Geetika Kodali, the fearless captain forging a path for her team of trailblazers

Allrounder unites a USA team defying all odds for their chance on the World Cup stage

USA Women's U19 captain Geetika Kodali and vice-captain Anika Kolan grew up playing together in northern California  •  Peter Della Penna

USA Women's U19 captain Geetika Kodali and vice-captain Anika Kolan grew up playing together in northern California  •  Peter Della Penna

If America can sometimes be seen as a country of extremes, then the USA squad preparing to take part in the maiden Women's Under-19 T20 World Cup is in some ways a microcosm of that, whether by population demographics, culturally or geographically.
There are players representing seven states from coast to coast: from New Jersey, Virginia and North Carolina in the east, to California and Washington in the Pacific Northwest, to Texas in the south and even two players from Missouri to showcase the Show-Me State in middle America.
Culturally, they all share a bond in that every player in the squad is a daughter of at least one parent, and in many cases both, who is a first-generation immigrant from India. But more remarkable is the minor miracle of the sample size they are drawing from.
Most casual statistics would deduce that it should not be hard to find 11 quality players in a country of 350 million people, even if the actual number of registered cricketers in the country can range from 25,000 to 100,000 depending on where the data is drawn from. Yet there are only 283 total registered female cricketers of any age group in the USA, less than 1% of the overall amateur player pool, according to data shared during the most recent USA Cricket AGM.
Some of them have been playing cricket for more than half their lives. Others have only started since the Covid pandemic, and in one case, precisely because of it. Some live in cities where there are enough girls to form an entire female team or mini-league to compete against fellow girls. Other players are literally pioneers, the first and in some cases only females of any age group playing in their city or state, forced to join boys' age-group or men's teams if they want to get a game.
In some sports, the odds would be stacked against not just the individuals but the group making it to this tournament. But these girls will prove to be just one more example of how to live out the American Dream by wearing the red, white and blue when they take the field for their opening Group A match against Sri Lanka in Benoni as part of the first USA cricket team to qualify for any World Cup since 2010, when the U19 boys did it.
"The opportunities that we're getting, it just shows how fast cricket is growing in the US and around the world," said USA Women's U19 captain Geetika Kodali.
She would know better than most. Just over three years ago, she was making her debut in the USA Women's senior team at a time when there was no such thing as a USA Women's U19 team, let alone a Women's U19 World Cup.
But in the time since, she has carved out a name for herself globally, taking part in the Fairbreak T20 in Dubai last May as well as being picked in the Trinbago Knight Riders squad for the inaugural Women's CPL and 6ixty, where she took a hat-trick that included Hayley Matthews, Britney Cooper and Chloe Tryon.
"Women's cricket has been growing rapidly starting with the new women's CPL and Fairbreak tournaments," Kodali said. "It's an absolutely amazing time to start playing this game now."
"This team is exactly who America is because America is known for its diversity"
Aditi Chudasama
Despite being just 18, Kodali is not just seen as a captain, but an inspiration and a role model by a number of her team-mates. Prior to her debut and that of Maryland native Lisa Ramjit, both at the age of 14 in the same T20 World Cup Regional Qualifier series against Canada, it was practically unheard of for an American-raised and developed player to be in the USA Women's national team.
"Geets and Lisa, them getting into the team, there was like a spark across a lot of the girls in the country because their eyes opened up, of their families and them," said USA Women's U19 vice-captain and fellow senior team player Anika Kolan, who grew up playing junior cricket with Kodali in the East Bay of northern California.
"These girls, even though they're young, they were getting somewhere, they're doing things. When I started, a lot of the uncles thought it was just a waste of time. But both of them getting in, especially being the younger ones to get in, definitely inspired a lot of us to keep on pushing and try to reach that goal to represent a national team like they did."
The only other American-born players in the team at the time, in May 2019, were field hockey convert Erica Rendler from California and Shebani Bhaskar, who was born in Illinois but had travelled the world for most of her life as the daughter of a US diplomat. But in the USA Women's squad that took part in the Women's T20 World Cup Qualifier in the UAE this past September, 11 of the 15 players were teenagers. All but one of them would double up as part of the squad at the U19 World Cup, and all but two are American born.
In Kodali's first two tours with the USA Women in 2019, she played two matches and mostly rode the bench as a reserve with raw but unrefined fast-bowling talent. But Kodali's stature has rocketed since then, to the point that she was named vice-captain for the senior team in Abu Dhabi, not to mention U19 captain for the World Cup.
"In the past year or so with the experiences and opportunities she's been getting, it's amazing how she's starting to understand her game better," said USA Women's senior national team captain Sindhu Sriharsha. "At Fairbreak we did speak a little bit about how she should be using this opportunity for herself and she was loving it.
