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Feature

Saurabh Netravalkar flies the USA flag in North Carolina

While other American players have struggled to get into the MLC's starting XIs, this left-arm quick has made a stunning impact

Saurabh Netravalkar celebrates a wicket, Major League Cricket, Morrisville, July 20, 2023

Saurabh Netravalkar celebrates after picking up 6 for 9 against San Francisco Unicorns  •  Sportzpics

When the team sheets were submitted on Saturday night at Church Street Park in Morrisville, North Carolina, there was only one player out of the 22 who had actually played for USA. In a first-year T20 franchise league launching in the USA, American players have been noticeably absent in the playing XIs.
Saurabh Netravalkar may have been the American lone ranger for Washington Freedom in the Major League Cricket (MLC), but the left-arm pacer made the league-wide USA contingent hold their heads a little bit higher after a tournament best haul of 6 for 9 in Freedom's 30-run win over San Francisco Unicorns. Church Street Park has become a de facto USA team home base since the men's national side's first visit in September 2018, when Netravalkar made his captaincy debut for the team. His familiarity with the nuances of the venue contributed to his ability to step up with a performance where he rocked Unicorns with three wickets in the powerplay before coming back with three wickets in the final over to wipe out the tail.
"The ground, it was a known thing for me," Netravalkar said in the post-match press conference. "But the kind of players that are there are world class, and you need to upskill your game. I think playing over these years, the three-year ODI cycle, that really helped us. Especially the World Cup Qualifiers was a huge step up as well, to play against teams like West Indies, Sri Lanka and Ireland. We've been working really hard as a unit, and I was really happy that I could execute today."
Netravalkar was USA's best pacer at the recent 50-over World Cup Qualifier in Zimbabwe, but a neutral observer would hardly know it just looking at the wickets column. The 31-year-old finished with six wickets in five matches, including 3 for 53 against West Indies. However, he was denied at least a few more by the fielders behind him - USA were one of the most woeful catching units in Harare.
Netravalkar himself was not exactly blameless on that front. And that much showed during his performances in the first week of MLC in Texas, where he had a crucial drop down the stretch against Seattle Orcas in Freedom's first match, spilling a chance off Shimron Hetmyer on 9 when Anrich Nortje induced a false drive, before Hetmyer cranked a six later in the over and finished with 23 in a narrow win with two balls to spare. But thankfully for Netravalkar, Glenn Phillips provided the fielding standard - which is sorely lacking in the USA lineups - with some sensational fielding.
Defending a total of 133, Phillips made his mark in the third over, running from backward point for a gymnastic twisting catch off Nortje to get Finn Allen. Netravalkar was clocking between 127 and 130 kph for most of his opening spell, which is hardly the type of pace to blow away top-class batters on the franchise scene. But true to his reputation as the most cerebral of USA's bowlers - his day job is being a senior programmer for Oracle in Silicon Valley - Netravalkar used his favored left-arm around the wicket angle to the right-handers to enhance his natural inward shape, bowling Marcus Stoinis and Shadab Khan in the space of three balls in the fourth over. This was before he came back to team up with Phillips in the sixth as another acrobatic catch was taken running from backward point to remove Matthew Wade.
"I think the pitch wasn't that easy to hit [on] if you hit the good-length areas," Netravalkar said. "We observed that it was a little two-paced in the wicket, so we knew that if we had a good powerplay, we always had a chance. We wanted to fight till the end. That was our motto, we never give up, and we try to fight until the last ball. T20 is a funny game. One over can change the game from here to there. So, we just wanted to believe in ourselves and keep trying, and I'm glad it worked out today."
"I'm really clear about my role. That's my strength. I look to swing the ball up front so I back myself to do that."
Saurabh Netravalkar
Coming back in the final over, Netravalkar continued where he left off in the sixth, getting Chaitanya Bishnoi edging behind while attempting an innovative flick after a shuffle across his stumps. It was fitting though that Phillips took the catch in the deep that completed Netravalkar's five-wicket haul one ball later off a Haris Rauf slog. Liam Plunkett then edged behind in more orthodox fashion to give Netravalkar his sixth.
In a bowling unit featuring Nortje and Marco Jansen, few people would have put money on Netravalkar being Freedom's leading wicket-taker after four matches. But Netravalkar is not only topping the bowling charts for Freedom but sits in first place in the MLC wickets column alongside legspinner Mohammad Mohsin of Texas Super Kings with eight. Netravalkar is quick to give credit, though, to the more heralded South Africans he's been able to rub shoulders with in the dressing room, who have helped give him strategic tips to achieve the success he's had so far in the tournament.
"I'm blessed to have a team atmosphere like this," Netravalkar said. "It's really positive and the staff and captain, they give us so much clarity in the roles. Even the senior bowlers, we have good productive meetings where we brainstorm ideas and that's really helping me learn a lot in bowling in different situations. I'm really clear about my role. That's my strength. I look to swing the ball up front so I back myself to do that, and I'm glad I'm executing it."

Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent @PeterDellaPenna