Behera, a Maryland high school senior who earned the US T20I cap last week, was coached by former India Under-19 and Punjab Ranji star Sunny Sohal.
Ritwik Behera fell in love with cricket in the spring of 2011, during the six-week-long World Cup held in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Along with his older brother Rasesh, he stayed up late or got up early to watch the matches played more than 8,000 miles and multiple time zones away.
From the couch of their Clarksburg, MD, home, their father Rasananda, an information technology entrepreneur, explained the nuances of the game and its myriad rules to his two sons, then aged 8 and 11.
Smitten by the experience, the Behera boys decided to try their hands at cricket. Rasananda taught the fundamentals of the game to his two sons at the lone cricket field of the Germantown Soccerplex, overlooking the picturesque Sugarloaf Mountain.
READ: Indian Americans Ritwik Behera and Yasir Saeed Mohammad make US T20I debut (December 22, 2021)
Roughly 10 and a half years later, Ritwik would go on to don his country’s colors in the first Dafabet Men’s T20 International against the visiting Ireland. He was one of the only two U.S.-born players on the American team that split the two-match series with the Irish, a Test nation that is ranked 17 places above the United States. The other was fellow debutant Yasir Mohammad.
Those who have followed Behera’s fledgling career say that they were surprised at the teenager’s quick rise to the top.
“He has the talent, and he did all the hard work,” said Sunny Sohal, Behera’s coach of six years.
Sohal, a former India Under-19, Punjab, Kings XI Punjab and Royal Challengers Bangalore batsman who has himself played for the United States in three T20 internationals, told the American Bazaar that Behera is now perfectly positioned to take his game to the next level.
“The selection will give him a boost and it will motivate him to work harder,” said Sohal.
Behera’s performance with the bat in the debut series was far from impressive. He was out for a fourth ball duck in the first match that the United States won. In the series-leveling second match, a day-night affair, he scored a labored 16 off 23.
However, the teenager took four catches, two in each match, all in the deep. In the second match, he also bowled a tight over of offspin, conceding only 5 runs.
But Sohal shrugged off Behera’s struggles with the bat. If he works hard, sky is the limit, the coach said.
Sohal first began coaching Behera when he was 12. It was the first time the youngster attended an organized cricket coaching session.
Later in 2019, when the former Punjab Ranji star — who was a teammate of Virat Kohli, Shikar Dhawan and Ajinkya Rahane on the India Under-19 squad — opened the Sunny Sohal Cricket Academy, Behara was one of the first to sign up.
Over the next two years, he played on the Academy team in various local leagues.
Behera’s rise to the top has been based on several standout performances in local tournaments.
Behera first announced his arrival as a 13-year-old, when he scored 86 in a senior Washington Cricket League match. In 2017, he hit a last ball six to win a match. In one National Youth Cricket League match in Bowie, in July 2019, the right hander scored 110 of 46 balls.
From there, he never looked back.
In the newly launched Minor League Cricket, Behera played for DC Hawks, along with his brother Rasesh and coach Sohal.
In March this year, Ritwik was selected to the Mid-Atlantic Zone squad, one of the eight teams that featured in the USA Cricket Men’s Under 19 National Championship. Three months later, in July, Behera was named to the 14-member Team USA Under 19 Squad announced for the ICC Men’s U19 Cricket World Cup qualification tournament.
(The tournament was later canceled due to Covid.)
Then came the U.S. T20I selection.
Behera was not part of the original squad that was named on December 10. He and Mohammad, who is also an Indian American, were named as replacements after a number of players were forced to sit out because of Covid.
Sohal praised the US selectors for picking Behera, Mohammad and 17-year-old wicket-keeper batsman Rahul Jariwala, among other youngsters.
“This is the right time to promote them,” the coach said. “They will work harder and will be more motivated to work harder.”
The United States first played a one day international in 2004 and a T20I in 2019. Most of the cricketers who have gone on to represent the country in these two formats so far have been players who were developed by the systems of cricketing powerhouses such as India, Pakistan, the West Indies and Sri Lanka. Behera is one of a handful of players produced by the nascent American system who have earned the US cap.
READ: Cricket is on a fast track in America: Tom Dunmore (September 20, 2021)
Sohal said Behera’s selection was a proud moment for his academy. “For me also, it is a big achievement,” he said. “Now there are many kids who can look up to our academy.”
He said the teenager had a practice session with him just before heading for Florida.
Ritwik Behera could not be contacted for this story, but his brother, Rasesh, said his family was thrilled by the teenager’s accomplishment. “[My parents] are very excited,” said Rasesh Behera.
Rasananda and Sasmita are immigrants from the eastern Indian state of Odisha. Sasmita is a preschool teacher in Potomac, MD.
Rasesh Behera said his brother’s goal, apart from representing the United States, is to “play franchise cricket all over the world.”
However, currently Ritwik is focused on his undergrad education. The Poolesville High School senior has offers from multiple universities, including the University of Maryland College Park. Ritwik is also exploring college options in England, which has excellent cricket infrastructure, as well.
Born in in Rockville, MD, just outside of Washington, DC, on November 10, 2003, Ritwik attended William B. Gibbs, Jr. Elementary School and Roberto Clemente Middle School, both in Germantown, MD.
U.S. national team player Sunny Sohal opens cricket academy in Washington area (December 31, 2019)
Maryland Youth Cricket Association honors 75 cricketers (January 6, 2019)