"She spent every minute she could with Shabnim Ismail. She's definitely looking up to Shabnim as her role model and after she came back from Fairbreak, she was a different bowler altogether.
"She was trying to work on different variations and trying to think about the batter, how to play the batter and manipulate the batter. I think she has grown as a person and having that leadership role with the Under-19s, all of the girls really look up to her.
"We've been working on this for a year because we identified quite quickly that she would be a leader going forward. I don't think we noticed it growing up, but the way she has developed confidence in herself has come up in the last couple of years."
Kodali has also been someone who has the unique perspective of being part of the cricket culture on both coasts, aiding her ability to bond with many of the players and help form a more cohesive national team. Though she grew up in Fremont, California, her family moved to North Carolina not long after her senior national team debut to access better playing facilities and coaching from former West Indies opener Alvin Kallicharran, who was active in junior cricket initiatives in the Raleigh area. She has been a successful captain of the Eastern Conference team now that she's based in North Carolina, and wound up leading them to the USA Cricket Women's national title this year over the Western Conference team captained by Sriharsha.
But that's not the only feather in Kodali's leadership cap. The USA Women's U19 squad was invited to participate this past summer in the Cricket West Indies Women's U19 Rising Stars Regional tournament and went undefeated to win the title, including a resounding victory over Trinidad & Tobago in the de facto final. The successful tour coincided with former West Indies legend Shivnarine Chanderpaul's appointment as USA Women's senior and U19 head coach to guide the team on their journey to South Africa. To show that this result was not a fluke, USA hosted a full West Indies Women's U19 side a month later for a five-match T20 series in Florida and won it 4-1 with captain Kodali ending as one of USA's key performers with bat and ball.
"I think that and with the experience that she's gotten now with Fairbreak and the opportunity at the CPL, she's very commanding with the players," Sriharsha said. "I saw it at USA nationals. Isu [Vaghela] and I came out to bat together after a wicket and she's telling the girls in the huddle, 'These are the top two batters of the West. If we get these two out, they're finished and we win the championship. This is when I need the best from you all.' I was like, 'Oh wow.' I even told her, 'Geets, that was good.' And she was like, 'I know, we're gonna get you!'
"She has a never-give-up kind of an attitude. And she also speaks the language of the teenager, which helps me a little bit as well. So she is a true vice-captain for me in such a young team."
But Kodali is not the only leading light in the U19 team. Ritu Singh and Pooja Ganesh were the first two females playing in St. Louis, Missouri. Both of them have risen through the adverse circumstance of non-existent dedicated female cricket opportunities in their state to make it to South Africa. Singh's journey is especially remarkable because she has done it while juggling Olympic gymnastics ambitions, having competed at a high level nationally in her age group in trampoline.
Jivana Aras is the first female to play competitive league cricket in Seattle. Born and raised in the suburb of Bellevue, Aras only started playing organised cricket because the club soccer season - her primary sport at the time - was cancelled in 2020 due to local Covid restrictions. Cricket was one of the few sports that was sanctioned for outdoor activity and Aras joined the same club team as her dad, Yatin. Less than three years later, she's playing for USA and hopes she is not the only player from Seattle who plays for the country in future.
"It's been an honor to represent the USA, and specifically Seattle and Bellevue in Washington," Aras said. "I'm really looking forward to helping younger girls come into the sport and not be scared of playing with the boys and being discriminated [against] in a way."
Speaking of discrimination, the U19 World Cup squad caused a stir on the internet when it was unveiled on the USA Cricket social media account in December. A graphic featuring headshots of each player was included, sparking derisive comments mainly from sections of the cricket community outside of the USA who zeroed in on the ethnic background of the entire squad and labelled them, 'The India B side'.
But the players just shrug it off, eager to talk up their pride in wearing the Stars & Stripes as they hope to beat the odds against the Test nation competition they'll face through January.
"These people are saying things because they're not in our shoes," said New Jersey native Aditi Chudasama. "I think this team is exactly who America is because America is known for its diversity. We're known for its culture and inclusiveness. If you look at this team, we're just that. We're diverse and we come from different parts of the country. I don't think that's anything out of the American norm.
"Any cricketer who grows up wanting to play professionally, they all want to have their last name on their back, have the country's flag on their chest. It's no different for me. I've always wanted to play for the country. I think it's an honor to be a part of history to play in the first U19 World Cup."

Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent @PeterDellaPenna