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The part-time heroes behind US cricket's historic win

Saurabh Netravalkar of USA celebrates with teammate Harmeet Singh after USA defeat Pakistan in a super over during the ICC Men's T20 Cricket World
Saurabh Netravalkar celebrates with teammate Harmeet Singh after the US defeats Pakistan in a super over during the ICC Men's T20 Cricket World Cup [Getty]

Charging in with a leather ball in his hand, about to create cricket history, was a software engineer on leave from his day job.

Seconds later, Saurabh Netravalkar’s arms were raised to the sky in the steaming hot Texas sun.

The tall left-arm pace bowler had secured a historic win for Team USA, leading the 18th ranked underdogs to an overtime victory (called a super over in this shortened version of the sport) over Pakistan in the T20 World Cup on Thursday.

When the Indian expat came to America in 2015 to study a masters in computer engineering at the prestigious Cornell University, he didn’t even pack his cricket shoes.

Team USA is made up of characters like Netravalkar, whose LinkedIn account currently says “principal member of technical staff at Oracle, professional cricketer”.

His team-mate Nosthush Kenjige performed 800 hours of community service just so he could be eligible to play for the US.

And now they are local heroes and Team USA is perched at the top of its World Cup group, ahead of tournament favourites India and sixth-ranked Pakistan.

For USA Cricket team manager Kerk Higgins, this is the first phase of what he thinks will be a deep push in the World Cup co-hosted by the US and the West Indies. His goal is to get out of the group stage and into the Super 8s.

Speaking to the BBC just minutes after the historic game, Higgins said the massive win was still sinking in and that the “energy is very high”.

“I always said that we could beat a top nation. I saw the way the boys are playing over the last month or so. This is not really surprising to me,” he said.

Most Americans were oblivious to the magnitude of their team's victory, unaware there was even a cricket World Cup going on in their country.

US player Aaron Jones told the BBC the “really big” win would “open the eyes” of Americans not following the sport.

And that’s the hope for the International Cricket Council (ICC) as it tries to get a foothold in the world’s biggest sports market, where fans are more accustomed to Super Bowls than super overs.

Fans of USA react in the crowd during the ICC Men's T20 Cricket World Cup West Indies & USA 2024 match between Sri Lanka and South Africa at Nassau County International Cricket Stadium on June 03, 2024 in New York.
A USA fan in the stands for a T20 World Cup match in New York [Getty]

School teacher Ricky Kissoon, who helps run the New York Big Apple Cricket league, said the US win over Pakistan was a “big deal” for helping the next generation fall in love with the sport.

“I saw that there are a lot of young players that are coming through the school system, and after the school cricket is over, they don’t have an opportunity to play,” he told the BBC.

The league has nine teams, up from eight last season.

“A lot of the kids out there, they’re excited, especially with the World Cup on right now,” he said.

Mr Kissoon says cricket is slowly growing in New York, particularly in the “melting pot” of ex-pat communities who miss playing their favourite sport.

“It’s growing, you may not see a lot of mainstream Americans, but they’re trickling in. And that’s a win,” he said.

But the battle for the hearts (and wallets) of Americans can’t be compared to the impact the football World Cup held in the US in 1994 had on soccer in the country.

Fans on social media have complained that cricket world cup matches in the US are not shown on mainstream broadcasters. And the big match-ups like India v Pakistan in New York this weekend are played in the morning (making it prime time evening TV in India).

These two arch-rivals rarely play each other because of diplomatic tensions. But when they do, it's a blockbuster match-up.

The 2011 World Cup semi-final was watched by more than 400 million people. To compare, the most recent Super Bowl had a global television audience of around 250 million.

Ali Zar, who owns Zar Sports - one of only a handful of cricket stores in New York - says the India-Pakistan match being played at the new Nassau County International Cricket Stadium outside of New York City on Sunday is the one people are waiting for.

“There is no rivalry that you can explain India versus Pakistan. This is its own class. This is on a different level,” he told the BBC.

“Let’s say Pakistan wins and India loses, everybody’s gonna break their TVs. If India wins, Pakistan loses, in their countries people are gonna be very upset for a couple of days. And they’re going to start breaking their TVs.”

On the ticket resale market, the cheapest tickets for the Sunday game are about $830 each. On the ICC website, the cheapest available ticket costs $2,500.

Mr Zar thinks having these iconic World Cup matches played in America will “plant the seed” for future generations.

“A lot of Americans are walking in (to his pop-up merchandise store) and they’re asking questions about the sport. They know there is a world cup going on, so they ask us a question – what is cricket?” he said.

“I was born in Pakistan so I know about this sport. My kids are born here, other kids are born here. They are starting to ask questions about this sport… They are interested.”