When former USA captain Sushil Nadkarni first came to the USA in his early 20s to pursue a post-graduate degree in engineering, cricket was the last thing on his mind. Despite having played for India Under-19 and opened the batting against Brett Lee, he left his cricket kit behind. It wasn't until he arrived in the country and stumbled into cricket that he realized his career might not quite be over just yet.
In the words of former Yankees catcher Yogi Berra, it's deja vu all over again. Two former India Under-19 players recently made the switch to compete for USA in the ongoing CWI Super50 Cup - left-arm seamer Saurabh Netravalkar and batsman Sunny Sohal. While Sohal's skillset as an opener mirrors Nadkarni's transition on the field, Netravalkar's academic ambitions are almost a carbon copy of Nadkarni's on his odyssey from Maharashtra to eventually suiting up for USA.
"Frankly speaking, I didn't even carry my cricket shoes to the USA," says 26-year-old Netravalkar of his initial landing in the USA in August 2015, having enrolled in a masters degree program in computer science at Cornell University in New York. "I was completely focused on academics. [After seeing the cricket locally] the next time I went to India, I came back with my kit."
On January 31 this year, just over three years after he played his last game for Mumbai, Netravalkar debuted for USA against Leeward Islands. It's been a quirky and at times fanatical journey into the USA squad, rediscovering his passion in a new country for a game he thought he had to give up after being unable to achieve a work-life balance between cricket and engineering in India.
After finishing as India's leading wicket-taker at the 2010 Under-19 World Cup, where his team-mates included KL Rahul and Jaydev Unadkat, Netravalkar initially pursued an undergraduate degree in computer science while juggling it around his cricket. By the time he graduated in 2013, he realised the dual vocation was untenable. He committed himself full-time to cricket, making his first-class debut for Mumbai in December 2013 and playing ten 50-overs games as well. But that season back, he says, opened his eyes as to how much other players had progressed.
"In 2015, I realised it's really competitive to get back to the international level. I thought I had good educational skills and I got admitted at the right time to Cornell, which is one of the best universities in the world for computer science. I thought it was a good opportunity and considering in the long run that education would help me, I took that step at that time."
Netravalkar's masters course at Cornell ran from August 2015 through May 2016, at which point he came to another fork in the road. Option one: head back to India for engineering work and a progressively more difficult path at restarting his cricket career. Option two: stay in the USA and move from New York to San Francisco, where he had been offered a job with Oracle, and begin a path toward eligibility to play for USA. He chose the latter.
After playing some club matches while at Cornell, he began to get much more serious about cricket once he moved out west. In 2016, he represented the North West Region at the USACA National Championship. After learning about the ICC eligibility guidelines from Marin CC team-mate and USA legspinner Timil Patel, himself a former Ranji Trophy player with Gujarat, he kicked his efforts into high gear, seeking out as many opportunities to play as possible.
"Most importantly it's the continuity in practice," Netravalkar says. "In Cornell, for the whole year I had a burden due to studies and could hardly practice. After I moved to Oracle, the only thing I found was the lack of practice because I have to motivate myself on weekdays to go to practice after work and find a slot for practising. There are very few games so I have to make sure I play different tournaments and am continually in the process. So that's what I started last year."
To accomplish his aim of playing in two cities per weekend, Netravalkar traveled with team-mate Srinivas Salver from San Francisco to Los Angeles on Friday nights after work, the pair driving three hours each for the six-hour trip south before crashing at another team-mate's house. He'd wake up Saturday morning to play with Vijayta CC in Los Angeles, then drive straight back with Salver to San Francisco for a short night's sleep and a Sunday morning match with Marin.
Going to such great lengths worried his parents back in India but Netravalkar was determined to play in Los Angeles in order to get exposure on turf wickets.
No match in Los Angeles was bigger for Netravalkar than playing for the Southern California Cricket Association XI against a USA XI in a national-team warm-up match last May ahead of WCL Division Three. Though he had played with and against many of the USA squad before, it was the first time coach Pubudu Dassanayake would see him. Netravalkar rose to the occasion with 2 for 30 in nine overs, leading the SCCA XI to a surprise win over USA. When the ICC lowered the minimum residency for eligibility from four years to three, Netravalkar got the call to join USA.
The same residency stipulation allowed Sohal to be fast-tracked into USA's squad at the top of the batting order. Unlike Netravalkar, cricket was always Sohal's focus and the 30-year-old was part of a golden crop of Under-19 talent in 2007-08. Playing in a squad captained by Piyush Chawla that included Virat Kohli, Ravindra Jadeja and Saurabh Tiwary, Sohal topped the team's run-scoring charts in a tri-series against Sri Lanka and England, with 288 runs including three-half centuries. His best of 97 came opening the batting against a Sri Lanka attack featuring future internationals Thisara Perera, Isuru Udana and Sachith Pathirana. He then went on to make 75 not out against an England attack spearheaded by Steven Finn.
