How Team USA became the unexpected darlings of the ICC T20 World Cup 2024

How did a team of a motley crew of cricketers become world beaters in two weeks? Al Jazeera asks the team USA coach.

USA have qualified for the Super Eight round of the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup 2024 in their first appearance at the tournament [Tony Gutierrez/AP]By Melinda FarrellPublished On 17 Jun 202417 Jun 2024

When USA opened the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup 2024 with a seven-wicket win over Canada on June 1, the result was met with a metaphorical warm applause.

Five days later, their thrilling super-over win against Pakistan made cricket fans and experts sit up and take note. It was a moment that turned Group A – and the tournament – on its head.

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When cricket’s powerhouse India scraped past them in New York the following week, USA were still alive in the tournament and favourites to qualify for the Super Eights – a feat they later achieved thanks to a washed-out match against Ireland.

As with most underdog stories, USA’s progression was received by rousing cheers around the world.

In some ways, it is fitting that the USA squad is representative of a multicultural country defined by the tales of immigrants chasing the fabled American dream.

Some of the players were born in the United States.

Others, born overseas, tasted domestic success in their countries of birth and even dreamt of playing international cricket until they seemingly failed and all but gave up.

This group of cricketers draws its experience from playing in India, Pakistan, the Caribbean, South Africa and New Zealand.

An Australian coach, who linked up with them two weeks ahead of the tournament, has led them on this unprecedented run where, against the most formidable odds, they have made it past the first round in their first major international tournament.

But that’s not how the story began.

It began with a combination of timing, luck and shrewdness.

The motley crew that became world beaters

Shortly after USA Cricket (USAC) was granted one-day international (ODI) status by the ICC in 2019, the waiting period for players to qualify for associate countries dropped from five years to three.

USAC immediately went on a recruitment drive to attract talent from across the globe.

Several players heeded the call, while others were scouted from domestic competitions within the country.

Former New Zealand star Corey Anderson, who has a wealth of T20 franchise experience, became eligible to represent USA in 2023.

It was also the year that Harmeet Singh joined the team USA bandwagon. The Mumbai-raised all-rounder shone for India in two ICC Under-19 World Cups and played in the Indian Premier League (IPL) until he was dragged into a damaging fixing scandal, only to be cleared of any wrongdoing. It was enough to stagnate his career but – unwilling to give up – Harmeet moved to the US during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shayan Jahangir was a promising young batter growing up in Karachi who, at one point, represented Pakistan at the under-19 level. He plied his trade in the US domestic leagues during the cricket off-season period in Pakistan before moving permanently to Houston in 2018.

Former South African domestic cricket star Shadley van Schalkwyk made Seattle his home after being unable to break into the Proteas’ side despite taking almost 500 wickets and scoring more than 4,000 runs across formats in the domestic system.

Aaron Jones, USA’s hero with the bat in the tournament thus far, was born in Queens to Bajan parents and represented Barbados until a few years ago.

Steven Taylor, who hails from Florida, has been a key member of team USA since 2019 but once represented Jamaica.

Despite the players’ vastly diverse backgrounds, their head coach Stuart Law – who was appointed in April and took charge in May – emphasises that this is very much a US team.

“These kids came here from other parts of the world for a better life,” Law told Al Jazeera shortly after USA sealed their trip to the Caribbean, where all Super Eights and knockout matches will be played.

“Whether they came here for their children’s education, or their own, not many came purely to play cricket.”

Aaron Jones hit the winning runs in USA’s win over Canada at Grand Prairie Stadium on June 1 [Julio Cortez/AP]

How to ‘Americanfy’ cricket

Law insists that while the players may have been lucky that their arrival in the US coincided with cricket’s emergence in the country, they are united in their cause to play as team USA.

“We have got to try and ‘Americanfy’ this whole cricket thing here in the States,” he adds.

“We need to play aggressive, attractive-looking cricket to make sure that people sit back and go: You know what, these kids are up for a fight.”

The 55-year-old coach, who has been at the helm of several international teams, says team USA’s motto of “fearless but intelligent cricket” suits most of the players.

“They are trying to get better all the time, trying to play the way [they] will be successful in not only winning, but also putting the game of cricket under a spotlight.

The players, with their individual experiences in other countries, have a lack of awe while playing World Cup matches, which was wonderfully demonstrated by their nerve-jangling victory over 2009 champions Pakistan.

Law recounts one of several stories about his players: “Shayan came up to me before the World Cup and said, ‘Coach, we can beat Pakistan!’ I think that belief filtered through to each one of us and we showed it. The belief was there to go and execute under immense pressure, in front of a full house and screaming fans in Dallas.”

The former Australian international cricketer says he has been taken aback by the squad’s ability to be “cool and calm” under pressure.

“They just stand up and fight against teams that we have no right to actually be on the same park as – as some people think – yet we find a way to get the job done.”

Law believes that Anderson, a veteran of three World Cups for New Zealand, has played a vital role in keeping players calm on the pitch.

He describes Monank Patel – who captained the side for the first two matches before sustaining a shoulder injury – as a deep thinker. And Jones – who led the side against India – has impressed Law with his cool-headedness and forthrightness. Both leaders are fiercely competitive.

USA fans thronged the Nassau County Stadium in New York for their team’s match against India [Timothy A Clary/AFP]

Saurabh Netravalkar: From ‘rocket scientist’ to cult hero

The biggest cult hero, by far, is Saurabh Netravalkar – the Mumbai-born left-arm quick who successfully defended 18 runs in the super over against Pakistan. Netravalkar’s heroics, combined with his day job as a principal engineer for tech company Oracle, spawned an online frenzy and made him an overnight hero.

Netravalkar played alongside Harmeet at the ICC Under-19 World Cup in 2010, and was India’s leading wicket-taker in a tournament featuring the Australian trio of Mitchell Marsh, Josh Hazelwood and Adam Zampa, as well as England’s Ben Stokes.

However, by 2015, Netravalkar had relinquished the hope of establishing himself at the senior level and packed up his bags to study computer science in New York.

Law calls Netravalkar a “rocket scientist” compared with the rest of the squad.

“He’s very structured and disciplined, works out his plans in the nets and then asks questions.

“For a guy who doesn’t bowl as fast as some others, he’s got fantastic skills which get batsmen in a lot of trouble. His execution in that super over [against Pakistan] was outstanding.”

The USA coach reveals how the 32-year-old came up to him after the game and said: “Coach, thank you so much for trusting me.”

“I said, ‘Mate, I knew you could do it. You show that in the nets all the time, you show it in the middle. It was a no-brainer.’”

While the USA players are all aged between 29 and 36, they are still young in international cricket – men who have waited a long time for a lucky break or received a second chance. And Law believes more USA cult heroes will surface during the Super Eight stage.

“Ali Khan is another one – he’s got pace, fire and passion,” Law reveals.

“Keep an eye on Harmeet Singh. He’s a warrior on the field. He’s skilful with the bat and with ball.”

The widely experienced coach says the band of brothers assembled under the USA flag are going to put up a stiff fight in the rest of the tournament.

“We are not going to go down without a fight.”

Saurabh Nethralvakar (right) dismissed India’s top batters Virat Kohli (left) and Rohit Sharma in their Group A match [Adam Hunger/AP]

Source: Al Jazeera