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'More job opportunities in cricket will increase women's participation'
Subash Jayaraman: Could you tell us briefly how your cricket career began, what got you into it, and what motivated you to stick with it?
Snehal Pradhan: I was always fond of cricket. My family has memories of me watching a match on TV and then picking up whatever is in my hand and using it as a bat and playing around the house. I would always be playing with the boys, either in school or where we lived in Pune, playing gully cricket with them. I played a lot of sports as a kid.
My grandmother introduced me to Shubhangi Kulkarni, who was a former India captain. She led me to where the Maharashtra state girls practised in Pune. I was in the eighth standard when I started practising cricket with the Maharashtra team. The next year, I represented Maharashtra Under-16 and U-19. My grandmother has been my biggest support in the family and she is the one who put me on the path.
SJ: Did you have any cricketing role models, male or female, growing up?
SP: Growing up, among males I admired all bowlers, especially [Glenn] McGrath. But it was just a distant admiration. When I first saw Jhulan Goswami bowl, that was when I got really excited. She has been my role model for a long time. I was in my 10th standard when she made her debut. I watched her play in the home series against England, I watched it on TV. She took nine wickets in five matches. I was really impressed by her bowling. It got stuck in my mind like a dream that one day I would like to open the bowling with Jhulan Goswami.
SJ: You have been a part of the set-up, you and Jhulan. Achieving your dream, from watching her on TV and then sharing the field. What was that like?
SP: That was a big kick. My first tour, for the Asia Cup - there I did actually share the new ball with Jhulan Goswami. That was a wow moment. During that tournament, she reached 100 ODI wickets. Being there was so amazing. I remember we took a Sri Lankan 100-rupee note and the entire team signed it. I was really honoured to be a part of that. We presented it to her. It was a very big thrill.
SJ: You played for three years and then in 2011, you were reported for a suspected illegal bowling action. That must have been quite disappointing for you. What were the circumstances surrounding that?
SP: In terms of the circumstances, as to why it happened - my bowling action has somehow been catching people's eyes since my childhood. In one domestic match in the season previous to this [when she was called], the match referee told me there might be some problem with my bowling action. I worked on it. It was a very conscious effort to get things on track within whatever limitations are supposed to be there. I guess it was going pretty well, because whatever national camps I was attending, I was observing myself, coaches were observing me.
What happened in England was, it was a case of letting a lot of errors creep into my game over a period of time. It was something that I should have been more vigilant of. I have always had hyper-extended elbows, which makes it look like your arms are bent even when you straighten your arm. I have always had to keep a check on myself. So I suppose it was a period where I wasn't so vigilant and let errors creep into my game. After England, when I came back, the coaches back here in the academies saw my bowling and said this is not what I was bowling six months ago. I basically take full responsibility for that. The fact that it happened was one of the biggest regrets of my life. I was getting opportunities in the XI regularly. So it was disappointing.
SJ: Was it any particular delivery, or was every single delivery that you bowled under question?
SP: The action, in general.
In terms of mechanics, there are four or five things that come into it. Your body strength is a key factor. If you are naturally strong enough, you don't need to put in that extra effort to bowl at the pace that you usually do. I have always been of a frail constitution. If my strength level goes down, I have noticed that these kinds of problems creep in. Secondly, technical stuff like head position, trying to bowl a particular kind of delivery - I have noticed that the problems show up in incoming deliveries than in outgoing deliveries. The hand comes closer to the head than maybe a slightly more round arm-ish position. So those were also things that I focused on later to keep things in check.
SJ: You were reported for an illegal action in England in June 2011. What were the senior players in the squad, the team management and everybody in the support system - what was their reaction to it?
SP: It was really good. I remember I was rooming with Amita Sharma at that time. Being a pace bowler too, she could understand what I was going through. It was tough sitting out the remaining matches, not contributing. She could see that that was hurting me. Amita Sharma, Jhulan Goswami, they were all supporting me. They told me that this is temporary, it is a phase I will get through. It has happened to people before. It will keep happening once in a while, I will get through it. There was a lot of support coming in.
SJ: What sort of remedial action did you have to go through? Eventually, after six months, your action was cleared and considered legal within the 15-degree tolerance level. What happened in the six months from the point you were reported to when you went to Perth for remedial work?
