'I was ready to walk away from the game because of the controversies after the World T20'

India's T20I captain talks about the mental struggles she faced, and what the team needs to do to have a shot at winning the World T20 in Australia next year

"Ten years of international cricket and I'd say I have ten years of untold inner conflict bottled up in me because I haven't been able to share it with anyone"  •  IDI/Getty Images

"Ten years of international cricket and I'd say I have ten years of untold inner conflict bottled up in me because I haven't been able to share it with anyone"  •  IDI/Getty Images

Harmanpreet Kaur says she doesn't remember much from her match-winning 51 in the Women's T20 Challenge final from two weeks ago, except "what a fun dance party we had after the game!" 'We' being her Supernovas team-mates - a mix of capped and uncapped Indian players and internationals from England, New Zealand and Sri Lanka, some of whom are also her team-mates and rivals in the WBBL and the Kia Super League. Two months on from completing a decade in international cricket and turning 30, India's T20I captain opens up about her mental struggles and talks about what the side need to win the T20 World Cup in Australia in February-March next year.
You had 87 consecutive ODI appearances before you missed an international series (against England in February-March) for the first time since early 2010.
I twisted my left foot while playing football during a warm-up ahead of the first T20I in New Zealand [in early February]. I somehow managed to play all three T20Is despite being in some discomfort because to call up a replacement at such short notice may not have been possible. Besides, all through my career, I've played with fevers, shoulder, ankle and wrist injuries, so I didn't feel like this was going to be anything significant. The taping and painkillers had been working fine in the warm-ups, so I thought I could deal with it. But during the matches, my movement was severely affected. Scans later revealed that there were some Level 1 and 2 ligament tears near the back of my ankle. I was at the National Cricket Academy [in Bengaluru] from February 22 to April 9, and that break was a blessing in disguise for me.
How so?
Because it gave me a much needed break from international cricket and the Indian dressing room. I had almost made up my mind to let my parents know that I wanted to take a break. I don't want to hold on to a spot in the Indian team just because I am a senior player. I wanted to get away from cricket. Whatever happened around the team before that was immensely draining for me. Some of the things said were so far from reality that I felt, "I need to step away from this madness for a while." I'm here to play cricket. If people want to drag me into unnecessary things, drag the team into unnecessary things, I have to stop trying to reason with them.
Are you referring to the controversies in the aftermath of India's World T20 semi-final exit?
Look, I was to play in the WBBL after the World T20, and for a while, after coming from the West Indies, I was even considering only playing in the overseas leagues and then making my way back into the Indian team. I spent hours alone, asking myself, "Why do I play sport?" "Because I enjoy it, because playing cricket is the only thing I've ever done in life." Agar khelke mazaa nahi aa raha hai [If I'm not enjoying the game] then I don't want to block a place in the side, because money is not everything. Yes, we've only just started making some money from playing cricket, but if cricket is not giving me joy, I am happy to walk away rather than hold on to that spot just because I have a Grade A contract. So all of these thoughts were bothering me a lot. Mentally I was unwell, unfit, but that injury bailed me out of that terrible head space.
Why did that whole matter affect you so much?
There have been several times since 2016 where I have been asked by the support staff to go up to people and say sorry, just to keep the dressing-room environment all right. And I have done that, without getting an answer about what I am saying sorry for. But, no, it's like, "Harry, just try and sort it out for the sake of the team." But kitni baar sorry boloon [How many times should I apologise]? Meri insult hoti hai, mere upar meeting hoti hai, aur ulta sorry bhi bolna hai toh woh mujhe bolna hai [I'm the one who's being insulted and even then I should be the one apologising]? Isn't that funny? But I've been like, "If the team environment gets better because of my saying sorry, I'll do it." And I've done it. Ask the people I've apologised to and they will tell you whether or not I have.
But this time I was like, "No, I've had enough." These false allegations are way too mindless for me to lose my sleep over. If certain situations are not meant to get better, you cannot fix them, no matter how many apologies you offer. The wiser thing to do is just step away from all that mess and calm yourself, focus on your mental health, your cricket, come back strong and do what you love and what has given you money, recognition, etc.
How have you changed as a person and captain since the World T20 last year?
Before the World T20, things that would happen on the field or outside the field used to affect me a lot, because when I'm into something, I give it my all. And when I could see I was giving my 100% to the team but somebody else wasn't, it really upset me, because in a team sport you cannot put your own interests ahead of the team's. But the two-month break gave me perspective. I realised you have to ignore those things because no matter how much you try or the team tries, you cannot make everyone happy.
