T20 World Cup: India enter Super Eight, but not without a tough fight from USA
United States' Saurabh Nethralvakar (left) greets India's Shivam Dube at the end of the ICC Men's T20 World Cup cricket match between US and India at the Nassau County International Cricket Stadium in Westbury. Photo: AP/PTI

T20 World Cup: India enter Super Eight, but not without a tough fight from USA

India were forced to fight for every run, scrap and hustle and struggle and sweat. This was a match they had to win, because USA weren’t going to lose

Victory, and qualification to the Super Eight stage of the T20 World Cup, was India’s, but Wednesday in New York was about United States’ stirring statement of intent. As if to reiterate that wins in the last month in the 20-over format against Bangladesh (bilateral series) and Pakistan (in the Super Over in Dallas last week) were no flashes in the pan, the Americans ran India too close for comfort at the Nassau County International Cricket Stadium.

Close contest

The 2007 World Cup winners’ final margin victory was comprehensive – by seven wickets, with 10 deliveries to spare. It was in keeping with what one would expect of the No. 1-ranked team in the world, up against an outfit that played its first Twenty20 International only in 2019 and now occupies the 18th spot in the ICC rankings. But victory didn’t come at a canter; India were forced to fight for every run, scrap and hustle and struggle and sweat. This was a match they had to win, because US weren’t going to lose.

True, the conditions at the temporary Nassau County Stadium, already being dismantled within hours of the conclusion of the last of the eight matches at the ground, offered a level-playing field, bridging the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, in a manner of speaking. On a true, flat batting surface, India would have almost without fail subjected the co-hosts to a spectacular battering. The likes of Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli and Rishabh Pant would have flexed their muscles, treating a 31,000-plus adoring gathering to entertainment of the highest order. But these weren’t ideal batting conditions; they haven’t been since June 3, when South Africa bowled out Sri Lanka for 77, the theme of bowler-dominance extending to an eighth game running.

Americans give their best

That shouldn’t take anything away from the Americans, semi-professionals if that. They put body and limb on the line, giving nothing away, relishing the prospect of doing battle with the best in the world and refusing to be embarrassed. On the eve of the match, Aaron Jones, one of the stars of the American campaign at the World Cup, professed to being ‘excited’ rather than ‘intimidated’ at having to face India’s superstars on a stage as humongous as the World Cup. Jones, who led the side in the absence of the injured Monank Patel, and his colleagues walked the talk, sending the Indian dugout into fits of nervy speculation until the calm of Suryakumar Yadav and Shivam Dube pulled the fat out of the fire.

This was always going to be a tough challenge for the Americans, their mammoth upset of Pakistan notwithstanding. Babar Azam’s men can blow hot and cold, often in the same encounter. Dallas was a better batting strip; Mohammad Amir conceding seven runs through wides in the Super Over was a gift. Explosive Pakistan, imploding Pakistan, found 18 too hard to overcome in the six balls of the Super Over.

India are not Pakistan

India are not Pakistan. They don’t fluctuate wildly when it comes to emotions and performances. Historically, they have been steady, stable, and efficient. Against the ‘lesser’ nations, they inevitably get the job done. They generally steer assiduously clear of seismic upsets. You know which India will turn up, day after day, match after match.

And yet, for large parts during India’s chase, US held their own. Sometimes more than their own.

Not even Jones, Monank or Stuart Law, their Australian head coach who was a key part of the team that reached the 50-over final in 1996, would have believed at the interval that 110 for eight was competitive, or even close to par, on an admittedly dicey surface where the bounce was unpredictable, the pace non-existent. But they had the belief that if they stuck to their disciplines, bowled on the stump line and desisted from offering India’s batters the width they so covet, 110 was worth several more than its numerical value.

Netravalkar and Harmeet – the formidable duo

Their defence of the modest tally was given a massive shot in the arm by Saurabh Netravalkar, a 32-year-old medium-pacer whose stocks have climbed massively in the last week. A software engineer with Oracle, he played for India’s Under-19 team at the World Cup in New Zealand in 2010, made his Ranji Trophy debut for Mumbai against Karnataka three and a half years later, wasn’t sure what cricketing prospects lay in store and therefore made the shift to the Land of Opportunity in search of greener professional pastures.

In 2019, he made his senior international debut for his new country, in a T20I. He has 73 wickets in 48 ODIs and, after Wednesday, 31 in 30 T20Is. High among those 31 will rank the scalps of Kohli and Netravalkar’s Borivali mate Rohit, superbly caught by another former Mumbai player, left-arm spinner Harmeet Singh. Harmeet, 31, was a vital member of India’s 2012 Under-19 World Cup-winning squad under Unmukt Chand; at the end of the tournament, former Australian skipper Ian Chappell made a case for Harmeet and Chand to be fast-tracked to Test cricket but both fell by the wayside, Harmeet courting trouble owing to indiscipline, among other things.

United in the US team, Netravalkar and Harmeet came together to push India to a corner, at 10 for two. In their stories, and especially that of Netravalkar’s, is the resounding message that anything is possible if the opportunity presents itself and one is committed, motivated and ambitious enough to seize it. Netravalkar has become the poster boy for those aspiring to chase their dreams, though cricket must have been furthest from his mind when he made the move from Mumbai to the United States. Yet here is, within a point of playing in the Super Eight stage of the T20 World Cup in his adopted country’s first such competition. Talk about fairytales.

Pipedream becomes reality

Then, there is Ali Khan, an Attock, Punjab-born Pakistani, and Corey Anderson, the celebrated New Zealand all-rounder who 10 years back smashed a 36-ball century for the Kiwis in an ODI against West Indies. These are experienced individuals who might have been relatively anonymous in the world of current international cricket, but not anymore, one suspects.

Jones is already a superstar, having smashed 10 sixes in his team’s defeat of Canada in the World Cup opener on June 1, and is eyeing an IPL call-up. He isn’t the only one. What once was a pipedream has now assumed vague hues of reality. How much more can one ask for, really?

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