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Feature

Hemalatha aims to fulfil her life's dreams after taking in life's lessons

The 29-year-old has had an up-and-down India career but that has worked in her favour

Dayalan Hemalatha is all smiles at a Cricket for Good event, West Demerara Secondary School, Guyana, November 8, 2018

D Hemalatha: It's only during those hard times you'll think more.  •  Getty Images

D Hemalatha's life was going exactly as she had planned. It was the 2015-16 season and she had started playing cricket only three years prior. But she rose through the ranks and was already on the verge of being called up to the Indian team. But a motorcycle accident left her with a broken wrist. She had injured her top hand. She was advised to take a year or two off from playing cricket. Excessive hand movement may aggravate the injury, she was warned.
"Adhu life la oru periya adi' (that was the biggest setback of my life)," Hemalatha, who was only 20 at the time of the event, said to ESPNcricinfo. "I couldn't digest the fact that I was going to lose two years to this. I was at my peak age. I was in form. In cricket, not playing for 2-3 months is seen as a setback, and one or two years was drastic, especially at the start of my career."
Even with her wrist bandaged, she was itching to hold her bat. She would check the grip every time she walked past it. In just one and a half months after the accident, she took out the bat, swinging it around with her bottom hand. And within seven months, she was back to playing full-time. She owes all of it to her 'love' for cricket.
"Every time I looked at my bat, I'd want to pick it up. I was mentally stressed just thinking about it. It's probably [the thing] that pushed me to recover within seven months. But that was the time I worked on my mental strength. It's only during those hard times you'll think more. The way you speak to yourself, the reason you're working to achieve. The hard times taught me how to grow mentally. That's my life lesson."
Hemalatha was forced to start from scratch again after her accident, but very soon found herself in the India A mix. Following a couple of impressive performances for India A against the Australia and England A sides, she earned a maiden call-up to the senior side in March 2018. She eventually made her India debut in July that year against Sri Lanka following which she also found a place in the T20 World Cup squad in 2018.
Even after making the India squad, her career continued on an up-and-down course. After the Women's Asia Cup in October 2022, she spent the next 16 months out of the team.
It was the "mental strength" Hemalatha had cultivated during these difficult times that played a big role in her comeback into the Indian team this time around. After sitting out of the senior side for 16 months following an average run, she was called up for the T20I series against Bangladesh in April-May this year. Her superb outing in that series has also earned her a spot in the white-ball sides for the South Africa series. And it's an opportunity she is not taking for granted.
"When I realised I'm getting a chance again [with the Indian team], I told myself I wanted to make use of the opportunities," she said. "It doesn't matter at which level you play, you need that mental strength. Playing for India is a big goal, but only if I perform in these smaller games I can get there, and for that too you need mental strength. Even when I made my India comeback, I didn't take it easy. It was not my end goal. I never thought 'there's nothing bigger than this'. Even after getting there, I was focused on giving my best for the team, was thinking of all the ways to win a game."
Hemalatha says they were small games but in actual fact, those games, and her performances in them were anything but small. She scored 199 runs in six innings at 49.75 for Railways in the Senior Women's T20 Trophy last year. She scored two fifties and played a part in Railways' title win in the Senior Women's One-Day Trophy this year and then went on to win the Women's Inter-Zonal ODI Trophy with Central Zone. She shone brightly in Gujarat Giants' otherwise dull season in the WPL, her 74 off 40 against Mumbai Indians being one of the highlights.
With Jemimah Rodrigues and Yastika Bhatia out due to injuries and Hemalatha showing the kind of consistency that could no longer be ignored, India gave her the No. 3 role in Bangladesh and she didn't disappoint.
During her comeback match, the second T20I in Sylhet, she showed off just how well she strikes the ball, coming down the track to middle offspinner Sultana Khatun over cow corner for her first big hit of the day, ending with 41 off 24 balls. Over the course of four games, she showcased a fine range of shots, from picture-perfect cover drives to lofts down the ground to sweetly-timed sweeps to finish with a series-highest strike rate of 141.55
"My strike rate should be more than 100, I focus on that," Hemalatha said. "I work on my basics and that helps with my hard-hitting. Batting is all about timing, so I work on that. If you have good timing, the ball will go long. I have been working on my range-hitting as well. Even during the WPL I worked on it. I don't focus only on that in my training though, if there's a requirement for me to hit it, I will. But if there's a situation where I need to stay at the crease, I will stay. I can play both. I never plan my innings before."
Hemalatha got to know women played cricket professionally only before she got into college in 2012. She was excited about the prospect of making a career out of it. Her parents, initially hesitant about her new career path, eventually encouraged her to take it up. Her father had one piece of advice for her: 'Whatever you do, put your heart into it'. She learnt her basics from her coach, Sriram, in her neighbourhood. Once she got selected for the Tamil Nadu state team, she started training under Peter Fernandez, a well-known cricket coach in Chennai.
She then moved from Tamil Nadu to the Railways domestic team, where she played with Mithali Raj, one of her idols. They played together in the Indian team as well and were reunited at the WPL where Mithali is Giants' mentor.
"Mithali akka is a legend," Hemalatha said. "You can ask her anything - about the game, mindset, how to go about the match... just anything. She has all the answers. It has helped me tremendously on and off the field. She knows what my strengths are. She talks to me about plans against specific bowlers, how to hit on a specific pitch, she gives so many inputs. We discuss even during practice. Even after I come back from batting we have a proper chat."
Hemalatha expects a lot from herself. In the middle of that breakthrough series in Bangladesh, she was certain she was playing an innings that she didn't like only to arrive in the dressing room and be celebrated for her strokeplay.
"Harmanpreet [Kaur, the India captain] is a fighter, she's very aggressive on the field" Hemalatha said. "Off the field she's very friendly and amazing. After the second T20I, she came up to me and told me that I have beautiful shots. Only then was I convinced that I actually played well. When I came out after batting, everyone was full of praise. When I was playing, I wasn't too satisfied. But when the team told me I played well, I got convinced."
From here, Hemalatha will be keen to take all the motivation and confidence she has gained over a career that has had plenty of highs and lows to make her spot in the India side permanent.

Sruthi Ravindranath is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo