Multi-talented women soak in 'beautiful feeling' after historic win
One run needed off six balls. A bunch of girls are tethered to one another in a huddle, threatening to explode anytime. They don't need to wait much longer as their captain Mithali Raj strikes Ellyse Perry's first ball for a four, to make it 2-0 over Australia.
India women defeated the defending World T20 champions for the first time in a bilateral series in any format. On their home soil, clinching the series at the imposing MCG. The ensuing celebrations would have made a DJ proud; the team danced to a medley of Punjabi and Tamil numbers. "There was also plenty of fizzing with Coke and Sprite being sprayed around," Niranjana Nagarajan, the seam bowler, says. "Oh yes, it was a non-alcoholic celebration," she adds for good measure with a laugh.
"It's a beautiful feeling. It has just not sunk in yet," she says. "We didn't get off to the start we wanted to in the morning so to see the way we came back, great character. It kept raining frequently and we had to stay above the required rate all the time. Considering that most of us were touring Australia for the first time, it is a fantastic achievement."
The team, she adds, is an eclectic mix of multi-talented characters ranging from basketball players to Air Force engineers, "There are different girls in the team who are multi-talented," Niranjana says. "I have played a lot of basketball and badminton while Shikha Pandey is an engineer by qualification, who works in the Air Force."
On the subject of multi-talented characters, I ask her about left-arm spinner Rajeshwari Gayakwad, who dismissed two batsmen in India's ten-wicket win. Gayakwad has a bit of a reputation as a javelin-thrower. Niranjana is clearly surprised. "Wow, is it? I never knew that. But [despite our different interests] we all love to go out shopping together or making fun of each other at dinners. Yes, we have a variety of interests but thankfully all of us chose the same career," she says with a laugh.
Gayakwad, 24, along with a few of her friends, opted to stay back at the MCG to watch the men's game that followed their match. Struggling to keep her voice above the din created by the fans, she admits that cricket was not her first-choice sport, "I was a district-level javelin thrower," she says. "I was also very good at discus-throw and volleyball. I didn't even know girls played cricket seriously." Gayakwad, who hails from Bijapur in Karnataka, had her first brush with cricket when she chanced upon an academy for girls. "I thought, 'chalo yeh bhi khel lete hain' [let me give this sport a shot too]. Once I started playing cricket. I absolutely started loving it. Now my sister Rameshwari also plays at the domestic level."
Behind the quirky effervescence of a team that has found a new wind - India had slipped below West Indies, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and South Africa in the rankings over the last three years - is the reassuring sameness of Raj's presence. She is quick to acknowledge two significant developments in the women's game in India - the introduction of central contracts and television coverage of their first-class matches.
"The contract system has played a huge role. The girls are more motivated now," she says. "The finances are taken care of and the BCCI also provides us good facilities in terms of the support staff and everything.
"Also, when domestic matches are televised, it's imperative to put up a good show. It is watched by a lot of people on a channel where a lot of cricket is shown. It is a great source of encouragement and equally is an incentive to be more professional."
The team's improved showing, Raj feels, has helped her play her natural game with less pressure. She is, however, wary of calling this the best team she has been a part of. "I don't know if I can rate it," she says. "But this series win is creditable because only three or four of us have played in Australia in the past. I can't compare this with the Test win against England [in 2014], but what I see is a team that responds well. It also helps that many of them are from the team I lead at the domestic level - Railways. I am aware of what I am supposed to extract out of them and they are also aware of what is running in my head."
The exposure to T20 cricket, she says, has been invaluable going into the World T20. "I can see that the batting has improved a lot. Earlier, we would lose by 10 or 12 runs but the other day we chased 140 [in the first T20I]. Our fielding has also improved considerably."
Raj feels playing in the Women's Big Bash League will also help her team acquire the "Aussie culture of playing hard" and greater cricketing sense. Playing a series that runs parallel to that of the men's teams has had its advantages as well. "We have interacted with the men's team and we got a few pointers on playing hard and understanding the conditions," she says.
Arun Venugopal is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo