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Bowl fast, code faster: All in a day’s work for Saurabh Netravalkar

At 23, Saurabh Netravalkar made his first-class debut for Mumbai in December. He is also one of the creators of the app CricDecode, a managerial tool to help cricketers analyse and improve their game, writes Aditya Mani Jha.

ADITYA MANI JHA  26th Apr 2014

Saurabh Netravalkar (left) with Australian fast bowling legend Glenn McGrath

n Saurabh Netravalkar's University Cricket Challenge (UCC) page from March last year, two entries caught my eye immediately. My biggest dream: To become an international cricketer or a game developer. If not a cricketer, I'd be a: Researcher (Technology). God knows it's difficult enough to make it as a professional cricketer in this country, what with the Grand Canyon-sized difference between an international and a domestic cricketer's earnings, the nagging uncertainty and the fact that fear of failure is almost always amplified in professional sports.

Imagine trying to make it as a cricketer and an engineer in India, where engineering aspirants sometimes try and sneak in an hour of playing (or watching) cricket, only to be told off and sent back to swotting. For that's exactly what 23-year-old Netravalkar has done; a former U-19 India player, he made his first-class debut for Mumbai earlier this year. His height (he stands six feet tall) and left-arm bowling action have already drawn comparisons with Zaheer Khan. Having completed his engineering course last year (computer science), Netravalkar has now developed (along with his classmates Aaswad Satpute and Sheetal Pandrekar) a one-stop manager app for cricketers called CricDecode. It made its Google Play Store debut this year, and was also featured on Cricinfo. And while all of this is fascinating, what I was most curious about was how Netravalkar survived the Indian secondary school boiler room while playing international age-group cricket.

"By far the most hectic year for me was the 12th standard. Bunking classes, clashing practices, matches with exams, college practicals, personal studies... it was very heavy, but I used to take it as a challenge. All these activities made me a very good time and energy manager."

Yes, but what about the big bad engineering entrance examinations? And after that, the dreaded first year of engineering college? For the uninitiated, your first year in an Indian engineering college can either make your fortune or break you into small, easily digestible bits of mediocrity. The simple, immutable reason is this: it is no longer kosher to frown upon self-awareness. You're expected to have a ballpark idea of what you want to do with your life. The very air demands a plan from you, or at least the semblance of one. Woe betide the ambiguous, the equivocal, before they infect us with their freedom, say the masses. Even Netravalkar, who had been juggling studies and cricket for years already, found it tough to multi-task to the extent that was required of him.

"The first year of engineering was really difficult, because during the first semester, I went away to play the U-19 World Cup in New Zealand. In fact, I met (the former India fast bowler) Javagal Srinath, who was a match referee for one of our games; he encouraged me to complete my studies. I managed to appear for only two papers (Maths and Physics) out of six. I made up for this in the second semester, enrolling for 10 subjects at a stretch. In fact every odd semester was peak time for the cricket season. So, I used to play an inter-state match for four days and follow it up with an examination. I always had my laptop besides me even on cricketing tours."

One senses that Netravalkar is a different make of cricketer; harder, better, faster, stronger and far too much the modern 20-something to put all his eggs in one basket.We ought to be grateful for Netravalkar, and not just because he can hurl a ball with greater ferocity than most of us.

t least Netravalkar had the support structure of his friends, and as he told me, helpful professors as well, who would look the other way when confronted with his low attendance. Not every aspiring cricketer in India — and there are millions, by all accounts — has that kind of luxury. Both Srinath and his Karnataka mate Anil Kumble were trivia magnets back in the '90s. Do you know which Indian cricketers are also qualified software engineers? With the dotcom bubble still years from being pricked, we were thrown into a tizzy at the sight of these mild-mannered Bangalorean engineers; they were neighbours' envy and mothers' pride and what's more, they could also make Brian Lara and Steve Waugh look stupid. Kumble's spectacles and his geeky off-field demeanour complemented the naked aggression he oozed on the field. They didn't need invent Hotmail, but as good middle-class Indian boys, we worshipped them because they Finished. Their. Education.

And yet, one senses that Netravalkar is a different make of cricketer; harder, better, faster, stronger and far too much the modern 20-something to put all his eggs in one basket. CricDecode currently has about 1,000 users, not bad for an oven-fresh niche product. While it manages individual careers right now (graphs, charts, personalised match scenarios and filtered career statistics at your fingertips), Netravalkar and his classmates want to make a version for coaches; a logical progression and a well-timed one, since Indian coaches are often accused of not being in touch with the times. On the whole, the app isn't rocket science, concept-wise, but it is a product that definitely plugs a gap.

He might have been playing for the country for years now (skittling Sri Lanka U-19s out for 50, on one occasion; our man took five wickets), but make no mistake, his technological ambitions are very real. The question to be asked here isn't why, but why not? Kumar Sangakkara is a better writer and orator than perhaps any other professional athlete alive, the circumference of Ed Smith's skull is still a matter of conjecture, Dirk Nannes plays the saxophone and even Unmukt Chand is a serial memoirist, we hear. We ought to be grateful for Netravalkar, and not just because he can hurl a ball with greater ferocity than most of us.

"If the education system could be a little more accommodating with respect to attendance, exams and extra classes for sportsman, then managing both academics and sports would be a lot easier. It would encourage sportspersons to complete their education and encourage parents to support children who aspire to make a career in sports."

To reiterate: neighbours' envy, mothers' pride.


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