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The balancing act that America’s newest – and perhaps most unlikely – sporting hero has had to manage to keep his cricket dreams alive is so delicate that software engineer Saurabh Netravalkar even spends his lunch breaks at club games hunched over his work laptop, either coding or video conferencing with colleagues.

But all the hours I spent balancing the demands of a full-time job at technology giant Oracle with playing a professional sport have finally paid off.

Not only is Netravalkar the star of US cricket after helping to secure a historic victory over Pakistan at the T20 World Cup, but the 32-year-old pace bowler is also a hero in India, where he was born and where his family and former neighbours stayed up into the early hours to watch one of the greatest sporting upsets of all time on television.

Nowhere is the rivalry in cricket as fierce as between India and neighboring Pakistan. When the teams meet, up to 400 million viewers worldwide tune in.

For a son of Mumbai to inflict such a humiliating defeat on the old enemy was a textbook example of Netravalkar – as his younger sister Nidhi put it on social media – “making two countries happy”.

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For someone whose career has largely been spent away from the spotlight, the global interest following last Thursday’s group match victory – footage of his decisive “Super Over” was even shown on the giant screens in New York’s Times Square – must have been overwhelming.

But Netravalkar is clearly a modest and humble man who prefers to talk about the contribution of others to last week’s stunning victory against one of the game’s heavyweights rather than his own.

“It’s not just one person,” he says The athlete“The great thing about this team is that everyone plays their part. There have been some really brilliant moves in the crucial moments – like catches or good shots. Hopefully we can continue that in our next two games.”

Saurabh Netravalkar, USA, Cricket

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

The dramatic events of last week at Grand Prairie Stadium, just outside the Texas city of Dallas, have given a new boost to US cricket. The history of the sport in the United States goes back a long way: It was introduced in the 18th century by the then ruling classes of Great Britain.

Surprisingly, New York City was also the venue for the first international match of the sport, when the United States played its neighbor Canada in 1844. Despite this, cricket has never really taken off in a country where its cousin baseball reigns supreme.

But now the International Cricket Council (ICC), the sport’s global governing body, is hoping to change that with T20 – a shortened form of the game where matches last two to three hours, unlike the longest Test matches, which can last up to five days and still have no winner or loser.

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

Netravalkar played for Washington Freedom in that inaugural MLC, taking the third highest number of wickets for the franchise. He has re-entered this year’s tournament, along with the likes of former Australia captain Steve Smith, and the engineer is once again ready to juggle those considerable work-life demands.

“It’s been quite a journey,” he says when asked what it’s like working outside Oracle’s offices in Redwood City, California. “II started working there in 2016 and cricket wasn’t really a priority for the first three years because I was mostly playing local cricket.

“These (matches) mostly took place on weekends. Then, gradually, when I made it into the national team, cricket started to grow. In the last two-three years, the team has really come up and achieved ODI (One-Day Internationals) status, which meant they had to play for five-six months (of the year).

“It can be difficult to deal with, but with the support of my teammates and the coaching staff here, it has worked out. I also try to be as flexible as possible on and off the field.

Netravalkar plays for India’s U19 national team in 2010 (Phil Walter/Getty Images)

“For this World Cup, I took time off and didn’t work. In other tournaments, I usually work on practice days and then have match days off. I do extra work and get my tasks done before I go on tour. That way, it helps everyone.

“I am very grateful for the support my superiors offer me at work. We take one tour at a time.”

Netravalkar was born in the Indian city of Mumbai in October 1991. His love for cricket was evident from a young age. As was his talent: his ability to bowl fast made the young man a potential star of the future.

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

Not easily discouraged, Netravalkar continued to work tirelessly, even quitting his job as a software testing engineer in the city of Pune to try and make it as a full-time cricketer.

But even then, his programming skills came in handy, for example in the development of the CricDeCode app – basically a tool for amateur players to measure their performance and highlight strengths and weaknesses.

Ironically, the app helped Netravalkar’s academic career more than his sporting ambitions. Cornell University in New York was so impressed that it offered him a scholarship in 2015. A master’s degree in computer science followed and a job offer from Oracle in 2016.

That meant another move, this time across the country to the Bay Area around San Francisco. Cricket seemed to be a purely social activity for him now… but his talent with the ball in his hands was once again emerging.

Encouraged by the ICC’s reduction of the minimum residency requirement for national team participation from four to three years, Netravalkar set his sights on playing for the United States. His dream finally came true in 2018 when he took two wickets for 45 runs on his A-list debut against the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean.

He is now on the verge of making his 50th appearance for his adopted country, but none of them has been as dramatic as last Thursday’s meeting with 2022 T20 World Cup finalists Pakistan.

With the scores tied at 159, a Super Over was needed to decide the winner, with each team facing six balls and the team with the highest score winning. After USA scored 18 runs from their six balls, it was Pakistan’s turn and all eyes were on Netravalkar.

“When I found out I was going to bowl (the Super Over),” he adds, “I was initially happy because it meant that the captain (Monank Patel) trusted me. That was motivating. But at the same time, I also had a bit of butterflies in my stomach!

“But the nerves went away with the first ball. Then I focused on the process and not the result. We had a clear plan that we wanted to implement and we stuck to it. It helped that we were batting first and scored those runs. It was so important (for Aaron Jones) to hit the boundary with the first ball (of the Americans’ Super Over) and then score extra runs from the wides.

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

Saurabh Netravalkar, USA, Cricket

Netravalkar and the USA still have group matches against India and Ireland to go (Matt Roberts-ICC/ICC via Getty Images)

Victory was sealed when Shadab Khan needed to hit a six (a hit over the boundary line without a bounce) off the last ball to level the scores and send the game into a second Super Over, but could only hit the ball to a deep fielder – all over the ground.

There is wild celebration, not only among the US players and coaches, but also throughout the cricket world. Next up is India tomorrow (Wednesday), a match for which Netravalkar returns 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 Indian batsman he played alongside in the Mumbai Under-19 team. Once again, the USA are heavy underdogs against a team currently top of Group A of the tournament – both teams have four points, but the Americans, who beat Canada in their opening match, have a worse run rate.

Two teams from each group will advance to the eight-team second group stage, and the USA will play another match on Friday against bottom-placed Ireland, giving the team, which was ranked 18th in the world before the World Cup began, a chance of qualifying.

“This tournament can only help the sport in this country,” says Netravalkar, who is fluent in French and English and is just getting into American cricket folklore by getting into programming. “A lot of people are trying to learn more about the sport because it (the victory 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 because it can make people curious and make them want to go and see what’s happening. Even if it’s just a few people trying to pick up a bat or a ball, that’s a big win for us because in four or five years we might have a few more players on the team.”

If the US advances to the second phase of the Super 8, which begins on June 19, Netravalkar will have to make at least one urgent call to his superiors.

“The last league game (against the Irish, north of Miami in Florida) is on June 14,” says the senior technical employee at Oracle, whose annual leave only runs until the weekend. “If we qualify, I’ll 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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