American cricket found a star. He’s a Silicon Valley tech worker.

Saurabh Netravalkar finds it hard to log off Slack. But a few weeks ago, the Oracle software engineer shipped his final code and set an out-of-office note on the messaging app to focus on a more personal goal: playing for the United States’ underdog cricket team at the T20 World Cup.

“If there is anything urgent, my manager should be able to reach me,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post. “But I’m completely focused on the World Cup.”

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A starter on Team USA, Netravalkar has been a breakout star of the tournament. When the United States faced the cricket titan Pakistan last week, Netravalkar led the team to a shocking win by bowling in overtime. The achievement catapulted him to sudden fame and has provided the sport a crucial marketing tool: a story to capture Americans’ attention.

Fans have posted that Netravalkar introduced them to the sport and the scrappy American team “made up of dudes who play cricket as a hobby,” as one user posted on Threads. Screenshots of his LinkedIn profile spread across X, earning more than 21 million views and 60,000 likes. Others joke that the 32-year-old, who was born in Mumbai and is in the United States on a green card, has made it harder for immigrant children to get respect from demanding parents.

“WhatsApp desi uncles and aunties have a new standard,” one person wrote on Threads. “Are you software engineer at Oracle and play for the U.S. cricket team?”

But the ukulele-playing software architect faces steep odds in convincing a nation, which knows very little about the sport, to care.

In India and Pakistan, professional cricketers are household names who command millions playing full time. Meanwhile, Netravalkar has long balanced cricket with a 9-5 coding career, playing at night and on weekends in amateur leagues - along with other Team USA players who hold down day jobs.

There are signs of a turnaround, with roughly 200,000 people participating in the sport in the United States, according to USA Cricket. For the first time the United States and West Indies are hosting the T20 World Cup, a tournament of 20 teams that plays a truncated form of the sport.

And immigrants from cricket-loving nations, often South Asians working in the technology industry, are championing the sport. Satya Nadella, the Indian-born chief executive of Microsoft, co-founded an American professional cricket association, Major League Cricket. Four of the six teams in Major League Cricket are co-owned by South Asians who made their riches in technology. Peer into the stands of American games and you’ll find people from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, many of them tech workers, U.S. cricket executives said.

“If it ends up being a sport that is only for the diaspora” cricket won’t flourish in America, said Soma Somasegar, an investor in Major League Cricket who worked for 27 years at Microsoft and oversaw its developer division.

“You need people … who can capture the attention of media, and by extension, reach a broader population to kindle their interest - and over time their inspiration,” he added.

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‘Never expected to play cricket again’

As a teen, Netravalkar showed skill. The Mumbai native was named one of the top junior cricket players in India, but he never made the cut for the national team.

Feeling discouraged, he tapped into another skill: coding. Armed with an undergraduate degree from India in engineering, he started a master’s degree in computer science at Cornell University in 2015. “I never expected to play cricket again,” he said.

But at Cornell, students played cricket all over campus. Though he brought no equipment with him from India, he started playing for Cornell’s club team.

He graduated in 2016, and relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area to work for Oracle. In California, the itch to play cricket became stronger. Despite working long hours as junior coder, he’d play club games in San Francisco.

When he learned Los Angeles cricketers played on grass pitches (fields) rather than the synthetic turf popular in the Bay Area, he started making the six-hour drive on the weekends for games. Friends on the U.S. national team suggested he try out. In 2018, he made Team USA.

At first, his training and playing schedule wasn’t too taxing. But two to three years ago, he said, the pace picked up, requiring him to be gone from San Francisco five to six months at a time. He’d made arrangements with work to be remote, but he fit it in at all hours of the day - working during the early mornings, at practice breaks or at night if facing a pressing deadline.

Oracle granted him time off for the T20 World Cup. After his win last week, the company capitalized on his attention. “Congrats @USACricket on a historic result!” Oracle posted on X. “Proud of the team and our very own engineering and cricket star.”

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‘You need people like that’

Attempts to bring cricket to U.S. audiences have been stymied by the grueling length of the game, cricket experts said. Cricket matches are historically drawn out over five days, or played in marathon one-day games that take roughly eight hours to complete.

But officials argue the T20 format, a shorter form of cricket that can be completed in three to four hours, has a chance of drawing the masses in the United States.

“It’s hard to imagine that people could be excited about spending five days … [or] one day to watch a game,” Somasegar said. “So we had to find the format that fit the audience.”

The other ingredient is migration. Some South Asians who immigrated to the United States in the late 1990s and early 2000s have made money in the tech industry. Buttressed by a deep nostalgia for cricket - and with an eye toward potential profits - tech executives have poured millions into bringing the second-most watched sport in the world to the country.

In 2022, South Asian tech leaders such as Microsoft’s Nadella, Adobe’s chief executive Shantanu Narayen and Anand Rajaraman, the former director of technology at Amazon, raised $120 million to start Major League Cricket. Its six teams play in cities such as Washington, New York City and Seattle. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Somasegar notes it took over 20 years for soccer to grow from obscure to mainstream in the United States, and cricket could take even longer. His ambitions for the game are not purely nostalgia - he’s chasing potentially lucrative deals. To interest major streaming services, cricket’s target audience in the United States may need to at least double, reaching a market of 10 million households, Somasegar said.

He hopes that stories of players, such as Netravalkar’s, spark interest for people who know little about the sport. “When I’m sitting in middle school, I need to know that cricket is a choice for me as a kid,” he added.

Netravalkar is now focused on a new obstacle: A Wednesday match against India, the world’s top ranked T20 cricket team. But that team is stacked with players he grew up with, so he sees the game as an opportunity to see if he can measure up.

Netravalkar is off work until June 16. But if Team USA advances into the next stage of the tournament, he will have to ask his bosses for more time off.

“Taking it one step at [a] time,” he said. “Let’s see.”

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Shira Ovide contributed to this report.

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