SP: Within three weeks after being reported, I had gone to Perth and got the analysis done. Few weeks after that, I got the reports saying that it was above the 15-degree level. The coaches here had to be satisfied that enough work was put in before I could be sent for another ICC review. What happened in that period was a lot of hard work, pretty much. A lot of frustration also, because the season was starting in October-November. I wasn't bowling in domestic matches. I was playing as a batsman in the state matches. Side by side with regular on-season preparations, I was constantly working on my bowling, constantly watched by coaches. A lot of hard work and introspection, a lot of frustration also, as to whether things are on the right track. "Is this the right way to bowl? Will this get me back to bowling with the same pace and movement that I had before?" A lot of trial and error as to what works and what doesn't.
Finally, we found a formula that we were happy with in terms of the cleanness of the action as well as the result of how I was bowling the ball - accuracy and pace-wise. Once that was done, the coaches in India reviewed that and they were also satisfied with my progress.
SJ: In that six-month period, were there any international players - male or female - that you got into discussions with to understand the processes of what you have to go through? It is not just the biomechanics side of it, but the emotional side of it too. Was there anybody that provided guidance to you at that time, who had gone through a similar process?
SP: Not directly, but during that time I did a lot of reading about other people who had faced this process. Big names like Muttiah Muralitharan, who went through the same process, and Shoaib Akhtar. In women's cricket, Jenny Gunn's case was big - something that showed me that there was hope. She has gotten reported and gotten cleared and still came back bowling and keeps taking wickets. I could take heart from those cases. I wasn't in touch with any international players besides the ones I knew. Jhulan Goswami was supporting me, keeping tabs on my progress, finding out what the situation was. She was also definitely hoping that I get back on track fast.
SJ That was Feburary 2012, when you were cleared. It has been two years. Do you believe that your pace and movement are back to where you were prior to that? Or have you had to sacrifice something to get the action clean?
SP: I think I am back. I think there were areas that I worked on after that to compensate for what I lost in terms of strength. Especially after the way I bowled this season, it was big improvement. There are a lot of aspects of my bowling that I was really happy about this season. The last season, it was a very tentative thing, I was trying to get back to competitive cricket in matches. They were the first few competitive matches after being cleared, so confidence was here and there. "Will it be okay? Will I be able to bowl right?" I was almost paranoid, checking videos after matches and checking how the action is coming and stuff like that. In the 2012-13 season, in my second match I picked up four wickets against Punjab. That gave me a lot of confidence going into the rest of the season. In the 2013-14 season, I had a pretty good run with the ball. I think, in terms of pace and movement, I was back to what I was bowling previously, and in terms of the action being clean as well. In that respect, I was happy.
SJ: You are not part of the Indian squad just yet. I am assuming that these issues had a direct impact on your not being selected. Do you believe that you are knocking on the doors right now?
SP: Those issues will always have an impact on selection as long as the suspensions were there. In February the suspension was removed, and in March I led the Board President's XI against the visiting Australian team. This year I was part of the India A squad that played against the visiting Sri Lankan team. In the view of the selectors, I am there or thereabouts. I was disappointed this season that I could not produce the final burst that I needed to push to the next level with a big performance.
SJ: While you and other players are awaiting your turn to be picked for the Indian squad, what is it that you do to stay in shape? What is your practice regimen? Who sponsors it? Do you practise with other members, do you practise on your own?
SP: In terms of who looks after it, who sponsors it financially, there are many players in India who are recruited by Indian Railways. I am working with Western Railways under their sports quota, where we get a government job and time off work for training and practice. It's good. We can say that we are semi-professionals in that respect. I train in Mumbai. You can train with anyone you want throughout the year. During camps, the whole squad will train together. I train in an academy in Bandra called Sanjeevani Cricket Academy. The head coach is Mr Satish Sawant. I am the only girl in the academy. It is fun, training with the boys.
SJ: Let's talk about where the Indian team is in the global women's game. India has produced some fabulous cricketers. Over the years, they have fallen behind teams like England, Australia and New Zealand. What do you think has happened?
