Luc Benkenstein: The dream experience of the Pakistan Junior League
The English cricketer talks about the talent in the PJL, the experience of watching Babar Azam live, and more.
Pakistan – and the United Arab Emirates – have welcomed overseas players to their shores to play alongside their own talent in the Pakistan Super League for almost eight seasons now. That competition has given the world’s T20 stars an opportunity to showcase their skills in a country whose devotion to the sport is without question; the players are engulfed by an undying passion for the game of cricket. In 2022, that opportunity was extended to the next generation of cricket’s white-ball stars in the inaugural season of the Pakistan Junior League.
The tournament included six teams: Bahawalpur Royals, Gujranwala Giants, Gwadar Sharks, Hyderabad Hunters, Mardan Warriors, and Rawalpindi Raiders. It gave a host of the world’s up-and-coming Under-19 stars their first taste of franchise cricket, a concept many of them will no doubt become very accustomed to over the coming years. As with any franchise tournament, it all starts with the draft, and for 18-year-old Essex all-rounder Luc Benkenstein, that experience was surreal for a few reasons.
“I actually had no idea it [the draft] was on because it was so early,” he says. “I was in some assembly-like thing in school, and my mate next to me was watching it on his laptop.
“As soon as I got picked up, he turned it to me and was like, ‘You’re playing for this team [Gwadar Sharks].’”
The tournament was a strong one for Benkenstein; he played a consistent starring role throughout. The all-rounder was the PJL’s second-highest run-scorer; he amassed 227 runs, hitting two half-centuries, with a high score of 74.
As with all of the players involved with the tournament, Benkenstein was afforded an opportunity to showcase his skills on a big stage, playing at Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium, with the games all being televised. The youngster was given a fantastic platform to hone his batting skills: while those have been on show at Essex – 55 from 59 balls in a List A game against Worcestershire, a prime example of what he can do – he has mainly batted at 7. In the PJL, he was given a license to explode from ball one, opening up.
“I really enjoyed that experience,” he says. “I definitely like batting up the order in white-ball cricket because I feel I’m pretty strong in the powerplay.”
“I really want to take my batting, especially as an opening batsman, to the next level. Hopefully, in the next few years, I get a chance to bat up the order.”
To this point in his career, Benkenstein has been utilized more for his bowling. Generally, for Essex – for whom his best figures are 6 for 42 – he bowls close to his full allocation, but in seven games in the PJL, he bowled just three overs, taking two wickets. He was unbothered by not being thrown the ball often, understanding of the bowling talent the local players possess.
“There’s plenty of spinners over there, and the team needed another batsman. As soon as I knew I was going to be playing as a batsman, I wrapped my head around that and just got to focus on that, and I’m glad I was able to perform.”
The tournament offered its players opportunities aplenty. To work with some of the game’s most legendary figures, Mushtaq Ahmed and Sir Viv Richards, was one that Benkenstein longed for way before he knew he was going to be playing for Gwadar Sharks.
“Before the draft happened, I saw Mushtaq was the coach of one of the teams, and I said, imagine being in his team, and luckily enough, it happened – it was unbelievable to work with him. Sir Viv is one of the greatest to ever do it; he’s my dad’s hero, my granddad’s hero, so to be able to share a dressing room with him and just get experience from a guy like that was unbelievable. [It was a] once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and just a dream come true,” he says with a smile.
“[Sir Viv is] such a passionate guy. When we were playing and you could see him and coach Mushtaq celebrating off the field – for us as youngsters, that’s so inspirational, and it was so great to have that.
“Both of them were just telling us to always want these big moments, always want to be that player to win it how [Mushtaq] always wanted the ball, Sir Viv always wanted to be the guy to hit the winning runs. It just helped so much. It was unbelievable to be able to hear that.”
The chance to experience Pakistan is one that not all too many overseas cricketers have gotten in recent years. For the PJL players, although they were essentially on full lockdown, it was an experience of a lifetime.
“Seeing Pakistan, seeing the people,” Benkenstein explains. “The people were so welcoming, kind, and caring. Just seeing how big a sport cricket is there.”
“We went to watch the Pakistan vs. England deciding game – when Babar Azam walked out to bat, you couldn’t hear anything for those first few seconds.
“Even in those few games when we didn’t have many people in the stadium, it was still louder than anything I’d experienced back home. Just the passion the people have for the game.”
Benkenstein is hoping for a chance to get back to Pakistan and relive the phenomenal experience in the future. The goal is, at some point, for a chance in the PSL to arise.
“I’ve said from the moment I left Pakistan, I would definitely love to go back, [it’s been] one of my best experiences,” he says.
“I think it’s any young sportsperson’s dream to travel the world, do what they love in different countries.
“I think it [a PSL contract] would be a great test, and just being around those senior players, those superstars. I’ve seen some of the guys who have entered the draft now, like David Miller – growing up, they’re your heroes, so I think being around that would be an unbelievable experience.
“Having met the people there and seen how it is and played there, I love playing there, so I’d definitely like to go back in those conditions and give it another go at the next level.”
The people of Pakistan and the talent of those that Benkenstein played with and against clearly played a big part in his enjoyment, and he is hopeful that both he and they can journey to the top level and have this experience to cherish.
“I think with my team, I was really lucky; we had some unbelievable local lads, not just players, unbelievable people,” he says.
“I think we were very fortunate there were some very good English-speaking guys in our team: the captain Shamyl Hussain, Arafat Minhas, and Saad Masood. Really good English speakers, but also unbelievable players. Arafat obviously all-rounder of the tournament, unbelievable, good leader. He’s just a seriously good player and a match winner, you can just tell by the way he plays. Saad, obviously the second-leading wicket-taker. Unbelievable player.
“Speaking of the PSL, in that emerging category, hopefully, they can get that opportunity at the next level because they’re obviously with the Under-19s now. Hopefully, they’ll be able to get that chance.
“Meeting all these guys who you’ll be friends with for life, and hopefully they go on to play for Pakistan, and if we all go on to play for our national teams one day, we can look back on this and say I’ve known this guy since then. Really happy to have had that experience,” he stresses.
The bond Benkenstein had with his teammates was obvious; the team clearly gelled together particularly well. Gwadar Sharks had a fantastic tournament, finishing top of the group stage and advancing to the final after beating Bahawalpur Royals in the first qualifier. In that match, Benkenstein top scored, smashing 71 from just 37 balls, showcasing his power and imperious nature at the crease, particularly strong through the leg side.
The Royals came back with a vengeance, though, reaching a massive 225 in the final before bowling the Sharks out for just 139 to win in style. The platform to notch such a big score was set by opener Basit Ali (35 from 23).
Benkenstein was fascinated by Ali, and the reasons are clear as day – the opener hit what was far and away the best knock of the tournament when he pasted 102 from 58 against Gujranwala Giants, which was the only century of the PJL. Benkenstein believes there is no question that Ali will be a star in the not-too-distant future.
“In that tournament, he just looked like a man playing with kids, really,” he professes.
“We got told before we got there he’d never faced a bowling machine before. I don’t think he’d ever played in an indoor center. Never faced a sidearm. And to come out and play like that was ridiculous. I think he’s one for the future, and hopefully, Pakistan will fast-track him because they’ve got a serious talent on their hands there.”
Ciaran is a freelance journalist.