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Hard-working Shikha Pandey lives her dream

Flight Lieutenant Shikha Pandey receives the Chief of Air Staff commendation @IAF_MCC/Indian Air Force

Cricketer. Blogger. Air Force officer. Engineer. Astronaut. World Cup winner. Shikha Pandey aspired to be all of the above in one lifetime. So far, at 28, she has achieved four out of those six titles.

Following her childhood idols Sunita Williams and Kalpana Chawla into space might today be a distant dream, but she missed winning the World Cup by a narrow nine runs last month.

"Nothing is as bad as unfulfilled potential," Pandey says, reflecting on India's defeat to England in the Lord's final. "Sarah Taylor missed a stumping. Heather Knight, their best fielder, grassed a catch. Jenny Gunn dropped a sitter. When you get so many chances and yet you don't do it, it hurts. You realise that the 80% output doesn't correspond to the 100% input. But that is how it is."

Batting in the 47th over, with India needing another 14 to win, Pandey and Deepti Sharma took three runs off the first two balls, after which Pandey hit a short ball to point and started out for a single that wasn't there. She had to turn back halfway down the pitch and couldn't make it home, though the throw back to the keeper wasn't accurate.

"I could have done it for India," she muses. "Perhaps the pressure of playing in the final, perhaps, as my father said after the match [over the phone], I should have taken it easy."

A lot has happened in the three weeks since that dismissal and defeat. For one, her Twitter bio now contains a personal email contact in place of her jersey number. Days after the game, a photograph of her wearing her Indian Air Force uniform surfaced for the first time in the public domain. It accompanied a tweet from the IAF handle, congratulating Flight Lieutenant Shikha Pandey, the first female officer from the Services to represent the national cricket team, on being awarded the Chief of Air Staff commendation on her first day at work after the World Cup.

The adulation and increased media interest around the team appear to be ceaseless, but there's little indication that Pandey's objectivity will be clouded by it all. "I don't believe much in destiny," she says. "Whatever I've achieved in life till now, my hard work has got me to it."

When handed a plastic bat and ball as a six-year-old, Pandey didn't know much about the Indian women's team. The names of two female fast bowlers, however, weren't unfamiliar to her. Australia's Cathryn Fitzpatrick and Jhulan Goswami - the latter then an idol, now also a colleague and friend.

"To open the bowling with Jhulu di has been a dream come true, but to see her work so hard in the nets, even at 34, amazes me," Pandey says.

Goswami, who handed Pandey her India cap on debut, says the same about the younger bowler. "She's one of the most hard-working cricketers I've played alongside in my career. Whatever feedback I give her, Shikha will think it through and try to implement it to the best of her ability."

The two have played 45 international matches together, their seam-and-swing pairing most memorably twice in this World Cup - first to knock out New Zealand in the league phase and then Australia in the semi-final.

After going for 48 runs for two wickets in the first two games of the World Cup, Pandey was dropped for the next two. Against South Africa, she swung herself back into form with a three-for, following it up with the wicket of captain Suzie Bates off her first delivery in the next game.

"My bowling against New Zealand and Australia probably helped validate my belief I was doing justice to my selection in the side," Pandey says, having worked to move the ball both ways so that she didn't stagnate as a "unidimensional medium-pacer".

"The quality of a comeback tells you something about a sportsperson's temperament," India coach Tushar Arothe says. "Hers made me proud."

Arothe echoes what many of Pandey's coaches - past and present - have pointed to as being the key to her steady rise despite a late entry into competitive sport. "Her passion for the game is immense. She wants to contribute to the team in some way or the other." To Goswami, it is in Pandey's "drive for self-improvement" that her passion shines through.

Goswami is unlikely to continue playing till the next 50-over World Cup, and she believes Pandey's "sense of responsibility" could help her become the next leader of India's bowling attack, a role she briefly played at the World Cup Qualifiers earlier this year in Goswami's absence.

Mansi Joshi, the 24-year-old medium-pacer who made her debut during the Qualifiers and later replaced Pandey in the XI for those two World Cup games, recounts a piece of advice Pandey gave her before her debut.

"I'd been going for runs in our warm-up game against South Africa. Shikha di explained how important it is to have a plan B in place against batsmen when they go after us. That came good for me in the World Cup too."

Pandey's Twitter handle - @ShikhaShauny - reveals one of her role models in the game. "Growing up, I liked Javagal Srinath and Andrew Flintoff, but especially looked up to Pollock because he was a fast-bowling allrounder who could bat."

But more than Pollock, Srinath or Flintoff, she attributes her choice of being a medium-pacer to Sachin Tendulkar. When nine, she read in a magazine that Tendulkar's lack of height thwarted his aspirations of becoming a fast bowler. Four and a half feet tall then, she pledged to bowl quick some day.

Tendulkar was a precocious talent, Pollock a thoroughbred with fine cricketing genes, but Pandey is neither. She inherited a love for the sport from her father, Subas, a Hindi school teacher with the central-government-run Kendriya Vidyalaya. Originally from Uttar Pradesh in north India, Subas had to routinely move towns because of his job. Pandey was born in Ramagundam, in Andhra Pradesh (now Telengana), but her earliest cricketing memories are from when the family moved to Vasco da Gama, in Goa, in 1997. Most of these revolve around her father engaging her in catching practice for hours. At times, she recounts, he would throw over a thousand catches in a session.

Goa has been home to the Pandey family for over two decades now, and it was there that she took her first steps to becoming a professional cricketer.

"Goa gave me opportunities - including that of representing the state team - I may not have got elsewhere. I owe this place a major part of my achievements."

