Netravalkar shares his feelings on how he missed playing for India but clicked for the USA in World Cup

Saurabh Netravalkar in ICC T20 WC 2024 (PC: ICC)

The photograph of a pleased Saurabh Netravalkar having his hands held aloft after bowling the all-important Super Over against Pakistan is quite evocative. Roughly around a month since that memorable performance, as yours truly engaged in a freewheeling conversation with the USA cricketer, you couldn’t help but imagine the left-arm pacer being in a Zen-mode while having a ball in hand.

There was a touch of calm countenance attached to his cricket. in the just-concluded ICC T20 World Cup, be it finding nifty movement with the new ball or keeping it tight at the back-end of an innings, Netravalkar had the right answers. So, who is Netravalkar? What is his backstory? How did he end up playing for the USA? Was he always this good?

The connecting point to most of the above-mentioned questions is perhaps destiny. In 2015, Netravalkar, had a decision to make: Whether to pursue his childhood dream of representing India or to concentrate on higher studies. By then, he had played a Ranji Trophy game for Mumbai and also partaken in a few List A matches. He had also tried his luck with a couple of IPL trials. Just that the opportunities were few and far between. Eventually, he ended up choosing the option that seemed more practical.

“It was a mixed decision (to choose higher studies),” he told RevSportz. “I completed my bachelor’s degree in 2013. After representing India Under-19 in 2010, I didn’t make it to the Mumbai senior team. I was in the squad, but I wasn’t getting regular chances in the playing XI. After I graduated in 2013, I did not take a full-time job, I decided to play cricket full-time for two years. I played one Ranji match. I played some one-day matches like the Vijay Hazare Trophy. I was in and out of the side.

“In 2015, I realised that I wasn’t making it to the next level. I was attending the IPL trials, I wasn’t making it to the next level. That is why in the rainy season, I had taken the entrance exam. I had applied to some Universities. When I got the admission, it was very emotional in the sense that since my childhood days I had a dream to play for India. But it was a practical decision at that time. I was good in my education, I also liked to do what I was doing in my studies. So, I thought that was the better option,” he added.

USA Players in joy vs Pakistan (PC: T20 World Cup/X)

Somewhere in the caverns of his brain, the hidden dream was still burning bright. After completing his Masters in Computer Science, Netravalkar decided to once again have a crack at fulfilling his ambition at his second home, the USA. The road ahead was a tough one, but Netravalkar wasn’t ready to give up.

“From 2015 to 2016, I did my Masters. I used to play College matches here or there. It is not really competitive, mostly social cricket. Got a job in California, in 2016, moved to that place and joined Oracle. Club cricket in California is mostly on weekends. It is not on proper cricket pitches. It is on synthetic pitches or matting surfaces. At that time, there were very few places in the USA which had proper cricket pitches. Los Angeles was one place, Florida was another.

“I used to make sure during weekends, I would travel to these places to play. Two-three years, I mostly played during weekends. There used to be club tournaments in California, New York, Florida and Texas. On big weekends, when there are holidays on Friday or Monday, they have T20 tournaments, where good cricketers from the West Indies come to play. When I started performing in those tournaments, slowly and steadily my performances started getting noticed,” he pointed out.

Netravalkar’s next connecting dot could also be called destiny. At the right time, the governing body made changes to the eligibility criteria. And at the right time, Pubudu Dassanayake, the-then coach of USA, showed some interest in his skill-set. Basically, everything fell into place at the right time for the affable cricketer.

“In 2018, the USA national team was training in Los Angeles where I used to go to play club cricket. A few of the cricketers in the US national team used to represent my club. So, they called me there to practice with them. I took part in practice matches with the national team, that is when the USA coach saw me. I did well in the practice games also.

Saurabh Netravalkar vs India (PC: ICC)

“The eligibility criteria used to be like you have to live in that (particular) country for seven years. But ICC changed the criteria to three years, just when I had completed that period of three years. That was my luck or destiny, I don’t know. I am very grateful to God that I got the chance to become eligible to play for the USA within three years. At the right time, the coach saw me. I got picked in the team, and from there on, the journey with the USA national team started,” he says.

Some six years later, in the grand theatre of the World Cup, Netravalkar held his nerve to help the USA usurp Pakistan in the Super Over. “Firstly, it was a team effort. The good thing was we were batting first in the Super Over, and we got a boundary on the first ball. I think they bowled wides. On each wide, we ran one extra run, and an overthrow. So, we got like 3-4-5 extra runs. It could have been 13-14 runs, but it became 19. And 19 is a very good total in the Super Over.

“When the captain and coach told me I am bowling the Super Over, I felt good that they were trusting me to do the job,” he says. “There was a bit of pressure before I bowled the first ball, but we were very clear in what we wanted to do. The off-side was the big boundary, and the leg-side was a smaller one. The simple plan was to bowl wide yorkers and let the batters hit on the off-side. I also bowled a wide, but I stuck to that plan, there was also a brilliant catch, which also helped. I had to confirm with the umpire whether they required 6 or 7 runs. After I bowled that ball, I felt really relieved that we won the game,” he observes.

Lest we forget, Netravalkar also came face-to-face against the country of his birth, India. In that game, he also went on to dismiss the fulcrum of India’s batting unit, Virat Kohli. “Playing against India was an emotional moment for me. I have played with and against a lot of those players in my childhood. My plan was simple. I saw Arshdeep bowling really well against us. His strength is also to swing the ball. I was trying to learn from him; how he was bowling on that pitch. I was doing the same thing, mixing up inswing and outswing. I’m glad that this ball pitched around the fourth stump (line), angled away and got the edge.”

