Vastrakar: India's bold and resilient teenager

Eighteen years of age and Pooja Vastrakar has already overcome injuries and setbacks to become a flamboyant batter and an audacious bowler in the India side

Annesha Ghosh
Annesha Ghosh
It may be hardly flattering for a quick-bowling allrounder to be nicknamed 'Babloo' by her India captain, or be called 'Babulal' by the team's fielding coach and her team-mates. But 18-year-old Pooja Vastrakar, the big-hitting, quick-moving speedster in the India side, is in no complaint mode.
"Hardik Pandya had streaked his hair blue recently, so Mithu di (Mithali Raj) gave him the nickname 'Bablue/Babloo'. And, then, she started calling me the same kyunki woh mujhe chhota Hardik Pandya bulaatey hain (because they call me junior Hardik Pandya)."
A look at Vastrakar's slender frame and the boy-cut hairdo lends as much credence to Raj's choice of the moniker as does the Madhya Pradesh teenager's flamboyant batting style - as witnessed during her maiden international fifty in the ODI series opener against Australia on Monday - and her stinging pace and swing variations. It is, however, the rationale behind the pet name chosen by Biju George, the India fielding coach, that seems more fitting.
"Have you seen those videos of dogs barking the lions away?" George asks in his trademark tongue-and-cheek manner. "That's Babulal. Pooja reminds me of a guy who was all skin and bones, but, at the same time, all fight."
Youngest of seven siblings - five sisters and two brothers - and daughter to a retired BSNL employee, if losing the mother at ten was an emotional setback at a young age, the slew of injuries Vastrakar has had to overcome is in harmony with George's assessment of Vastrakar's resilience.
Ahead of India's tour of Australia in 2016, a lower-back injury, because of what she calls "prolonged neglect" on her own part put her out of contention for a place in the squad. A leg sprain sustained before the subsequent home series against Sri Lanka further deferred her chances of a national call-up. The most debilitating blow came in the form of an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear she picked up while fielding during a senior women's domestic one-dayer between MP and Punjab in October 2016.
It was a phase that Ashutosh Srivastava, a BCCI level-1 coach, who has been mentoring Vastrakar for nearly a decade now, calls as being more mentally taxing for him than it was for his ward.
"When she twisted her knee and had to get the surgery done in January last year, I was the one who was depressed," Srivastava recalls. "But Pooja was confident she'd get through it all. When she returned home, after getting some 15-20 days of rest and her rehab, her zeal to make it to the Indian side only got stronger."
Vastrakar confirms even though disappointment was natural, she wouldn't sweat over the turn of events. Motivational videos of speaker Sandeep Maheshwari and Olympians on YouTube and Facebook would pull her up.
"People would say, 'It's never easy for a fast bowler to come back after a knee surgery.' But it's part of the game; I wouldn't let too many negative thoughts creep in my head because that would have only ruined my present. I just wanted to make a comeback, a good comeback. And I knew something or the other would work out."
In retrospect, the ACL injury, Vastrakar says, wasn't "all that bad a point" in her life. She attributes her increased pace - from 105 kmph to marginally north of 110 - and improved accuracy to her post-surgery assessment of her bowling.
"Earlier, I would take my body for granted at times. But the surgery changed that attitude. I've had to put in more effort after that to come back. Also, it made me realise if people like Arunima Sinha (former national-level volleyball player, who became first amputee to scale Mount Everest) can do such things after losing a limb, my injury is nothing compared to that."
The 2018 Challenger Trophy was to be her first major tournament, over and above the inter-state one-dayers and T20s, in a year since being sidelined by the surgery. While she credits playing at an all-boys facility for a seamless transition into the women's game, Vastrakar counts the tournament as another turning point in her career, for it was to become the basis of her selection in the squad for the South Africa tour and also for her to be handed a central contract on the basis of only six international appearances.
It all began when she watched her favourite batsman Virender Sehwag on television, and she was enticed further by the sight of boys indulging in gully cricket in her colony in Shahdol. Regular but brief fielding stints wouldn't convert into longer runs with the bat or ball until the boys moved out of the neighbourhood, to pursue their career.