At 15, Pandey made her foray into leather-ball cricket and went on to become the first player affiliated with the state board to represent India. Within months of her initiation into the formal set-up, she caught the eye of former Mumbai player and selector Surekha Bhandare, who was then touring the state with her team.

"The girl had all the makings of a future India player. The raw talent in her was hard to go unnoticed," remembers Bhandare, who urged Subas to send his daughter to Mumbai, promising to nurture her skills and assuring him of a job for her thereafter.

After Pandey won the state-wide third rank in the class-ten board (secondary school) exams, studies took precedence over cricket for the next three summers. It was only in her second year as an undergraduate in electronics and electrical engineering that she began pursuing the sport with serious intent.

During a prolific 2007-08 domestic season, she picked up a four-wicket haul in the then Rani Jhansi Trophy, the inter-state two-day tournament, on her Goa senior women's debut. Her first wicket was a caught-and-bowled to dismiss Tamil Nadu's Thirush Kamini, then already an India international. She also scored three half-centuries for the Goa Under-19 side, which fast-tracked her selection into the zonal squad the same season.

After that Pandey juggled cricket and college, spending her mornings doing gym sessions and course work, and in the afternoons travelling 12km to Mapusa, where she trained with former Goa cricketer and Sports Authority of Goa coach Nitin Vernekar.

The only girl at the boys' facility, Pandey describes the phase as being vital to her growth as a cricketer. "Facing U-16 and U-19 boys honed my reaction time against pace bowling. I also picked up a few vital lessons on negotiating spin."

Her focus on the game did not affect her academic performance, for which she particularly credits her lecturer in Applied Mathematics, Ujwala Phadte, who helped ensure Pandey's grades were not inversely proportional to her on-field returns. On completing her engineering degree in 2010, Pandey declined placement offers from three multinational companies in favour of taking a year off to further her cricketing ambitions.

The decision, backed both by Subas and her older sister, Vibha, paid off when her first "international wicket, albeit unofficial" was Charlotte Edwards - in a 2010 tour game for the Board President's XI against the visiting England side. The same year, in the inter-zonals, she bagged the wicket of Mithali Raj, "a yardstick for every bowler's mettle", and was included again in the Board President's XI against West Indies in 2011.

Vibha, herself an electrical engineer, believes that her sister's refusal to give up on her dreams allowed her to take a path different from most middle-class career tracks. "Finish engineering, land a job and get a good salary; I took the conventional route, as most people would. But Shikha had higher aspirations, and she took them very seriously."

In July 2011, Pandey's disappointment over not making the India squad for the England tour, despite being among the 20 probables, was offset somewhat by another long-cherished dream, to serve as a fighter pilot, nearly coming true. She passed the common entrance exam and joined the Indian Air Force as a trainee, and in June the following year was commissioned as an air traffic control officer.

During her two years at her first fighter base, in north India, the shortage of cricket turfs made her move base down to Palam in New Delhi. With the support of the Services Sports Control Board and the Air Force Sports Control Board, however, she has been able to sustain her cricketing dream.

"I could continue playing in the domestic tournaments because my seniors approved my leave applications. Their cooperation has been the reason I am able to join my teams in time and get adequate preparation."

The 2013-14 domestic season offered her the most realistic chance of getting closer to achieving the dream of playing for India, but she had played for only 30 to 40 days that year. To make up for the lost time, after training with her team-mates till six in the evening, she would hit the indoor nets at the Goa Cricket Association. The extra work paid off and after taking 22 wickets and 209 runs in the season, international debuts across formats followed, first in the World T20 and then on India's 2014 tour of England.

Pandey hit the winning runs in India's unexpected win in the Test in Wormsley - their first five-day game in eight years - and received a stump as souvenir from her captain, Mithali Raj, with the inscription: "It was nice to have a match-winning partnership with you. Here's to the many more."

Called up as last-minute cover for batsman Punam Raut, Pandey made 28 not out in an unbroken 68-run stand with Raj, chasing 181, and got first-hand knowledge of "what it feels like to be batting overnight in Tests, especially when you're sent in as a nightwatchman!"

Later that year, she became the first India women's player to take three wickets and score a fifty in an ODI.

"Sudha Shah, then India coach, suggested I go in at No. 4." The innings, Pandey says, made her believe she was ready for the grind of international cricket. "It gave me the reassurance I have the potential to serve the team with the bat too."

She has had her share of highs and lows in her subsequent performances but regards the tour of Australia in January-February 2016 as a test of character for herself and the team.

Purnima Rau, the former India and Goa coach, who was the South Zone selector when she first saw the promise in Pandey, believes her journey as a medium-pacer began with this series. "The role she took up in Australia, even in Jhulan's presence, was a serious statement of intent. She got those wickets regularly because she was penetrative."

Pandey was India's leading wicket-taker on the tour, with nine wickets at 20.77, a performance that put her on the radar of WBBL franchise Sydney Sixers, although contract negotiations eventually didn't work out.

In the months that followed, Pandey finished as India's second-highest wicket-taker in the ICC Women's Championship, the second highest overall in the World Cup Qualifiers, and the highest in the Quadrangular series in South Africa.

"I have worked a lot with Devika di [Palshikar, former India allrounder and current Goa coach] in the past year. She's the one who has instilled confidence in me through her coaching last season."

Like others, Palshikar says that the source of Pandey's success lies in her willingness to work hard. "But there are holes that need to be plugged," she says. "Consistency with the bat is one of them."

"Right now I consider myself a bowling allrounder," Pandey says. "But if you work hard for something, it will come to you - probably it will take a little time, but the wait will be worthwhile."

Will she add "World Cup winner" to her considerable list of achievements? Take note of the words she recorded in a 2011 entry on her blog, which encapsulate her journey so far: "I dream higher every time I fall."