ICC Women’s T20 World Cup: Spinning glory from the city of Taj
Poonam Yadav’s two-room home in Agra’s Idgah Junction colony looks just like railway colony houses look across the country. Paint peeling off yellow walls, a charpai and two small cars parked under an asbestos roof in front. The paneled, wooden door has old-time iron shackles. The house cat, Shilpi, stands guard.
There’s just one hint that the spinner leading the list of wicket-takers at the Women’s T20 World Cup in Australia lives here—there are two cement pitches next to the house.
Inside, Munni Devi is glued to the TV, watching India’s group league match against Sri Lanka. India are bowling, and she doesn’t want to miss a single delivery.
“She will come on to bowl any time now,” she says about her daughter.
A jumble of wires runs across the wall that has a collage of photos that capture Yadav’s growing years. A rundown cupboard is stacked with her trophies. The Arjuna Award she got last August finds its place on a low wooden table in the corner of the living room. Through an open door, you can see the backyard where Devi grows coriander, spinach, garlic, tomatoes and onions.
Sri Lanka’s Shashikala Siriwardene lifts Yadav over her head for a boundary and Devi starts wringing her hands as Shilpi makes a quiet entrance and curls up at her feet. Not to worry—that boundary is an anomaly; Yadav is having her usual day on the field, which means batters are struggling against her.
“They know it’s futile to attack her. Why take that risk? It’s better to defend against her and go after the others,” says Manoj Kushwaha, Yadav’s first coach, who has come to check on auntyji.
Devi is convinced her daughter will prise out at least one wicket. A catch goes up in the 19th over and Devi’s hands automatically fold in a quiet prayer. It lands safely. Two balls later, captain Harmanpreet Kaur catches Nilakshi de Silva off Yadav. Devi flashes a restrained smile. She is honest in admitting not knowing much about cricket, or for that matter how Yadav’s interest in the game took a quantum leap while juggling studies after her father was transferred here in 2007 from Gujarat. The family is originally from UP’s Mainpuri.
“I didn’t even know how this happened,” she says. “To me she was a kid who was playing cricket, hockey and a few other sports at school. That’s when we came to Agra. Here, the other girls pleaded with me to let her play cricket. But I said no,” Devi says sheepishly.
“Hamaare yahan ladkiyon ko padane ke liye bohut himmat chahiye, aur yeh to cricket hai. Kehne walen to keh hi dete the (It takes a lot of courage to send our daughters to school. Cricket is taking it to another level. People don’t mince words).”
“Himmat and “log kya kahenge” are recurrent themes when women decide to wear their hair short and pick up a sport here in UP, but Agra has been a glowing aberration, right from the time Hemlata Kala made her India debut as a fearless stroke maker back in 1999. The next woman from the city to make the national squad was left-arm spinner Priti Dimri in 2006. In the current team playing in Australia, there are two women from Agra—Yadav, 28, and 22-year-old all-rounder Deepti Sharma.
The Agra Gang
At the Thrive Cricket Academy in the Shamshabad area of Agra—a 20-minute drive from Yadav’s house—cricketers of all ages trickle in by four in the evening. They run up to ‘coach sir’—Kushwaha—touch his feet, stretch and start running laps of the ground. Twelve of the cricketers are girls; the youngest is just six, the oldest, 15. They mean business. Fifteen-year-old Rekha lives in Tapara village, 16 km from Agra. She is home-schooled, and she cycles twice every day for her morning and evening coaching sessions. She works up good pace and occasionally gives the stare, especially if there is a boy facing her. Nandini, nine, is from Sora, a small village about 30km from Agra. Her father has rented a flat in the city to avoid the commute. Nandini idolises Yadav, and boasts to her friends that she trains at the same academy where the world’s best T20 spinner sweats it out twice a day.
“Agra has a background of women’s cricket, right from the time Hemlata Kala and Preeti Dimri played for India,” says Kushwaha, pausing to instruct a girl to wait for the ball to come on to her bat. “Kshama Singh and Rashi Kanojia, both from Agra, are currently in the ‘A’ team,” he continues. “We have never differentiated between boys and girls at our coaching centres.”
“Let’s put it this way; the kids here are more focused, more disciplined. This is why Agra always has the best women’s team in Uttar Pradesh,” says Kala, the city’s first India player. “They want to play as well as their idols. And in small towns, it’s easier to get noticed if you play well.”
Kala points out that the 2017 Women’s World Cup, where India reached the final but lost to England, added serious charge to an already growing interest.
“Parents realised the significance of playing for India,” she says. “Girls from distant villages are coming to small towns to try out their luck. That’s so heartening to see considering the difficulties I had to face when cricket was administered by Women’s Cricket Association of India (it was later was taken over by the BCCI). Poonam too found it tough. But it’s easier now. The competition is still growing. That is encouraging parents to dream that even their daughters can play for India.”
The Sharma family is one such example. Youngest of five brothers and two sisters, Sharma took the plunge at nine. “She always found excuses to watch me play,” recalls Sumit, Sharma’s brother and a former age-group pacer. “She just wouldn’t stay home and would always follow me to the ground. So one day I just took her to where I trained at the Ekalavya Stadium. Asked to toss back a ball, she picked it up and broke one stump with a sharp throw from quite a distance.”
Kala, who was at the ground as well, saw that and asked Sumit about the ‘boy’. “I don’t think anyone throws the ball better than Deepti in this Indian team. I told Sumit that she would play for India one day, but didn’t know it would happen so soon. She loves cricket, and just kept on batting at nets. That is something I always remember about her,” says Kala.
