While other American players struggled to make MLC’s starting XI, the left-arm quick made a stunning impact.
Peter Della Penna
When the team sheets were submitted Saturday night at Church Street Park in Morrisville, North Carolina, only one of the 22 players had played for the US. In the first-year T20 Franchise League starting in the USA, American players were notably absent from the playing XI.
Saurabh Netrawalkar may be the Washington Freedom’s lone American Ranger in Major League Cricket (MLC), but the Freedom lifted the league-wide USA team a bit after a tournament-best 6 for 9 for 30 against the San Francisco Uniques. Church Street Park has become a de facto Team USA home base since the men’s national team’s first visit in September 2018, when Netrawalkar debuted as captain. His familiarity with the nuances of the venue led to his ability to lead the way with a performance that rocked the Unicorns with three wickets in the Powerplay, before wiping out the tail with three wickets in the final over.
“The ground, that was something I knew,” Netrawalkar said in the post-match press conference. “But there are world-class players and you have to improve your game. Playing all these years, I think the three-year ODI cycle really helped us. Especially the World Cup qualifiers were a big step to play against teams like the West Indies, Sri Lanka and Ireland. We are very happy today.”
Netrawalkar was the USA’s best pacer in the recent 50-over World Cup qualifier in Zimbabwe, but it’s hard for an unbiased observer to know that when looking at the wicket-line. The 31-year-old finished with six wickets in five matches, including three for 53 runs against the West Indies. However, he was at least somewhat denied by the fielders behind him – the USA had one of the most miserable catching units in Harare.
Netrawalkar himself was not flawless on that front. That was evident in his performances during MLC’s opening week in Texas, where he suffered a decisive loss against the Seattle Orcas in the Freedom’s first game. Antic Nortje drove a fake off Shimron Hetmyer on 9, Hetmyer then hit a six in the over to score 23 runs. But thanks to Netrawalkar, Glenn Phillips provided the fielding quality – which is very lacking in USA line-ups – and some sensational fielding.
Defending a total of 133, Phillips made his mark in the third over, running from backward point to a gymnastic twisting catch by Nortje to get Finn Allen. Netrawalkar spent most of his opening spell between 127 and 130 per hour. But true to his reputation as the most cerebral of USA bowlers – his day job is a senior programmer at Oracle in Silicon Valley – Netrawalkar uses his preferred left-hander to angle right-handers around the wicket to enhance his natural inside form. This was before he returned to the side with Phillips for the sixth over as he took another acrobatic catch at backward point to dismiss Matthew Wade.
“I think if you hit the good-length areas it was not easy to hit the pitch (on),” Netrawalkar said. “We observed that it was a bit two-speed on the wicket, so if we had a good powerplay, we always knew we had a chance. We wanted to fight till the end. That was our motto, we never give up, we try to fight till the last ball. T20 is a funny game. One over can change the game from here to there. So we wanted to believe in it.”
“I’m really clear about my role. That’s my strength. I look to swing the ball forward, so I back myself to do that.”Saurabh Netrawalkar
Returning in the final over, Netrawalkar continued where he left off in the sixth over, falling behind while attempting an innovative flick after a shuffle across Chaitanya Bishnoi’s stumps. It was fitting that Phillips was caught in the deep to complete Netrawalkar’s five-wicket haul after one ball in Harris Rauff’s slog. Liam Plunkett then gave Netrawalkar a more conservative number six.
In a bowling unit that included Nortje and Marco Jansson, few would have paid for Netrawalkar to be the Freedom’s leading wicket-taker after four matches. But Netrawalkar is not only at the top of Freedom’s bowling charts, he is also tied for the top spot in the MLC wicket tally with Texas Super Kings’ legspinner Mohammad Mohs with eight. Netrawalkar is quick to credit the South Africans, whom he was able to rub shoulders with in the dressing room, for helping him provide tactical tips for the success he has achieved so far in the tournament.
I am lucky to have such a team environment, said Netrawalkar. “It’s really positive, the staff and the captain are giving us a lot of clarity on roles. Even the senior bowlers, we have really productive meetings where we brainstorm ideas, which helps me learn a lot about bowling in different situations. I’m really clear about my role. That’s my strength. I look to swing the ball forward.
Peter Della Penna @PeterDellaPenna is ESPNcricinfo’s USA correspondent