He progressed into Punjab's Ranji Trophy team and was in peak form at the start of the 2008-09 season, which he ended as his team's leading scorer that season with 569 runs at 51.72 in seven matches.
Another step forward came when Sohal was named in the India Red squad for the NKP Salve Challenger Trophy in October 2009. He didn't get to bat in the first match he played, and in his only innings in the tournament, in the final against India Blue, he was out second ball to Harbhajan Singh. That was the closest he came to achieving his lifelong ambition.
"When every cricketer starts cricket, my dream is to play for the country," Sohal said. "I did well. I played Under-19 India, India A, I was right there. But when I was 26, I did not think they would pick me."
Though his national-team ambitions faded, he still managed to carve out a niche for himself at the IPL. For the first three seasons of the tournament from 2008 to 2010, Sohal played for Kings XI Punjab, appearing 11 times. His best season came after moving to Deccan Chargers in 2011, when he scored 249 runs in ten innings as a top-order mainstay including 62 off 41 balls in a win over Delhi Daredevils. But just as he found his groove, his role went up in smoke.
"They bought Parthiv Patel in the 2012 auction, Deccan Chargers," Sohal says. "I was sitting on the bench. Then I got selected by RCB [in 2013]. Virat Kohli picked me. He suggested me. They have a big team. I was waiting but didn't get a chance because I'm an opener and they were already set at opener with Chris Gayle and other big names."
As he rode the bench with Chargers and then Royal Challengers Bangalore, his opportunities with Punjab also disappeared. From the end of the Vijay Hazare Trophy in February 2010, Sohal went four years before making the Punjab XI again but played just twice more in the 50-overs competition in March 2014. No longer with an IPL contract either, he decided to pack up in search of greener pastures in America as a paid professional for Potomac Cricket Club in Maryland at the invitation of an old friend named Rajat Passey.
"He has a club in the Washington Cricket League and said you can come here and I'll give you a contract and take care," Sohal says. "Then I moved here. My wife also has family here."
Sohal's first exposure to cricket in the USA was actually not in Maryland, though. He came to Chicago for a T20 invitational tournament in the summer of 2014 which featured several West Indies and Pakistani internationals. The quality on display helped cement his decision to settle in Maryland for good.
"I didn't know what kind of competition there was in the USA, but when I came to Chicago I saw a couple of international-level players - Darren Bravo, Mervyn Dillon, old West Indies players and some of the current ones. Also a couple of players from Pakistan - Mohammad Sami, Kamran Akmal, Saaed Ajmal, Abdul Razzaq - were there. In the WCL, they have first-class players from Jamaica and Barbados."
It was outside of Maryland, in Texas, that Sohal caught the eye of Dassanayake and national selection chairman Ricardo Powell. At the Dallas Premier League T20 tournament in November, Sohal scored a century in front of Dassanayake. With USA's struggles at the top of the order throughout 2017, Dassanayake called on Sohal in an effort to solve the problem.
"Every player has a dream to play international cricket. I'm lucky I achieved that here, I'm so happy," Sohal says. "I was watching US cricket and they are doing good for a couple of years. But they need some good batting. I had experience and played at that kind of level and have experience to play how you manage pressure situations. I want to take US team to the next level."
So far, Sohal has had a rocky start. He got a ripper of a delivery, jagging back in, to be bowled first ball on debut against Leeward Islands, then followed it with an over-eager slash to the keeper for a second-ball duck against Guyana. He struggled early in his third match against Jamaica before battling to grind out 65 off 112 balls in a losing effort. Overall, he has 72 runs in four matches.
Netravalkar has had a much more promising start to his USA career. Opening the bowling, he's taken four wickets in four matches with an economy rate of 4.33. He took 2 for 45 in 10 overs on debut against Leewards, and arguably could have had two more wickets after a pair of edges evaded fielders. He hasn't gone for more than 4.60 an over in any match so far. However, Netravalkar says getting into the side and putting in solid performances is just the start, not the finish.
"If you're playing at the international stage, you can never be satisfied," Netravalkar says. "But I think the hard work I've done, I've set a tone for a good routine and a good attitude that I'm always on the field. I think the attitude is set but the results will show and I need to keep improving and need to keep working harder if I have to sustain at this level. To enter this stage is a job half-done. From now on, what I do, how I perform is more important. That will be my test."