SP: It is difficult to pinpoint any one factor. As a player, I would always take responsibility. I have been a part of those sides that have lost to Australia and England on multiple occasions. It is true that India has fallen behind in terms of ranking. There are countries that are rapidly improving, like West Indies. India hasn't improved, very honestly. I am sure all the players will need to take personal responsibility for that. We need to step up, in our training, in our fitness and fielding - which is an area that we are generally lacking as compared to other teams.
SJ: The BCCI has taken over the running of women's cricket also recently. There has to be systemic responsibility as well for the improvement of the game? For example, the English and Australian players, they have been given professional contracts. What do you think needs to be improved or changed to make sure the Indian women's team is doing as well as they could?
SP: I think the contracts that have come in the other countries, almost all countries, even Pakistan, England and Australia - it is really fantastic. Whether India will reach that much of professionalism, I don't know. Because in England, the girls, until very recently, were semi-professional. It is the officials' call. It is the BCCI's call. If it happens, we would definitely love it, nobody is going to complain. Systemically, as far as it goes, the one thing that all these boards have in common is the vision for their team being the best in the world. I have spoken to players in England and Australia, that is what exists there. That is common from top to bottom - from players to administrators. That is something that we should have here.
SJ: So you are saying that sort of vision is lacking in the Indian set-up?
SP: I can only speak for the players. I cannot speak for the administrators. I know a lot of players who think about getting into the Indian cricket team, which is so difficult because of the amount of talent in India. Once you are there, the vision needs to expand to being world-beaters. That is something that the players need to develop. Having a system in place, having a vision in place, having a clear set of people that you are going to achieve the vision with, both players and administrators, will be really helpful.
SJ: What are some of the things that you would like to see in terms of the attitude of society to women athletes?
SP: It is a lot better [than earlier]. With my family itself, I was lucky that I got almost total support. But it is still strange to be a woman sportsperson. I will be travelling around Mumbai and I will see boys carrying their kits, wearing whites, nobody gives them a second glance. But when I am wearing my whites and carrying my kit and getting into a local train, all the women, carrying their purses and laptops, think, "Where did she come from?"
This is true for sports in general, not just women's sport - when guys play sports their parents want them to quit the sport and start studying seriously because they don't believe that that sport has enough backing to get them a livelihood in the future. That is basically the concern of all parents. In that respect, more opportunities for women in cricket would be amazing. Like, the Indian Railways is amazing in terms of how many women cricketers they employ. I think Diana Edulji, who was the former Indian captain, is now a Western Railways sports officer. She has a big role in that. It will be really great if there are more opportunities for women, beyond the Railways also. We have a few players who are employed with Air India. Beyond those two, there are hardly other job opportunities for women cricketers. If there were more job opportunities for women in cricket, I think more parents will be willing to send their girls to the game knowing that if she is good enough, she will get a job and she can gain a livelihood from the game.
SJ: I saw that you have a blog, which you haven't updated in a couple of months. What are your interests beyond cricket?
SP: Writing is something that has really interested me. I have started writing a couple of blogs about cricket, and a blog not about cricket. I like to focus on women's cricket, although I like to write about cricket in general. Because women's cricket in India has almost no internet or published presence. Even beyond my cricketing days, I would like to contribute to increasing the women's cricket content on the internet. It is a way that I hope to stay connected to the game throughout my life. Beyond that, I am involved in a spiritual organisation that helps improve the quality of people's lives.
SJ: The Indian squad for the World Twenty20 and the three practice T20s is leaving for Bangladesh and you are not part of it. What do you see as your future with the team?
SP: I don't believe any doors are closed. I know that I put in a good performance in the India A match against Sri Lanka. As long as my performance keeps backing that up, my hopes of being back in the Indian team are definitely not over. It is one of my motivating factors to keep playing. Most importantly, I just want to keep enjoying the game. After a lot of trial and error, I have realised that I play my best when I really enjoy my game. And, reminding myself that it is only a lucky few that get the chances that I have, the skills that God has blessed me with. So I need to make the most of them in whatever time I have.
Keywords: Women's cricket
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Subash's introduction to cricket began with enduring sledging from his brothers during their many backyard cricket sessions. His fascination with the game took hold in 1983, but mostly it was the cricket commentary over All India Radio, about the water-tight front-foot defence of Gavaskar that did it. @thecricketcouch