From computers to cricket: how Saurabh Netravalkar coded USA’s greatest script

From computers to cricket: how Saurabh Netravalkar coded USA’s greatest script

In 2010, Saurabh Netravalkar endured heartbreak against Pakistan in the quarter-final of the Under-19 World Cup in Christchurch. Babar Azam was in the opponent’s camp that day, as Pakistan pipped India by two wickets in a rain-affected thriller.

Fourteen years later, he had the opportunity to win for his new country, the USA, a T20 World Cup game against Pakistan. Tasked to bowl the Super Over, Netravalkar defended 18 as USA recorded a famous win that gives them a great chance of securing an entry into the Super Eights.

If they do – they still have two more games against Ireland and India – Netravalkar may have to extend his official leave at his day job, which is set to end on June 17, by a couple of weeks at the very least. It’s likely he will never have to explain to his American colleagues the reason for it.

All he will need to do is direct them to one of the many Instagram reels that have already popped up about this geeky Indian guy who moved to the USA to pursue a Master’s degree in Computer Engineering but has now become part of USA cricket’s folklore.

Netravalkar, 32, harboured the dream of playing for India for the longest time. He was a bristling left-arm quick who rattled Yuvraj Singh’s stumps at the NCA in Bengaluru way back in 2009 while on Air India’s sports scholarship. The next thing he knew was that delivery had earned him a ticket to play in the then-prestigious BCCI Corporate Trophy.

He was suddenly sharing a dressing room with Yuvraj, Suresh Raina and Robin Uthappa, all India stars by then. A certain Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni were among those in the opponent camp. Netravalkar, not yet 18 then, finished the tournament as the joint-highest wicket-taker and was on the plane with the Indian team for the Under-19 World Cup, alongside the likes of KL Rahul, Mayank Agarwal, Jaydev Unadkat, Mandeep Singh and Harshal Patel.

Playing in that tournament meant missing the entire first semester exams of his Computer Engineering degree that he had enrolled for six months earlier. That was the first big call he had needed to make in his cricket career.

Netravalkar had hoped his performance in the World Cup – he was India’s highest wicket-taker in the competition – would pave the way for a berth in the senior Mumbai set-up, and perhaps even an IPL contract. The opportunities for Mumbai were few and far between, with Ajit Agarkar, Zaheer Khan, Aavishkar Salvi and a young Dhawal Kulkarni making it difficult for the youngster to break in.

Netravalkar finally made his Ranji Trophy debut in 2013. Incidentally, he had just made another tough call only a few months earlier. He had given up a job as a software testing engineer in Pune to go all-in on cricket for the next two years.

But being in and out of the set-up even after two years pushed him to make another call when he received an offer for admission from Cornell University in New York in August 2015. His strong academic credentials and keen interest in cricket, which helped him develop a player-analysis app CricDecode, had earned him a scholarship.

As he finished graduate school, Netravalkar was offered a job by Oracle in San Francisco. Having moved to the country without his cricket kit, Netravalkar began playing recreational cricket during the weekends as a way to “fit in with the Indian community”.

In 2016, he represented the North West Region at the USACA National Championship. He kicked his efforts into high gear, seeking out as many opportunities to play as possible when the ICC lowered their minimum residency for eligibility from four years to three.

A sensational spell for Southern California Cricket Association XI against a USA XI in a national-team warm-up match in the summer of 2017 impressed then-coach Pubudu Dassanayake. He soon make his USA debut, taking 2 for 45 against Leeward Islands in January 2018. It was as if the life had come full circle.

Today, Netravalkar is among a few USA national team players who are regulars in Major League Cricket. Last year, he was the third-highest wicket-taker for Washington Freedom at the inaugural edition, which included a sensational 6 for 9 against a San Francisco Unicorns side boasting the likes of Matthew Wade, Marcus Stoinis and Shadab Khan. He would soon bowl to Shadab again: the final ball of the Super Over on Thursday to clinch the win for USA.

Next week, Netravalkar will play against Rohit Sharma, his senior in Mumbai cricket at one point. He will also renew rivalries with Kohli, who he tussled with all those years ago. He wouldn’t need to prove to anybody anymore what playing cricket means. He will have videos of him bowling to cricketing royalty to show for it.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

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