12 runs per over across the final 12 overs to score a seven-wicket win thanks in large part to the history-making heroics of Jones. Instead of riding the dugout benches on the west side of the stadium like he had all summer long in 2023, Jones kicked off the opening night of the 2024 ICC Men’s T20 World Cup by launching six after six that regularly landed well above and beyond those same dugout benches. On at least two occasions, his herculean blows not only sailed over the dugouts but also cleared the grandstand seats as well as the silver shed locker rooms that form the outer edge of the western concourse at Grand Prairie Stadium to send the 5,500 strong home crowd into a state of pandemonium. 
Forget ten weeks ago. Even as recently as 10 days ago, the moaning and groaning about Jones’ place in USA’s T20I starting XI was under intense scrutiny. USA had scored a dramatic victory over Bangladesh on May 21 to open up their three-match series at Prairie View Cricket Complex, but the prevailing view was that it had happened in spite of Jones, not because of him. He had taken 8 balls to score his first run on that day after entering at 65 for 2 in the ninth over chasing a target of 154. After four singles, he eventually fell on his 12th delivery with an ungainly heave that produced a skied catch to the boundary. His innings sapped USA of all early momentum. Only when Anderson and eventual Player of the Match Harmeet put on their superhero capes in the final five overs, when the equation was 60 to win off 30 balls, was USA able to get across the line. 
That’s not a recent or unusual phenomenon for Jones either, but on most occasions USA did not have the talent around him to mask it. In USA’s most recent high-profile ICC T20I tournament action which took place at the 2022 ICC T20 World Cup Qualifier in Zimbabwe, Jones battled to live up to his designation as the team’s vice-captain. Against Zimbabwe, he was carted for three sixes by Sikandar Raza during a momentum-shifting 26-run over after a misguided decision arrived at by him and captain Monank Patel to have Jones bowl his part-time legspin in the 20th over of the innings. In the chase, USA raced to 55 in the sixth over going after a target of 186. But when Jones entered after the fall of Taylor, he did little to atone for his earlier bowling blunder by scratching out 7 off 10 balls before getting out in an eventual 46-run defeat. 
One match later with a spot in the 2022 Men’s T20 World Cup on the line in the tournament semi-finals against the Netherlands, USA once again raced to a 51-run opening partnership in the Powerplay only for Jones to bumble around at the crease after entering at No. 3. All early momentum for USA promptly ground to a halt during his 15 off 19 balls before Jones was runout. USA was eventually bowled out for 138 before a Bas de Leede masterclass in the chase secured yet another Men’s T20 World Cup berth for the Dutch. 
So for someone with a well-established reputation as a notoriously slow starter who hadn’t really earned his stripes in the format, it was no surprise to see Jones struggling to get untracked after entering at the fall of the second wicket in the seventh over against Canada. Sitting on 1 off 5 balls at the end of eight overs, there were no shortage of USA fans and others watching around the world who would have been pondering in their own minds, or even shouting out loud in frustration: “WHY DID THEY SEND IN JONES INSTEAD OF ANDERSON?!” 
Forty minutes later, that question was answered in emphatic fashion by Jones, who played the innings of his life. USA was 48 for 2 after eight overs, but a switch was flipped in the ninth over bowled by Nikhil Dutta. Against Canada in April at Prairie View Cricket Complex outside of Houston, most of USA’s lineup struggled to find the boundary against Canada’s veteran mystery spinner. But there was no disguising what a wretched delivery Dutta bowled first up in Grand Prairie, floating a head high full toss no-ball toward Gous. In terms of the level of nerves involved, it was on par with Steve Harmison’s first ball of the 2006 Ashes that was so wild it went to England captain Andrew Flintoff standing in the slips rather than Geraint Jones behind the stumps. 
Suddenly, the predatory instincts of Gous and Jones became aroused. After struggling to navigate four Canada bowlers in the Powerplay who each had their bowling radar locked in – Kaleem Sana, Jeremy Gordon, Saad Bin Zafar, Dilon Heyliger – Dutta’s malfunctioning action was quickly identified as Canada’s weak link. Gous clobbered the ensuing free hit four six over the off side. A boundary and a single brought Jones on strike. 
In ODI cricket, where Jones has arguably been USA’s most valuable batter since he entered the squad in 2018, the core element to his success is keeping it simple. Now with a wounded Dutta in his crosshairs, that’s exactly what Jones did. If he’s bowling junk, treat it like the filth that it is. A full ball in Jones’ arc suddenly was slog swept and careening towards the USA bench on the west side of the ground. It was a bench that was an awfully lonely place for Jones going back 11 months to season one of MLC. But with each Jones six that sailed in that direction on Saturday night, suddenly everyone in the crowd wanted to be his friend. 
In short time, Jones had notched USA’s fastest T20I half-century off 22 balls during a savage 13th over against Saad which began with two sixes over the leg side. After a dot on the fifth ball in which Jones tried to get too fancy with a reverse sweep – a shot he had successfully played earlier for a boundary – Jones went back to keeping it simple mode. When Saad followed him backing away from leg stump, Jones wound up and pulverized his third six of the over back toward the west concourse to cap a 20-run over. 
Then Jones went about establishing a USA T20I partnership record for any wicket with Gous – aided in part by Gordon’s inexplicable 33-run 14th over in which Gous was redeemed after being caught off a no ball, and then a subsequent no-ball which put Jones on strike for a free hit that disappeared for his eighth six – as the pair put on 131 together for the third wicket. Considering that USA’s chase turned around when Dutta came into the attack in the ninth over, there was poetic symmetry having Dutta come back for the 18th as Jones’ knock reached its climax. 
When Jones launched his 10th six – only the Universe Boss, West Indies two-time T20 World Cup winning icon Chris Gayle, has hit more in a T20 World Cup innings – to end on 94 not out off 40 balls and clinch victory for USA, it was an exclamation point that sent the fans into one final spasm of delirium. Jones gently fell to his knees before holding his arms aloft like a champion gladiator in a Roman coliseum, soaking up every bit of the crowd’s adulation. Fast bowler Ali Khan, who is Jones’ regular roommate on USA tours, was the first one out of the dugout to sprint out to the middle and give Jones a bear hug. The only thing missing was Jones grabbing a microphone and doing his best Maximus impersonation ala Russell Crowe’s character from the Academy-Award winning film and shouting, “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?!”
But that’s not Jones’ style. He’s a humble man, and one of few words. For those with a true appreciation for American history, perhaps it’s best to call Jones’ batting style the Teddy Roosevelt approach to cricket: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Jones continued to murmur softly in his post-match interview with Natalie Germanos to the worldwide TV audience. When an opportunity was presented on a silver platter at the post-match press conference to stick it to at least one of his vocal critics – yours truly – after his previous struggles in T20 cricket, Jones just smiled sheepishly, said that he doesn’t let criticism bother him and instead just uses it as motivation to play better. 
It's hard to play much better than Jones did on Saturday night. It was not just the greatest innings in USA’s T20 history – surpassing a legendary 96 not out off 54 balls by Steven Taylor against Canada at North Carolina in September 2018, which reached a crescendo with his 22 off the final over against Junaid Siddiqui in front of a similarly raucous crowd at Church Street Park in Morrisville – but one of the all-time great innings in T20 World Cup history. 
The Jones highlight reel from this night will be played for many years to come. As a matter of fact, it was already getting its first re-run at 12:30 in the morning inside of Grand Prairie Stadium. After the 5,500 fans had gone home and the only people left inside were cleanup maintenance crews and a few media members burning the midnight oil to file before their deadlines, the Jones highlight package was already being shown on a loop on the east concourse jumbotron. Considering the valleys that Jones has experienced in his T20 career, seeing him projected on the big screen after a peak performance was utterly surreal. 
That’s the beauty of cricket. The smallest man on the field for USA became the biggest star taking over center stage on opening night of the 2024 ICC Men’s T20 World Cup. Jones gave everyone who bought a ticket more than their money’s worth, and anyone who questioned his place in USA’s T20 lineup before Saturday has been silenced. In an Oscar-worthy performance, he went into Charlie Chaplin mode and let his bat do all the talking. The only query left to contemplate is this: What does Jones have in store for an encore?