Under the guidance of Kala and former India batter Rita Dey, Sharma made steady strides, but Sumit, an MBA, wasn’t content. He left his job in Ghaziabad to return and set up nets close to their house. That has now grown into a full-fledged academy.
“I could come home only on Saturday and left Sunday evenings,” Sumit says. She wasn’t playing well. But I had made up my mind that she would have to play for India. And it never really bothered us that a girl from our family was playing cricket.”
Education is held in high esteem in the Sharma family. Sharma’s father, Bhagwan, is a retired railways supervisor; mother Sushila is a retired principal at a government school. One of her brothers is an architect, the other an engineer from IIT Roorkie. But Sharma had her way.
Like Yadav, here too a mother played a telling role in pushing her daughter to break barriers. After scoring 188, the third highest score in women’s ODIs, against Ireland during a record 320-run opening stand with Punam Raut in 2017, Sharma dedicated it to her mother.
“I didn’t consider myself blessed till I had a daughter,” says Sushila. “She is an old soul, not bothered about high end smart phones. A regular phone was good enough for her. If it was not cricket, she wouldn’t watch TV at all.
“And she could never stay still. If Sumit went to play, she too would jump the fence and follow him to the ground. I let her find her way. Now when I see her play and win for India, I can’t tell you how proud I feel. Not just Deepti, every girl in that team makes me proud.”
Yadav wasn’t that lucky in the beginning. Agra had opened up a window of opportunities but her family took time to let her choose a career for herself.
“The taunts kept coming,” says Devi. “At first, no one from the family supported her. I felt since people are against it, let’s not go ahead with this. I told her to study and forget cricket. But Poonam said ‘no, I will study and play cricket too. I promise I will pass my exams but let me play as well. Don’t worry what people are saying. Have faith in me.’
“Mujhe bhi hausla huwa ke meri beti Itna himmat de rahi hai (her confidence gave me courage). Poonam’s papa too relented. I told him ‘You don’t have to hear the taunts, I have to.’ My father-in-law too was dead against it. He used to ask why Poonam used to return well after evening. People didn’t know then so I won’t blame him. Even I didn’t know. I used to say ‘jo bhi hai, uska naseeb hai (She will get what she is destined for).’ But I was also worried. I wanted her to do well. I had to deal with my own demons. If the child does well, the father is appreciated. But if he goes astray, the mother is to blame. People will say the mother didn’t pay attention. But I stood by her. People said what they had to but I didn’t respond.”
This being a small town, marriage was always one discussion away. The first time the topic was broached, Kala had to come to Yadav’s rescue.
“Poonam was around 21 when her parents thought about marrying her off,” says Kala. “She was worried and asked me to convince her parents. She was just about to get her job in the Indian Railways. I went to their house and pleaded them not to get her married. I told them to consider that option only after two years. That gave her some time to establish herself.”
Yadav backed up her words with action. Kushwaha remembers the girl who used to lug around her kit bag on her cycle all day, reaching the stadium by six in the morning, followed by school and then again back to the ground at three in the afternoon. In a few years, she was travelling in a scooter. Yadav’s love for the game can be measured from the way she chose houses. When she was eligible to get a quarter by virtue of her job in the railways, she picked the vacant one beside Kala’s residence at the railway colony. The new apartment she has bought is just 100 metres away from Kushwaha’s Thrive Academy. “She says she needs to see the ground from her apartment,” said Kushwaha with a grin. “We have water-logging issues during monsoon so she has prepared two concrete pitches adjacent to her house.”
A creature of training, Yadav is committed to workouts at oddest hours. Kushwaha vividly recalls a call the day Yadav landed in Agra after a 13-hour flight from London last year. “She had gone to London for just a day. But within two hours of landing, Poonam was back at the nets. I asked her to take a break, keeping in mind the jetlag. But she was adamant. Training ethics like this make champions.”
Yadav’s greatest challenge however was to switch to leg-spin from medium pace. “When Poonam came to Agra in 2007, our coach was MAK Afghani,” says Kushwaha. “Poonam was bowling medium pace then. But Afghani sir saw her and told her to bowl leg spin because of her short stature. She was the under-19 captain of UP when they became champions. It’s not easy to become a spinner from a pacer. But she went through all the steps diligently.”
And she got better with time. Yadav developed a mean googly but her best delivery remains the loopy leg-break that had Australia and New Zealand guessing in the league phase of the T20 World Cup.
“She bowled the first over pretty regulation as a leg-spinner then slowed it up immensely after that,” said Alyssa Healy after Australia’s defeat to India, fashioned by Yadav’s haul of 4/19. “We probably didn’t adapt well enough. We don’t get leg-spinners coming down at 60kph very often and she’s incredibly skillful.”
“As a spinner half the job is done if you lure the batsman into stepping out,” says Kushwaha. “Hard hitters are rare in women’s cricket which is why slower balls are so deceptive. She has turned her height into her strength by flighting the ball.”
India has crushed Sri Lanka. A neighbourhood boy barges in and says ‘Poonam bua Jeet gayi hai’. Devi looks content. “She used to always say ‘Dil mat chota karo. Sab sahi hoga.’ Now no one says anything. Everyone congratulates me. She hasn’t changed one bit despite her success. The only downside is I get to see very little of her now. But that’s how it is I guess.”