"PAPA this is for you."
Love, loss, and longing were the essence of these words India allrounder Sneh Rana
wrote on Instagram
last month. It was the same day several other Indian players took to social media to talk about the Test kit-presentation ceremony the squad for the England tour were part of, where the head coach made them vow "to leave the jersey in a better place"
In the caption of a composite of India's Test and limited-overs jerseys, and of selfies of Rana in them, the 27-year-old fondly remembered her late father, who died of a heart attack earlier this year. "Wish you were here to see this and live this moment," it said.
A little over two weeks later, Rana, returning to an Indian XI after five years, donned the whites for the first time in international cricket. Among a quintet of debutants India fielded in the one-off Test
against England in Bristol, she pipped the more fancied spin-bowling options, wristspinner Poonam Yadav and left-armer Ekta Bisht
, to the XI. Delivering most overs on the opening day among a six-bowler contingent, she emerged the pick of the visitors' attack, picking up a vital 3 for 77 with her offspin.
At the virtual press conference after the day's play, which Rana rounded off with a 29th over, having helped reduce England from 230 for 2 to 269 for 6, reminiscences of the dear departed punctuated a bereaved daughter's dedicatory message.
"I lost my father two months back, ahead of the squad announcement for the England tour," Rana said. "I lost him, so it was a bit difficult for me. It was an emotional moment for me [to be making my Test debut] as he wanted to see me play again for India and see me in that jersey. But, unfortunately, he can't.
"But, it's okay," she said, smiling. "It's all a part of life. Whatever I have achieved since his passing and whatever I will achieve in the future, I'll dedicate it all to him."
An all-format pick
for the England tour, which also includes three ODIs and three T20Is, Rana returned to the Indian side on the back of her performance in the domestic 50-over tournament earlier this year. She topped the wicket charts
for the Railways, led by Mithali Raj
, India's Test and ODI captain, with 18 strikes at an average of 12.66. With the bat
, her 160 runs at a strike rate of 123.07 in the middle order were also pivotal to Railways' victorious campaign. Her unbeaten 34 and 3 for 33 in the final handed them a 12th title in the competition.
Prior to Wednesday, Rana had played 12 matches for India, all in white-ball cricket. She made her international debut, against Sri Lanka, in January 2014, earning a call-up following two impressive seasons for Punjab in which she took 32 List-A wickets. Her only appearance away from home came in the ODI segment of the 2016 tour of Australia.
However, the T20I series at home against Sri Lanka that followed, in February 2016, was the culmination of an uncertain 25-month-period, where injury and inconsistent form saw her being frequently out of the team, and eventually, off the selectors' radar.
"I had been sidelined by a [knee] injury for a year," Rana said on Wednesday, when asked of her five-year-long absence from international cricket. "But once I made a complete recovery, I played in all domestic seasons. My performances in those tournaments paved the way for my return to the Indian side."
"A lot of people think those of us, who've played for India but been out of the national side for a while, will find it very difficult to play international cricket again, especially in women's cricket. I feel that my journey may have inspired some of them."
A former Railways captain, Rana led the India B side in the Quadrangular T20 Series, which was held in Patna in January 2020 and featured India A, Bangladesh and Thailand as the other three sides. In that series, conceived to help select the squad for the 2020 T20 Women's World Cup, she took four wickets with India B finishing runners-up. But she was still some way from emerging as a frontrunner to make the squad.
In the first opportunity that eventually came by, coinciding with India's return to Test cricket after almost seven years, Rana's experience as a domestic toiler and her ability to stem the run flow with disciplined lengths and control came to fore. In the company of fellow offspinner Deepti Sharma, and courtesy two stunning catches by Sharma and Shafali Verma
, Rana on Wednesday pegged back an English line-up with no left-hander in it.
A low, one-handed grab from Verma at short leg handed Rana her maiden Test wicket as half-centurion Tammy Beaumont tried to guide down a good-length delivery without any success. Persisting with the same length, she trapped wicketkeeper Amy Jones in front with sharp turn outside off. Georgia Elwiss became Rana's third strike, and India's sixth wicket on the day, thanks to another low take, this time from Sharma at slips.
"He didn't pressure me to do anything different," Rana said of head coach Ramesh Powar
, with whom she appeared to have had a chat in the latter half of the post-lunch session, with Beaumont's 66 having led England to 140 for 1 under 50 overs. "He reminded me to bowl accordingly to my strengths. I didn't do anything extra for that wicket-taking delivery [to Beaumont]. I just tried doing what I believe I'm good at and it worked out."
"We had a team meeting where I was told I would be making my debut," Rana said. "During the practice sessions, the captain and coach had been guiding me regarding what kind of deliveries I should be bowling given we were playing Test cricket [after nearly seven years] and I had no prior experience in this format, which is vastly different to one-dayers and T20s. I had conversations with both of them every day heading into this match."
The final session of the first day left the Bristol Test in balance. No matter the result, Rana has already made a strong case for being considered at least for the ODI leg of the tour, too. Should she be able to build on her three-wicket-haul from day one, the prospect of making the XI for the first-ever day-night women's Test, against Australia, at the Gabba later in the year could gather force.
On a broader level, Rana remains a study in resilience for tens of domestic regulars - capped or otherwise - waiting in the wings.
"I'm happy for Sneh, and my motivation stumps from how even she's now back after five years," Niranjana Nagarajan
, an out-of-favour India international with notable performances in the 2020-21 domestic inter-state 50-over competition, told ESPNcricinfo last month
. "So, I know somewhere there's hope for me too."
To the likes of Nagarajan, Rana's message from Bristol was one of hope.
"A lot of people think those of us, who've played for India but been out of the national side for a while, will find it very difficult to play international cricket again, especially in women's cricket," she said. "I feel that my journey may have inspired some of them. In my view, one should never give up."
Annesha Ghosh is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @ghosh_annesha