What was the dressing-room environment like heading into the New Zealand tour under a new head coach?
I knew if I kept focusing on the noise outside, which unfortunately is still going on, it wouldn't have helped me or most of the other girls. [WV] Raman sir [the new coach] played a big role in diverting our focus from the noise. He held three-four meetings with all the team members and reminded us that we are here for the cricket and whatever personal issues anyone has against anyone, they'd better keep it outside the dressing room and the ground.
Smriti [Mandhana, the T20I vice-captain] and I discussed how to take the team forward.
What has having Raman as the head coach been like so far?
I think he's very good at feeling the pulse of a player and getting the work out of them without much fuss. His suggestions in the nets have helped me. At times, my movements and bat swing are so exaggerated that he says, "Had it been possible, main tujhe men's IPL ke liye bhej deta [I'd have sent you to play in the IPL]. But you are playing against women, and you have to respect the pace they are bowling at. You need to curb your attacking shots at times, stay calm, focus on the timing, and the ball will travel on its own because the power's there in it."
As a batter, I often think, "I'm hitting it so hard, yet it won't go for a boundary." So when someone as experienced as him clears your doubts, it helps. And I think I got that knock in the [Women's T20 Challenge] final because of the clarity he gave me.
Jemi [Jemimah Rodrigues] was rushing through her shots a few days ago and her movements were a bit hurried, so Sir jokingly said, "Is the Maharashtra government going to give an award for a 200-plus strike? You can play with a 140-150 strike rate and make your batting effective, right?" I think that has helped Jemi too.
Do you think India still need a bowling coach? They advertised the position in April last year but haven't got one yet.
Yes, a spin-bowling coach, in particular, can help our team because our strength is spin. We've been requesting for one for a while now, so hopefully we'll get one soon. In a format like T20, batsmen still have the scope to go to the non-striker's end and calm themselves, but bowlers need to bowl six balls back to back under tremendous pressure. They need the experience of someone who may have handled that pressure at that level.
What about a mental-conditioning coach? Former head coach Ramesh Powar mentioned the need for one in his tournament review of the World T20.
Our teams certainly need one. At times, we - myself included - fail to understand what our strengths and weaknesses are. It's happened at several points in my own career where I've needed perspective on my game, on my personality, but no one has been around in the dressing for me to open up to.
Ten years of international cricket and I'd say I have ten years of untold inner conflict bottled up in me because I haven't been able to share it with anyone. And let me make it clear: it's not about whether or not you trust your team-mates or the batting coach or bowling coach. It's about getting that privacy when you share with someone whose job is to guide you at such times, help you solve your problem without judging you. I don't think it's possible for team-mates to offer you that kind of support all the time. And not every girl's family understands the needs and demands of cricket, nor do they travel with you. So you need someone in the support staff who understands the sport and the mental struggles of players who play elite sport.
Have things been different at Lancashire Thunder in the KSL or at Sydney Thunder in the WBBL?
Our sports psychologist at Sydney Thunder keeps telling us, "Don't think about the pink elephant." What's the pink elephant? In a way, it's advice to remind ourselves that we should never tell ourselves what not to think and instead focus on what we need to and want to do. I've shared with him more about my struggles than with anyone else across dressing rooms.
Speaking of domestic T20 leagues, what will be the biggest impact of the 2019 Women's T20 Challenge's in, say, five years from now?
There were a lot of apprehensions around it during the build-up: Log dekhenge bhi ya nahi? Flop toh nahi jo jayega na? [Will people watch it? It won't be a flop, will it]? Whatever domestic T20 leagues I've played in so far [in the UK and Australia], I've never seen as big a crowd as we saw in Jaipur. It didn't feel as though we were playing a domestic game.
This tournament has helped, and with hopefully an expanded version in the coming years, it will definitely bridge the gap between our domestic cricketers and international cricketers. When some of these young girls - like [the uncapped] Shafali [Verma], Radha [Yadav], Harleen [Deol] - come into the national side or play in a World Cup, they will feel fewer jitters than some of the girls during the [T20I] series in Guwahati [against England, which India lost 0-3].
What did you make of Shafali Verma, in particular?
It's too early to say, but we saw she can pack power [in her shots], and her fearless approach is what we're looking for in an opener. Shafali is very young but we have the time to groom her. If she responds well to the challenges we're going to throw her way, she could be an opening partner to Smriti. You have to play fearlessly - which is not to say carelessly - in the Powerplay, and Shafali seems to have that kind of natural fearlessness in her.
Which of your India team-mates do you think could make it to the WBBL and/or the KSL this year?