"Ek do overs hi milte hain, aur main woh ek do overs mein hi kuch na kuch kamaal kar deti thi (I'd get only one or two overs but I'd do something amazing in them)," Vastrakar says. "While playing in the neighbourhood, we'd often misplace our balls, so we decided to go to the nearby Mahatma Gandhi Stadium one morning.
"The boys were doing fitness training so the nets were quite empty. I sniffed an opportunity and started batting there. At that time, I used to have long hair. The coach there spotted me and said, 'Who's this girl who comes here daily and bats in the nets?' Seeing me bat, he offered to coach me and asked me to come daily for training. That's how it began."
While long hair made way for cropped locks soon after she got into formal training, Vastrakar, the only girl at the all-boys facility, then known as Gulmohar Cricket Academy, would soon be taken under the wings of Srivastava, who ran the academy. It was at a time when Shahdol, a remote district in the interior of MP, was yet to become a division. The two factors coming together would mean Vastrakar would have to represent the neighbouring Rewa division which would field a women's team in the inter-division tournament.
Starting out with an inherent liking for batting, Vastrakar's entry and evolution in state-level cricket, however, revolved around her skills with the ball, aided by her agility on the field.
"When I got into the MP team, they asked the batsmen to queue up one side and bowlers on the other. Obviously, I went and stood among the batsmen. At that time, I injured my left ring finger after jamming it into the door hinge, so I had not been able to bat for a couple of days. The coach there asked if I can bowl as well, which is when I rolled my arm over for the first time. Bas bangayi bowling allrounder (That's how I became a bowling allrounder)."
Opening the bowling with Shikha Pandey in South Africa, in Jhulan Goswami's absence, did her confidence a world of good early in her international career. But she wouldn't have expected that hurling a bouncer at Meg Lanning in the first ODI would earn her a tweet of appreciation from the recently-retired Alex Blackwell.
"When I went to the NCA for an Under-19 camp in 2015, the wicket at the end was quite green. I had read two months earlier that [Suresh] Raina had been struggling against the bouncer, and must have been at the NCA to work on that. I wondered if it was the same wicket where he had honed his game against the bouncer. The ball was rising nicely, so I thought, 'All right, let me try out a bouncer here'. Then even on flat wickets I started bowling it. In the domestic games, I started bowling one almost every over, first or second ball."
Dishing out a bouncer, however, would be easier than dealing with one, as Vastrakar would learn on her maiden overseas tour. She sniped out South Africa's top three in the first three T20Is but admits that her "batting in South Africa flopped". She owns up to struggling against the short ball, especially those from Shabnim Ismail, who got her out for 1 and 2 in the two times she got to bat on the tour.
She spent extra hours on her batting on return and it helped when she took the wind out of Australia's sails - albeit in vain - with knocks of 51 and 30, both at No. 9, when the frontline batsmen failed to score. The highlight of the two innings was a six off Jess Jonassen that left the scoreboard at the midwicket fence in disarray and the bowler bemused.
Much like her skills, Vastrakar says her heroes, too, have been varied.
"I used to like Glenn McGrath a lot. That's because he used to bowl outswing and so do I. But as a female cricketer, Jhulu di (Jhulan Goswami) has been a role model. From the beginning I have seen her, have read about her; she is such a consistent bowler. She backs me a lot and tells me, 'This is how you must use the non-bowling arm. If you try, you can bump up your speed to 120-125kmph. Unko dekhke chalna hai aur unke jaisa banna hai (I want to follow her path and become like her)."
But it is not solely as a potent quick in the making, or a swashbuckling batsman, or just a livewire on the field that she wishes to carve her future.
"I want to be known as an allrounder who excels in all three departments, in every sense of the term. When people talk of me as an allrounder, I'd like them to say, "Pooja ko sab kuch aata hai, aur acchi tarah se aata hai (Pooja can do everything, and she's good at everything)."

Annesha Ghosh is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo