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Poonam Yadav, India's pint-size magician

At 4'11", the India legspinner can be hard to spot in team huddles, but she's increasingly hard to ignore, having taken more T20I wickets this year than anyone else, male or female

Annesha Ghosh
Annesha Ghosh
Spotting Poonam Yadav in a crowd always requires some effort. At 4 feet 11 inches, she is invariably dwarfed by most of her colleagues in a team huddle. She can be inconspicuous in other ways too. At the time of writing, she has 144 followers on Twitter; compare that to her team-mates Mithali Raj (620,000), Smriti Mandhana (363,000) or Harmanpreet Kaur (215,000). Poonam, the No. 2-ranked T20I bowler, has no overseas T20 league contracts. But all that might change soon, if she keeps performing like she has done this year.
With 32 wickets in 22 innings at an average of 14.09, Poonam is the world's leading T20I wicket-taker in 2018. She's gone past Shadab Khan's tally of 28 this year and as many of Jasprit Bumrah's in 2016 to claim the record, male or female, for T20I wickets in a calendar year. Having featured in all of India's T20Is this year, she has bowled the most overs - 78 - across teams and boasts the second-best strike rate - 14.6 - among bowlers who've sent down 50 overs or more. In the World T20 opener on Friday, she missed out on a hat-trick, but ended with a three-for to help set up India's win against New Zealand. Against Pakistan, on Sunday, she took 2 for 22.
Save for four instances, Poonam has claimed a wicket in all of her 22 innings this year. The highlight in her stellar 2018 came during the T20I series opener against Sri Lanka, in September. With a four-wicket haul - her second in 2018 - she went past Jhulan Goswami, India's greatest bowler, to sit atop the country's list of T20I wicket-takers.
The milestone wicket, her 57th, was only a minuscule part of the bigger gains Poonam feels she made on that tour, and this year.
With a low release point - due to her height - much of Poonam's efficacy as a legspinner comes from the generous loop she imparts, and the pace she denies the batsmen. The slowness of her deliveries often draws an erroneous reading of length from even the most established batsmen, and forces them to generate all the power themselves, which can make her extremely difficult to get away in limited-overs cricket, particularly on slow pitches. Now she's made an important addition to her arsenal.
"During our Sri Lanka series, Ramesh [Powar, the head coach] sir suggested I work on the faster one," Poonam says. "Aim at the [batsman's] feet, and stump udaa do (make the stumps fly),' sir told me. So I bowled a lot of the faster ones in the nets. The first one I tried, the batter was out lbw.
"She thought it would be a legbreak, but it was a straighter one. I tried it during the A series against Australia [last month] and, I can say I've grown in confidence and expanded my variations."
Poonam says Powar, a former India spinner himself, has played a major role in injecting self-belief in her since he took over the role from Tushar Arothe in July.
"He never discourages me," Poonam says. "Somewhere I always lacked the understanding of what variations to use in what situations. T20 cricket is such that one poorly planned or executed ball can make it difficult for you to come back. But even when my plans go awry, sir says, 'It's not that you're lacking in skills, but the approach was flawed."
During the pre-departure press meet in Mumbai, Powar emphasised that Poonam and the other spinners were central to India's strategies for the World T20. With Goswami, the spearhead of the bowling attack for the longest time, having quit the format, captain Harmanpreet Kaur has come to envisage Poonam in something of a leadership role among the bowlers. "The way she has performed for us this year, if she can keep that going, our bowling [unit] could [do well]," Harmanpreet had told ESPNcricinfo before leaving for the Caribbean.
At 27, Poonam exudes the kind of self-awareness you would expect of someone with 81 international appearances to their name. The mindfulness shines forth especially when she talks about her go-to weapons - the googly and her flight - which, she says, can both be her strength and weakness if not used with caution.
"Right from the time I started playing cricket, my coach, Manoj [Kushwa] bhaiyya in my hometown Agra," Poonam recollects, "encouraged me to impart flight to my deliveries and use the googly. As a leggie, I have developed that jigraa [heart] to fight the ball and not worry about getting hit. Being able to absorb the pressures of T20s and make a come back has been part of Manoj bhaiyya's invaluable teachings as has been those of the late Afghani sir, who inculcated discipline in me.
"Ramesh sir has, in a way, added to those learnings. He made me understand that if I rely only on flight, predictability will cost me. So to control flight, I control the speed of my arm rotations. And then there is the temptation of trying out too many variations - googlies, faster ones and so on. But, at times, you need to bowl the same ball six times in an over and that pays off."
Much of these learnings, Poonam says, came about through "mistakes made in the recent past".
"In the Asia Cup, I watched several replays of my videos from the first [match India lost to Bangladesh] to find out the mistakes. In the final again, they kept sweeping me, but I didn't repeat the same mistakes. I was like, 'If I pull back the length a bit and maintain my line, they won't be able to sweep me. They may go on the back foot, but I'm okay with that." Poonam claimed her career-best figures, 4 for 9, in that game.
As far as India's T20I performances this year go, much of the limelight has exclusively fallen on the batting exploits of Harmanpreet and Mandhana - two of the most sought-after names in overseas T20 leagues. So impressive have their returns been that it's easy to forget Poonam has done the job in each of India's assignments this year, even when others, batsmen and bowlers alike, have struggled, especially in the tri-series at home in March when India failed to make the final, and the shock loss of the Asia Cup.
Those failures, she says, have led to better camaraderie and communication in the side. And much of it she puts down to the captain's new-found calm and the efforts of the coach.
"The thing is we know, hum spinners logon ko padne wali hai (us spinners will get hit for runs) in the T20I format, so we have learnt to keep backing each other constantly," Poonam says. "Anuja [Patil], myself, the younger spinners, and Harry di… she backs me a lot. She has changed her a lot over time, remains calm and cool and even when I get hit for four, she would say, 'Nahin nahin Poonam, accha daal rahi hain (don't worry, Poonam, you're bowling well), keep trying, you can make a comeback.' So that sort of support helps.
"And given we have such formidable batters in the side - Mithali Raj, Harry di, Smriti, Jemimah [Rodrigues] - they act as sounding boards to me. Even if I am to try out new variations in the nets, I tell our batsmen, 'I am going to try out this ball,' and they give me their feedback. As for Ramesh sir, he says, 'When your plans don't work, try and bluff the batsmen. But no matter what you do, make sure you're enjoying your bowling. That's half the job done.' That's pretty much what I'm trying to do."

Annesha Ghosh is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo