T20 WORLD CUP 2024

Saurabh Netravalkar Interview: Filing for patents to winning Super Overs

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Netravalkar has become the toast of the cricket community
Netravalkar has become the toast of the cricket community © Getty

Saurabh Netravalkar has set social media abuzz after his phenomenal outing with the ball against Pakistan. In a freewheeling chat, the fast bowler talks about his dual avatar as a seasoned international cricketer and an IT professional in a Fortune 100 company. His thoughts on technology in cricket, pressures of adjusting between play associate and full members, meditation, and his own life at Oracle.

Excerpts

In India's game yesterday against Pakistan, a banner read 'I hope India doesn't have any engineers'. The social media attention around your Oracle job and engineering background has been unreal for the past few days. What do you make of the frenzy among people regarding that phase of your life?

Happy and grateful that people are supporting me with good wishes and love and good that people are connecting with that aspect of me as well. And if anybody gets inspired or if I fix it in a positive way, that's a win for me because somebody else can aspire to do the same.

People talk about AI Big Data, and its relevance to begin with our sport being such a numbers game. But few people know you are one of the pioneers of this in India in a way when you launched a performance analytics app called Great Decode. Take us through that journey.

I used to always maintain a cricket-related diary since my U19 days. I used to put down my performances and then I thought that international cricketers have access to their stats online and their own stats, but local cricketers who play club cricket or friendly games, that wasn't the case. And then, those days there used to be written scorebooks, and now there are a lot of apps and stuff. But at that time there used to be written scorebooks. So I thought, why not help local cricketers to also avail of that kind of analysis and statistics on how they can improve their own game. So that was the idea where you can have a digital diary after you play a game, you put in your own performance into the app. And that app makes kind of your own version of your stats profile. And you can see your own strengths or weaknesses in different visual representations like pie charts and graphs. So that was the simple idea behind that.

We worked for two years on it, I personally used it with a few guys in the Mumbai team. I started it with two other of my undergrad classmates. After graduating in 2013, I decided against entering the corporate world. I chose to focus fully on cricket. But I thought I'll need to do something to keep my skills up to date. And mobile app development was a hot topic at that time so I wanted to learn that. We learned that and did this. We actually participated in the startup accelerator in IIT Mumbai. So I used to go there and we'd started developing this in IIT Mumbai actually, it was in collaboration with Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And after one year the other two of my friends came for masters to the US. And I got picked in the Mumbai Ranji Trophy team, so then it became a little hard to sort of continue going because I was doing well for Mumbai as well. And I wanted to give my all on the field. The app is still there on the Android Play Store! Still usable (laughs).

That devastating spell of 6-9 in MLC and the one on Thursday against two very high-quality sides. You've been away from such high-quality cricket for over a decade. And it almost feels like you never left that high-performance environment that you found yourself in India. How challenging is it to sustain and summon that level of skill set?

I attribute it to my formative years because I used to bowl a lot in my childhood. I used to bowl around two hours in the nets in Mumbai always so those volumes have really helped. And I've played in high-pressure games in India under 15, under 17, under 19 and domestic cricket. Everything is so high pressure, that feeling like you say you'll never forget to swim or you'll never forget to ride a bicycle. So it's that skill is ingrained because I've done it a lot in my formative years. But what helped in the US is that obviously, I have my full-time job, which gives me that security as well that I can fully play this game for my passion not take it as a pressure situation. So that really helps.

Associate cricket taught us to handle different kinds of pressures because you have to do well with lack of resources, you need to find a place to train so that is a different kind of hurdle you learn to overcome. And in most associate tournaments, we have to play five games in seven or eight days. And then if you lose, it's done for the year. So, associate cricket is not easy by those standards, maybe not absolute skill-wise, but the lack of resources as well as your training on indoor surfaces.

There are a lot many swing bowlers who burst onto the scene. Keep swinging it for 3-4 years and then the swing dies down. What is your secret to swing the ball viciously both ways even at 32?

For me, I think it has been the opposite. In India I wasn't a very big swing bowler. I used to mostly seam the ball more and just focus on my accuracy. So my strength in India was also never my pace per se. It was always my accuracy. Towards the end of my stay in India in 2012-13 is when I developed the inswing by watching videos and some tutorials that Wasim Akram featured in. I saw Zaheer Khan bowl in the nets nearby, so I observed these few top bowlers and then I sort of developed it by practicing on my own. That was also I think one reason why I made my debut for Mumbai because I developed the ability to swing the ball into the right-hander. I think I developed it late. And because I worked individually a lot on developing it, I knew the process and the small things, I was kind of mature enough to know why it's happening. But as a child, if it's something natural to you, it's then hard if you lose it. I think that's an advantage because I learned it late. I know when it happens when it doesn't, and I do also have days when it doesn't swing, but then I know what my body's doing in two or three days, I come to know what's going on. So being more aware of yourself helped me.

Even full time cricketers from full member nations find it difficult to emulate the consistency that you're showing against these skilled players. So how do you seamlessly transition in both the avatars, your corporate and the athletic one?

Firstly, from myself, what is controllable in me is to smartly manage my time. So it's important to be aware of what is coming up. And same in the workspace as well as in the cricket space, and you make sure that you're peaking at the right time, you don't want to peak too early, you don't want to peak too late. I build up my cricket practice such that two weeks leading to the tournament, I slowly increase my workloads of bowling. But apart from that, I focus fully on fitness and fitness and in the office gym. So I'm always in. If a tournament is there, I make sure I try to push hard and work before I go for the tournament. So I try to balance my workload in that way.

And you're a big on meditation as well... do you think that alleviates the stress to keep fueling both of your avatars?

I'd actually say it's been transformative, very transformative, and everything that had happened during the day is now just like, a consequence, my focus is actually to grow more in yoga now. And everything else just takes care of itself. So I would say it's a miracle, it's very good to follow that path. I'm surprised of the asanas that I can do now and two years ago, if you see I wouldn't be able to touch my toes. I wouldn't have imagined myself doing a shirsasan or a headstand. And now not just that stand there are variations of it headstand with a twist and everything. So I'm doing advanced variations of it.

Talking about meditation, Zaheer Khan once said that when he used to bowl at his best, he used to feel like he's meditating on the field. Would you concur?

Yes, I do. And even when I wasn't meditating but was performing well, you felt that it was not you who was performing that action. Everything works the way you want it to. It's all in sync. That's like the flow state. I think good athletes call it the flow state. But I think when you're in that state, you're kind of like you're not doing it. It's some divine power of God working through you.

Does your engineering background make you think differently from other bowlers? Do you think of yourself as a problem solver on the field?

It's very important for me to be mentally on top because I am not a bowler who is extremely quick, or who can trouble the batsman with pure pace. I need to come up with tricks up my sleeve to outfox the batters with my field settings with my skills, otherwise, I would struggle to succeed at this level. So it's not even optional for me. And the way my brain is wired. Now I do think about strengths, weaknesses, what I can do, which ball what to bowl.

You need to keep reinventing yourself or keep coming up with new plans every time you bowl to a particular batsman because they know what you're doing. Now, if I bowl that same inswing again that I did at MLC it won't work this season, It might work but I have to disguise it well. So all those things are important, like how you play with the mind of the batsmen. I don't want to say much right now may be after the tournament. Because it'll be giving up whatever I'm thinking! (laughs)

Now on the flip side, how has cricket helped you excel at Oracle? What are some of the learnings that you might have practised in your corporate life as well?

Most essentially, every team sport teaches you teamwork. And corporate work is also teamwork. So it teaches you how to be in a team. How it's not all about individuals and how you can collaborate with each other effectively and how to deal with failure is the main thing, because in sport you will always fail more than you succeed. And you need to admit the fact that you're going to fail nine out of 10 times, but that one time you succeed that will make you big.

Academically, we have such high expectations of ourselves that one thinks I'm so educated, how can I make that mistake and tend to go too hard on oneself. You try to chase perfection in your first attempt. You don't have to be perfect in your first attempt. Do as you think the best way that time and get the feedback in a constructive way.

Two promotions in the past three years. Well, I mean, take us through that journey. Like, how have you excelled at Oracle as well.

I filed for a patent. It was an innovation algorithm that we had. I worked on it with one of my seniors. That was one of my earlier projects at Oracle and that patent got accepted. So that was a big achievement. The technology we invented gets you fast results for the word you're searching for. For example, if you type ORA, that word can be Oracle, that word can be coral. So how do we autocomplete that? How fast can you do that? How fast you can autocomplete our guess of the best word. That's called wildcard searching in technical terms, so it was a fast method of wildcard searching that we implemented. That was the first patent that I have right now. I have filed for another one as well. Waiting for it to be approved.

You might have been exposed to a lot of technology in cricket these days. In what facet of the game should technology make further inroads?

Smart balls and smart bats are still very nascent. So I hope that grows. That, obviously adds another dimension where you know, which part of the bat the batter plays from, the power in the stroke. Accordingly, you can plan the same with the ball, gauging how wobbly the seam is, that's also good feedback for coaches, especially for youngsters, when they're learning the basics, so data is always good. I think the more data you have, the more you can analyse. And the good part is what I've seen is data science, at least video and analysis wise the game has grown a lot. And you have lots of stats and lots of graphs, before every game and a good analyst can be the difference between a win and a loss because you have clear plans, clear weaknesses, if you can see patterns in the data.

The best thing would be to place sensors everywhere around your body and then see more and then you can bio-mechanically check which muscle is strong. For a fast bowler, are you gradually building up or if you're breaking momentum in your run-up, your body alignments. There are lots of things you can do. If you want to go deep, you can go very deep into technique.

You are a top-of-the-line international bowler and a top-notch IT professional. Six or seven years down the line can we expect you to wear an entrepreneur's hat and aim for a major breakthrough in the cricket technology space?

I don't know what I'm doing tomorrow (laughs) I'm in that mode, right now, I just want to be in the present right now. This is my love. The World Cup is my focus. I'm enjoying what I'm doing at work. I love to sing. I love to do a lot of things. We'll see what happens!

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