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How uncapped Tanuja Kanwar made a big splash at the WPL

The Railways left-arm spinner survived the inaugural WPL season, came back improved and knocked over some of the biggest international names in this year's tournament

Vishal Dikshit
Vishal Dikshit
22-Apr-2024
Tanuja Kanwar struck early in the chase, Delhi Capitals vs Gujarat Giants, WPL 2024, Delhi, March 13, 2024

Sent in to bowl in the powerplay and at the death in the 2024 WPL, Kanwar went for just 7.5 an over in both phases  •  BCCI

Tanuja Kanwar was alone at home in Himachal Pradesh one afternoon in February 2023, at the time of the inaugural WPL auction. As soon as she flipped her phone on to watch it live, Kanwar was flooded with calls from well-wishers.
"I couldn't watch my own bidding," Kanwar says with a laugh. "I kept cutting those calls, but people kept calling me back and I couldn't watch the auction properly. I thought ek call utha hi leti hoon, ye dekhne toh denge nahi mujhe. [Let me answer one of these calls because these people are not going to let me watch it otherwise]." I came to know I had been bought by Gujarat Giants. I asked how much for, and I was told Rs 50 lakh [US$ 60,500 approximately]."
To put it in perspective, that figure was a lot more than what international stars like Heather Knight, Hayley Matthews and Dane van Niekerk fetched, and it matched the sum Jess Jonassen went for.
The WPL deal was the latest in Kanwar's surge in Indian cricket, which has coincided with her move from her home team Himachal Pradesh to Railways in 2020. Railways are a powerhouse in women's cricket in India - they have produced players like Mithali Raj, Neetu David, Nooshin Al Khadeer, who have won them the Senior Women's One Day Trophy 15 times in 17 editions, and the Senior Women's T20 trophy several times too, last in 2022-23.
Kanwar's reward at the auction was an endorsement of her consistent domestic performances. Barely a week before the 2023 auction she had starred with 3 for 26 for Railways in the One Day Trophy final to finish the tournament with 18 wickets while averaging 11.16 and conceding just 2.43 runs an over. Earlier in the season she had taken 3 for 18 in the domestic T20 final in November 2022.
"It's a very big thing to play for Railways because most of the players there have played for India," Kanwar says. "Playing and competing with them teaches you a lot, like how to handle pressure situations and how to play at the highest level. I've learnt a lot in these three years there."
What might have also worked in Kanwar's favour was that the Railways coach, Al Khadeer, who was brought on board by Gujarat Giants as their bowling coach, sat at the auction table along with Raj. A former offspinner, Al Khadeer had coached Kanwar at Railways and would play a pivotal role for the left-arm spinner at Giants as well.
"Whenever I feel I need some advice for my bowling, I consult her," Kanwar says of Al Khadeer. "Or if it's about how to bowl to which batter, she's the one I go to."
Being the main left-arm spinner in the Giants squad, Kanwar featured in all eight of their games in 2023, and she was often given the ball by then captain Sneh Rana - also a senior team-mate at Railways - whenever there were two right-hand batters at the crease, including in the powerplay.
Kanwar picked up five wickets in all, but what stood out was her temperament on the big stage and her economy rate of 8.85, the third best in a team that had leaked plenty of runs.
Kanwar idolised Yuvraj Singh in her childhood, and her dream is to eventually play for India, but coming home from the WPL she realised her limited skills were not enough to get her closer to that dream.
"Last year in the WPL I used to panic a little bit if I would leak runs, but since then I have learnt that even if I go for runs, I have to make a comeback in the next over - if I get it - and try to get that player out," she says. "I try to boost myself and prepare myself mentally that I must do better in the next over.
"Last year I learnt a lot at the WPL about varying your pace, what to bowl in what kind of situation. When I went back home, I worked a lot on myself on these things."
A variation she came up with to fox batters was to bowl a lot slower and from well behind the crease. That meant the trajectory would not be all that different but it would give the batters the impression that it was going to land in their arc.
"Nooshin di was someone who told me that I needed to work on my slower variation," Kanwar says. "Earlier I used to bowl a normal slower delivery but that used to come nicely onto the bat. But when I bowl it from behind the crease, it lands before the good-length area. The batter doesn't get the ball in the slot because the length is pulled back. I worked on this a lot in the last year, which is why I was able to execute it nicely this [WPL] and pick wickets with it."
This variation landed her some big fish in 2024, including Sophie Devine, Matthews, Shafali Verma and Annabel Sutherland.
Devine was someone Kanwar was particularly targeting this season because the hard-hitting batter had whacked her for a 25-run over last season. Kanwar was ready with her riposte a year later. Devine was on the charge when Royal Challengers Bangalore were chasing 200 and at one point when she stepped out for a big swing, Kanwar bowled a slower one at 68.9kph from well behind the crease. Devine was deceived by the length, missed her heave and lost her off stump.
"Last year she had really smashed me," Kanwar says with a laugh. "So when we returned for this WPL, I was talking to [Lea] Tahuhu, her friend and New Zealand team-mate [who played for Giants in 2024]. I was telling her how Devine had whacked me last time and she said, 'Yeah, I know!' I told Tahuhu that this time I'm going to get her [Devine]. And then I actually dismissed her and I was really happy because of what had happened last year."
It is this competitive attitude that has made Kanwar stand out across the two WPL seasons, even outside the Giants camp. Her wicket tally of ten this season placed her joint fourth on the top wicket-takers' list, on which she was surrounded by international names. She may not have had as much experience last year, but her ability to bounce back from a bad day at the office had been on show in 2023 as well, against the established Shafali Verma.
"There was a match against Delhi in which Shafali had hit me a lot [23 runs off eight balls]," Kanwar says. "When we played Delhi in the second leg, I planned a lot for how to bowl to her. I just wanted to get her out because she had scored so much off me earlier. I wanted to bowl on her body as much as possible, because if you give her room, she can hit the ball anywhere." And as soon as Shafali made room for a big swing, Kanwar adjusted her line to bowl on her pads and the ball ricocheted onto the stumps.
Many wickets Kanwar has collected over the last two years have been down to her pace variations - which she might not have had to work too hard on to master. While growing up in Shimla with her siblings and playing cricket with the boys at school during recess, Kanwar used to bowl medium pace. When her father saw her potential and seriousness towards the game, he got her enrolled at the only academy in Dharamsala that trains girls. Kanwar soon made it to Himachal's Under-19 team, as a medium-pacer, but one year into the professional game, she was told bowling spin would suit her body better.
"When I used to play with the Cosco ball [in gully cricket], I used to bowl spin along with medium pace and I picked up a lot of wickets when I bowled spin there," she says. "I thought this was so convenient: the run-up is just four steps and I'm also getting wickets!" (laughs) Then my coach also told me that spin was suiting me better because I didn't have much pace for a medium-pacer and I was also not that tall. So my coach, Pawan Sen sir, told me to switch to spin.
"After one year at Under-19, I changed to left-arm spin. It suited my body and got me wickets, so I was very happy with that."

****

This year Giants had their regular captain Beth Mooney, who missed the last WPL with an injury, take over. They also had a new head coach, Michael Klinger. Even though both hadn't seen Kanwar closely last time, they entrusted the 26-year-old with the big responsibility of bowling both in the powerplay and at the death often. Sixteen of her 29 overs in the tournament were bowled in those two phases, in which she conceded just 7.5 an over.
"She's competitive and she knows what she wants, so sometimes we have a little argument on the field about what field to set," Mooney said with a laugh at a press conference after Giants' clash against RCB in which Kanwar dismissed Devine. "If I could pick one player in India to have in my team, it's probably her. She's very competitive, she bowls left-arm spin and it's naturally pretty effective over here.
"She bowls the real tough overs. I throw her in the deep end a fair bit and she loves it. She usually bowls a couple in the powerplay and a couple at the end and usually with the short side [of the boundary]. She's been amazing for us; I can't speak more highly of her, and hopefully one day we'll see her in the India shirt."
Kanwar was often seen consulting Ashleigh Gardner during the season. Their camaraderie was especially on show in Giants' second match against defending champions Mumbai Indians, who chased down 91 runs in the last six overs largely because of Harmanpreet Kaur's stunning 95 not out off 48 balls. Kanwar and Gardner were the only bowlers to concede under six runs an over, while everyone else from their team went at over ten. Having conceded just 11 in her first three, Kanwar was given the tough 19th over when Mumbai needed 23 off 12. Kanwar had a quick chat with Gardner before the over and did extremely well to give away just three singles in four balls after Harmanpreet hammered a six on the second ball of the over. Kanwar eventually went for ten runs, and Gardner couldn't defend 12 in the last over.
"Ash Gardner is an offspinner and she tells me how to bowl in what kind of situations, like in powerplays, because she bowls very well in powerplays and death overs," Kanwar says. "I also ask her about her reading of the pitches, because she's very knowledgeable about that. So I ask her how's the wicket today, how to bowl on it, and she explains very well to me."
Like Saika Ishaque and Shreyanka Patil last year, Kanwar emerged as one of the most promising uncapped players this WPL, along with RCB's Asha Sobhana. Where Kanwar leaves most of her rivals behind is with her economy rate in the death overs - her 7.50 in this phase this WPL was the joint third-best after Sophie Molineux (7.20) and Patil (7.38). The next best Indian spinner on that list is Sobhana with 8.57.
In the middle overs too, Kanwar was effective at keeping batters quiet, with an economy rate of 6.69 and regular wickets. Her five in that phase were behind only Ellyse Perry, Sobhana, Arundhati Reddy and Radha Yadav.
Kanwar can bowl the big overs, she can take down the big batters, and she can hold her own on the big stage. Sobhana earned an India call-up recently for the Bangladesh tour, and there's a good chance Kanwar might get hers soon.
Stats inputs by S Rajesh

Vishal Dikshit is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo