Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Saurabh Netravalkar: The tech engineer who helped the U.S. shock the cricketing world

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Such is the fine balance America’s newest — and perhaps most unlikely — sporting hero has had to strike to keep his cricket dreams alive that software engineer Saurabh Netravalkar has even been known to spend the lunch interval during club matches hunched over his work laptop, either coding or in a meeting with colleagues via video call.

At last, however, all those hours spent juggling the demands of a full-time job with tech giant Oracle while simultaneously playing professional sport have finally paid off.

Not only is Netravalkar the toast of U.S. cricket after helping clinch a historic victory over Pakistan at the T20 World Cup, but the 32-year-old pace bowler is also a hero back in India, where he was born and where his family and one-time neighbours stayed up until the early hours to watch one of the biggest sporting upsets of all-time on TV.

Nowhere is the rivalry in cricket more fiercely fought than between India and neighbour Pakistan, with worldwide audiences of up to 400 million tuning in when the teams meet.

So, for a son of Mumbai to inflict such a humiliating defeat on the old enemy was a case of Netravalkar — in the words of his younger sister Nidhi on social media — “making two countries happy”.


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For someone whose career has largely played out away from the spotlight, the interest from around the globe following last Thursday’s group-game victory — footage of his decisive ‘super over’ has even been shown on the giant screens in New York City’s Times Square — could have been overwhelming.

But Netravalkar is clearly a modest and humble individual, more comfortable talking up the contributions of others in last week’s stunning win over one of the game’s powerhouses than discussing his own.

“It is not just one person,” he tells The Athletic. “The great thing with this team is everyone has been contributing in their own roles. In the key moments, there have been real acts of brilliance — like catches or good shots. Hopefully, we can continue that in our next two games.”

Saurabh Netravalkar, USA, Cricket

Netravalkar is congratulated by team-mate Harmeet Singh after his starring role in the win over Pakistan (Matt Roberts-ICC/ICC via Getty Images)

U.S. Cricket has been given a timely shot in the arm by last week’s dramatic events at the Grand Prairie Stadium, just outside the Texas city of Dallas. The sport’s history in the United States stretches back a long way, having been introduced by the British then ruling classes in the 18th century.

New York City was, surprisingly, also the venue for the sport’s first international match, when the U.S. took on neighbour Canada in 1844. Despite that, cricket has never taken off in a country where its cousin baseball rules the roost.

Now, though, the International Cricket Council (ICC), the game’s global governing body, is hoping to change all that via T20 — a shortened form of the game where matches last two to three hours as opposed to its longest, Test matches, that can take up to five days to complete and still not have a winner and loser.

Last year saw the most concerted effort yet to gain a foothold in the world’s most lucrative sports market via the launch of Major League Cricket (MLC), a franchise competition played in six U.S. cities including Los Angeles, New York and Washington. The tournament’s second season will begin six days after the T20 World Cup final is played on June 29.

Netravalkar played in that inaugural MLC for Washington Freedom, claiming the third-highest tally of wickets for the franchise. He has signed up again for this year’s tournament, alongside players including former Australia captain Steve Smith, with the engineer once again ready to juggle those considerable work-life demands.

“It has been quite a journey,” he says when asked about working remotely away from Oracle’s offices in Redwood City, California. “I started working there in 2016 and cricket was not that heavy for the first three years because I was mostly playing local cricket.

“Those (matches) were mostly on the weekends. Then, gradually, as I made it into the national team, cricket started growing. In the last two to three years, the team has been really coming up the ranks, gaining ODI (one-day internationals) status, so, that has meant five to six months playing (in a year).

“It can be hard to manage but, with the support of my team-mates and the coaching staff here, it has worked. I also try my best to be flexible on and off the pitch.

Netravalkar playing for India Under-19s in 2010 (Phil Walter/Getty Images)

“I have taken time off for this World Cup, so I have not worked, but, for other tournaments, I usually work on training days and then, on matchdays, I take the day off. I put in my extra work and get my tasks done before going on a tour. That way, it helps everyone.

“I am very grateful for the support that my managers at work provide for me. We take it one tour at a time.”

Born in the Indian city of Mumbai in October 1991, Netravalkar’s love of cricket was clear from an early age. As was his talent; an ability to bowl quickly marking the youngster out as a potential star for the future.

He was India’s leading wicket-taker at the Under-19s World Cup in New Zealand but hopes of making it to the senior side of Mumbai, one of the giants of domestic Indian cricket, were ultimately dashed, with the left-armer competing against India internationals such as Ajit Agarkar, Zaheer Khan and Dhawal Kulkarni for a place.

Not one to be disheartened easily, Netravalkar kept plugging away, even giving up his job as a software testing engineer in the city of Pune to try to make it as a full-time cricketer.

Even then, though, his coding background came in useful, via his development of the CricDeCode app — basically a tool for grassroots players to measure their performances and highlight strengths and weaknesses.

Ironically, the app helped Netravalkar’s academic career more than his sporting ambitions. Cornell University in New York was sufficiently impressed in 2015 to offer him a scholarship. A master’s degree in Computer Science followed, as did the offer of a job from Oracle in 2016.

That meant moving again, this time across the country, to the Bay Area around San Francisco. Cricket, by now, seemed purely a social pursuit… only for his talent with the ball in hand to once again shine.

Buoyed by the ICC lowering its minimum residency for eligibility for a national team from four years to three, Netravalkar set his sights on playing for the United States. His dream was finally realised in 2018, taking two wickets for 45 runs against the Caribbean’s Leeward Islands on his A-list debut.

He is now fast approaching 50 appearances for his adopted country. None, though, have been as dramatic as last Thursday’s meeting with Pakistan, finalists in the 2022 T20 World Cup.

With the scores tied at 159, the winners had to be decided by the ‘super over’ — whereby each side had to face six deliveries each, the victors being the side to post the highest score from them. After the U.S. managed 18 runs from their six, it was Pakistan’s turn and all eyes were on Netravalkar.

“When I found out I was bowling (the super over),” he adds, “first I was happy because it meant the captain (Monank Patel) trusted me. That felt motivating. At the same time, there were a few butterflies!

“But the nerves disappeared with the first ball. Then, I was focusing on the process and not the result. We had a clear plan to execute and stuck to it. It helped that we batted first and got those runs. It was so important (for Aaron Jones) to hit the boundary from the first ball (of the Americans’ super over) and then running extra runs off the wides.

“Those four to five runs really mattered. Nineteen (Pakistan’s target to win) was a good total to defend as I knew three good balls out of six would be enough.”

Saurabh Netravalkar, USA, Cricket

Netravalkar and the U.S. have group games against India and Ireland to come (Matt Roberts-ICC/ICC via Getty Images)

Victory was sealed when Shadab Khan, needing to launch a six (a shot over the boundary rope without bouncing) off the final ball to again tie the scores and send the match into a second super over, could only hit it to a deep fielder — all along the ground.

Cue manic celebrations, not just among the U.S. players and coaching staff, but also across the cricketing world. Next up are India tomorrow (Wednesday), a match that takes Netravalkar back to New York to play at the 34,000-capacity Nassau County Stadium in the city’s eastern suburbs.

Netravalkar admits it will be an emotional reunion with the likes of Surya Yadav, the India batter he played alongside for Mumbai Under-19s. Once again, the U.S. will be rank outsiders against a side who currently sit top of the tournament’s Group A — both teams are on four points, but the Americans, who beat Canada in their opening fixture, have an inferior run rate.

With two from each section going through to the eight-team second group phase and another fixture for the U.S. to come against the group’s last-placed side Ireland on Friday, qualification beckons for a team who were ranked 18th in the world before this World Cup kicked off.

“This tournament can only help the sport in this country,” says fluent French and English speaker Netravalkar, fresh from coding his way into American cricket folklore. “A lot of people are trying to learn about the sport because it (the win over Pakistan) has been covered a lot in the media.

“We even saw a clip of the super over being played in Times Square. That was really special, as it can intrigue people and get them to look up what is happening. Even if only a few then try to pick up a bat or a ball, that is a big win for us as, four or five years down the line, maybe that is a few more players for the team.”

Should the U.S. progress to that Super 8s second phase, which begins on June 19, Netravalkar will have at least one urgent call to make to his bosses.

“The last league game (against the Irish, just north of Miami in Florida) is on June 14,” says the principal member of Oracle’s technical staff, whose annual leave is booked only until the weekend. “If we qualify, I will have to have another conversation with my work!”



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(Top photo: Matt Roberts-ICC/ICC via Getty Images)

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