Growing up in the 1990s, just like most Indian kids, cricket was Netravalkar’s first love. The young Netravalkar ended up trying to imitate the actions of a host of left-arm pace bowlers, alongside the legendary right-armer, Glenn McGrath. “Born and brought up in the suburbs of Mumbai, I played with my parents. My dad used to play with me — tennis-ball/rubber-ball cricket. At the age of 10, I went to a selection trial and got picked in club cricket. That is where proper training started with a season ball.

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Saurabh Netravalkar with USA teammates (PC: ICC)

“Played for Mumbai, Under-13, 15 and 17, ultimately represented India Under-19. I remember watching all the India matches on TV in the community. Wasim Akram, Zaheer Khan, Glenn McGrath, Vaas, RP Singh, Ifran Pathan, Nathan Bracken – Most of the left-handed fast bowlers from my childhood, I have tried to copy their actions.”

Around that time, he also had the opportunity to link-up with the stalwart of Indian cricket, Rahul Dravid. The connecting dots don’t end there. More than a decade later, as the head coach of the Indian set-up, Dravid was seen glancing through some text commentary, while Netravalkar bowled the Super Over. Not surprisingly, Netravalkar caught up with him in the USA and had an informal chat or two.

“In the NCA, I bowled to him quite a few times. He was very approachable, after the session, he used to give honest feedback. The way he carries himself off the field too, a very disciplined person. In the USA, it was again nice to meet him. He remembered me because I had bowled to him, and also because I had gone for IPL trials at Rajasthan Royals. It was nice to re-interact with him; he appreciated our performance in that game,” he said.

Netravalkar’s main goals might be to excel in cricket and as an engineer, he is a man of varied interests: From practicing yoga, playing Ukulele instrument, developing a cricket App, leadership skills to balancing his work life and cricket. Here’s what Netravalkar had to say on how he goes about striking the fine balance between excelling as an engineer in Oracle to improving his cricketing skills.

“When I am not playing a tournament, it is five days a week, normal work, that is my full-time job. I try to balance my training. In the morning, I do yoga. Evening, or after office, I will go to the gym and work on my fitness. We have a training app, we follow that. My gym is in the office itself; it is a very good gym.

Saurabh Netravalkar celebrating a wicket (PC: ICC)

“Cricket practice, batting or bowling, I do it twice a week. I will take extra time during lunch hours. After work, at night, I do some practice. It is mostly indoors we do here. During tournaments, if it is a major tournament, I take offs. But if it is a local club cricket match, or practice during non-match days, then I work after or before practice sessions. On match days, I take offs. But I make sure before I go on tour that the work is done. I plan with my boss; they have been very supportive,” he quips.

Incidentally, Netravalkar has also connected his education skills to cricket by developing an app called ‘Great Decode’. That app can still be found in the Google Store. “I wanted to keep updating my skills. In 2013, along with two of my classmates, I was learning Edward App development, it was becoming very popular. I used to write a diary for my cricket. At that time, scoring and everything was through scorebooks. It wasn’t too digital at that time, except for international games or big state games.

“So, the idea was for local players to feed in their own performances and do data analysis. I did it for two years, but my classmates also went to the USA and I got picked in the Mumbai team. So, it became hard to manage that well. I didn’t focus too much on it afterwards, but it was good learning for me. Now I see there are so many scoring apps, it has become very popular.”

Netravalkar has also captained the national side for a few years before stepping down in October 2021 to concentrate on his bowling. The challenges of leading the USA team are quite different from captaining another national side. Simply out, the side comprises players from diverse backgrounds – Indians, Pakistanis, South Africans, New Zealanders, Barbadians and so on.

“The main thing we did was to create good bonding amongst each other. We made sure we spend a lot of time off the field as well. Especially when I got the captaincy, Pubudu (Dassanayake) Sir was the coach. So, he guided me a lot. I had not been a captain too many times in India. So, it was a new experience. I had a few senior players as well in that team. The common thing was we all loved the game. Most of the guys in the team were getting a second chance to do well in life. We all had different struggles in our lives, and we had all come together to play cricket,” he says.

Saurabh Netravalkar after taking a wicket (PC: ICC)

Under his captaincy, the USA had a few significant achievements. One of them was certainly getting ODI status in 2019 during the WCL Division 2. And it was Netravalkar who led from the front in the crucial encounter against Namibia. “I again bowled the last over. They needed three runs off three deliveries, with one wicket in hand. We got a run out and won the match by two runs. That was the tournament where we got the ODI status. It was a very special moment for me.”

Having been a part of the USA set-up for long, how does Netravalkar look at the future of a sport that doesn’t get much traction in that land?, Netravalkar is quite upbeat, especially in the backdrop of establishment of Major League Cricket. “That was a big break for all of us. First opportunity for us to play with and against top quality players from across the world, akin to a mini-IPL. Professional coaches, crowds… it helped us in our preparation for the World Cup as well,” he reckons.

In that tournament, too, Netravalkar has carved out a niche for himself, having taken six-for last year. The bowling line-up consisted of the South Africa pace duo of Marco Jansen and Anrich Nortje but on that day it was Netravalkar who hogged the limelight. “Personally, it was nice as our team had very good fast bowlers. I was the third fast bowler playing in that XI. So, I knew that the batters would look to hit me because the other two bowlers were bowling fast.

“My plan was very simple, just bowl a good length. My strength is to swing the ball, I was just trying to do that. When I got the first wicket, I felt really confident. The ball was swinging really nicely that day. The main point was we were defending a low total. The only way we could win that match was by taking wickets, it was a dream spell for me.”

Netravalkar is a priest of persistence. Even when he looked to chisel out a new path, he managed to reconnect that route back to his childhood aspirations. Somewhere, destiny also smiled on his sheer perseverance, helping him to realise his potential.

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