There are quite a few of them. Jemi, PY [Poonam Yadav, the legspinner] have done well against many oppositions. Deepti Sharma is also a very good allrounder, as is [left-arm spin-bowling allrounder] Radha Yadav. Radha is a very good fielder, something that is always a bonus for any side, and the kind of confidence she showed in the [Women's T20 Challenge] final is proof that she has the potential to hold her nerves and finish off games for her side.
Fielding has been an issue for the India side for a while now, and we saw some of the India internationals shell catches at the Women's T20 Challenge. How do you see the team iron out this crease ahead of the T20 World Cup?
Night games are definitely more difficult to play compared to day games. We don't get to play many night games, so you can't expect the catching to be error-free in these matches. All year round we practise in daytime for day games and then at the world tournament knockouts we play under lights, under conditions we are not accustomed to. How do we fix it? By playing tournaments like these and playing international series under lights.
We are a relatively weaker fielding side than some of the top teams, so that could affect our chances [at the T20 World Cup] but we still have a year's time and this upcoming fitness camp [at the NCA] will be an important one. We don't get many fitness camps, so we need to take this very seriously.
Other than fielding, what are the other aspects India need to keep in mind to go in as formidable contenders for the T20 World Cup?
The first thing we need to make sure is to not take too much pressure ki jeetna hai, jeetna hai [that we have to win]. If we get a good opening partner for Smriti, someone who can support her well, even if her strike rate is not as high as Smriti's, then ours can be a line-up to contend with. We are looking for someone in the T20I side who can bat after me, absorb the pressure in the last 12-15 balls. That's one of the concerns we're facing right now. We tried [Bharati] Fulmali [in the Guwahati series] as a potential replacement for Pooja [Vastrakar], who is still recuperating from her injury. We tried Harleen [Deol] as an opener. That T20I series told us which youngsters need to work more than the others.
What are your thoughts on Mandhana's run of form over the past one year?
If I've seen two cricketers in my career improve quickly and massively, it would be Smriti and Jemi. The young Smriti used to struggle against offspin, so we used to make her play a lot of offspin. She didn't have the sweep earlier, but look at the way she has picked up skills to overcome those deficiencies.
Also, early in her international career, she barely had any faith in her six-hitting. The first six she hit, I remember, she was so happy about it. I told her, "I really have no idea why you think you struggle to hit sixes because you can clear the ropes if you feel like it, because of your timing." Unlike in men's cricket, where the boundaries are farther, much of the six-hitting in women's cricket depends on timing. Smriti has always been among the best timers of the ball. After that six, jo uska dimaag ka block khula [the way her mental block disappeared] (laughs), it's amazing to see this version of Smriti.
When Jemi came into the side, I was very impressed with how technically sound she was. But I had been apprehensive about her slender frame. She isn't among the tallest people either. So I was like, "Will she be able to deal with a bouncer?" She used to be a bit scared of the bouncer. When she asked me how to go about it, the only thing I felt I needed to tell her is she should make herself mentally and physically so strong that the fear of bouncers goes away. She has adapted really well after that.
Do you still advise them?
Now they advise me (laughs). It's a great thing, isn't it? They tell me, Harry di, try this and try that; this was good, that one not so much. When you learn something every day from gifted players like these, you feel good. Whether they are younger or older than you doesn't really matter.
Mandhana debuted under you and led India in your absence three months ago. Where do you see her in the next five years?
Much of Indian cricket will rest on Smriti's shoulders. The way she's peaked, she should try and continue that. There's so much more she can achieve. If she keeps playing like this, I think we can win a big title soon.
What's your five-year plan for yourself?
The thought of "I've turned 30" doesn't cross my mind. I wasn't as fit, self-assured and confident when I was 25 as I am right now.
My focus is largely on my fitness and diet now. My awareness around my diet - the timing of meals, quantity, water intake - has also improved. It's an important aspect of my daily routine because I have a lot of mood swings around food and I can't survive without Punjabi food.
When I met my dietician for the first time two-three months ago, I was hoping koi mere parathein na chudwaade [Hope they don't make me give up parathas!] (laughs ). But the dietician busted the myth that parathas make you put on weight. They don't, as long as you're able to time your meals well. So, thankfully, parathas are still there on my diet, along with rice, dal, veggies, curd and salad on match days. It's mostly a vegetarian diet for me now.
What is the top item on your wishlist in your five-year plan?
Once we win a World Cup, we won't look back. We will keep winning a few on the trot. It's like that block that I was talking about in regard to Smriti's sixes and Jemi's fear of bouncers.
I am lucky that I'm 30 and in the next five years we play two 20-over and two ODI World Cups, and if women's cricket is included in the 2022 Commonwealth Games, we could win a medal there too. So with God's grace we play well and win the first one in Australia [where the next T20 World Cup will be played].

Annesha Ghosh is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo