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The Indian girl who became the leader of the USA

Shebani Bhaskar has played cricket all over the world. Now she's leading the United States in their biggest challenge to date

Aishwarya Kumar
Shebani Bhaskar was just 17 years old when she played in the 2011 ICC Women's World Cup qualifiers. She scored 72 against Zimbabwe and helped the US win its only match of the tournament

Shebani Bhaskar was just 17 when she played in the 2011 ICC Women's World Cup qualifiers. She scored 72 against Zimbabwe and helped the US win their only match of the tournament  •  Peter Della Penna

Eight years ago, in a domestic game, a Tamil Nadu opener came out to face Bengal's bowling attack, led by legendary Indian fast bowler and captain Jhulan Goswami. The batsman mistimed the ball but the fielder at midwicket dropped what would have been an easy catch. Standing on the sidelines, Tamil Nadu allrounder Shebani Bhaskar - just 15 years old - watched Goswami run from her position at mid-off to confer with the fielder. "It's okay, it happens," Bhaskar overheard Goswami say, patting the fielder on the back. "Concentrate on the next ball."
Goswami kept her composure. She didn't show any frustration. She was not angry. She just wanted the fielder to focus on what was coming next. West Bengal ended up winning the match.
"That's the kind of captain I'd like to be," says Bhaskar, reflecting on that moment. "As a player, that's what I'd want my captain to do. When I drop a catch, I am already feeling bad about it. I don't need somebody to show their frustration at me. As a captain, I want to lift that person's spirits, so when the next ball comes around, the result is going to be different."
Little did Bhaskar know that she would lead an international team - albeit one outside India - nine years later.
In early March this year, 23-year-old Bhaskar - whose nickname was "Captain Cool" in college because of her calm approach toward leadership - was named captain of the United States women's national team. The three-week tour of Australia that the team is currently on will be her first test.
The women will look to Bhaskar's leadership and international experience to accomplish something they have never done before: qualify for a World Cup. "Her playing that high level of cricket consistently will really push the team to step up their game, and we know that she can carry the team with the support of the team members," Bhaskar's team-mate Nadia Gruny says.
Bhaskar doesn't remember a time when sport wasn't part of her life. She was raised in a family of athletes: her older sister, Meenakshi Bhaskar, is a national rowing champion; her great-grandfather was a gymnast; and her great-uncle was a sprint champion. Through her childhood, her family had one important tradition: playing backyard cricket with a rubber ball. But until she was 11 years old, that was the extent of her cricket experience. She had never even bowled with a cork ball.
Then she started playing on organised teams, picking up her first official wicket in the first over of her debut tournament at age 11. Soon after, she met with former West Bengal cricketer Kalyan Mitra, who took her under his wing for her first formal cricket training. He called her "Chotu", which means "tiny kid" in Hindi, because of her size (she's now 5ft 4in). She learned batting and bowling techniques and was a lethal fielder even then. She would never wait for the ball to come to her; she would run to it the second it left the bat.
But Bhaskar always made time to play other sports. She played soccer in school, ran track, and took swimming lessons. When she got a little older, she began playing golf. She was a big believer in carrying over techniques used in different sports; her golf swing helped her perfect her batting stance, her experience as a goalkeeper helped her become a better wicketkeeper, and track taught her aggressive running between the wickets and in fielding.
Her mantra for life: athlete first, cricketer next.
Bhaskar's family life and sports - cricket, specifically - have been the most consistent parts of her life for the most part. Her father, Bhaskar Rajah, worked for the United States Foreign Service, and that meant the family packed up their bags and moved every two years. Born in Chicago to Indian parents, Bhaskar has lived in eight cities, including Hamburg, Germany; Dhaka, Bangladesh; Alexandria, Virginia, USA; and Kolkata and Chennai, in India. While the lifestyle might not have made for a traditional childhood, it certainly gave her the skills to adapt to new circumstances and quickly relate to people of different backgrounds.
No matter where her family moved, Bhaskar found a group of kids (mostly boys) or a team to play with. Every weekend, if her parents couldn't find her at home, they knew she'd be playing cricket at a nearby park. "Playing gully cricket generated her instincts for the game," her father says. "There were not many professional matches for girls at the time, so girls like her would end up playing with boys over the weekend."
When it was time for another move in 2008, this time to Chennai, the city the family is originally from, Bhaskar found an academy she really wanted to play for, run by former India player VB Chandrasekhar. But there was one glitch in her plan. Chandrasekhar's academy was strictly for boys.
That didn't stop Bhaskar from approaching and convincing him to give her a chance. To be polite, Chandrasekhar asked her to come to a half-hour practice session. He remembered thinking, "I'll watch her play for 15 to 20 minutes, and then I'll throw her out."
Chandrasekhar set up 13-year-old Bhaskar to bat against 11-year-old boys in his academy and walked away. He suddenly heard a crack - the perfect sound of a ball meeting the centre of a bat - and turned around to see a bunch of fielders looking confused. The ball was speeding past the fielders, and they had no idea what had happened. "That was when I realised I had made a mistake," Chandrasekhar says. "This kid had the strength of an 18-year-old."
A few weeks later Bhaskar was signed up for his academy -- the first girl to have done so. That was when Chandrasekhar decided to open his academy to other girls who loved playing cricket but didn't have the opportunity to pursue their dreams.
Through the years, Bhaskar fine-tuned her skills wherever she lived. She had always trained as a medium-pacer, but during a tournament in New Zealand (she played club cricket in Otago in 2016), she noticed that legspin, particularly in T20 cricket, was a lethal weapon. As soon as she came back to Chennai, she approached former India legspinner L Sivaramakrishnan and convinced him to give her tips on how to switch to spin bowling.
"Now, she is a complete allrounder. She can score runs, pick up wickets and possibly be involved in a catch or a run out in every match," her father said.
So how did Bhaskar, who played predominantly in India, find her way to the national team in the US? In 2010, when she was still playing in India, she was discovered by former Guyana first-class cricketer and coach Linden Fraser, who runs the club team the Tri-State Lynx in New York. Bhaskar was visiting her grandparents in Chicago when she heard about the team. Bhaskar and Fraser talked on the phone, and soon after, she flew to Northern California for a practice session. Fraser immediately knew he wanted her to play for his team. At 16, Bhaskar played her first club tournament in the US.
But a year after her US debut, she was given some heartbreaking news: only citizens were eligible to play for India. Because she was born in the US and held American citizenship, she was ineligible. This was despite the ICC's eligibility rules that stated a cricketer can play for his or her country of residence.
Bhaskar was devastated. But Fraser made a good point: "So what if you can't play for India? You could play for the US." Bhaskar decided to work her way to the top - and it paid off. In 2011, her name was on the US roster.
In team meetings, Bhaskar is the first person to speak up. She has a knack for bringing players together to function effectively because she talks to each one of them in a specific manner to get the best results, US coach Anand Tummala says. There are players from Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, India and Pakistan on the team. Although the Australia tour will be her first opportunity to actually lead the US, Bhaskar has led by example in the past.
During the 2011 World Cup Qualifiers in Bangladesh, when she was just 17, she scored 72 and was involved in a run-out that gave the team its only victory of the tournament, against Zimbabwe. They won the match by one run. Bhaskar was awarded the Player of the Match (the US had lost two previous matches and weren't in contention to make it to the World Cup). The match was telecast live in Bangladesh and watched by thousands of fans.
In a match against Scotland in the 2017 Women's World T20 Qualifying Series for the Europe-Americas region, Bhaskar led with an unbeaten 51 off 59 balls, although the US eventually lost.
Between 2012 and 2017, the side did not play any official tournaments. The ICC discontinued the ICC Americas women's championship, the only organised international tournament for women in North and South America, because of lack of commitment from home boards to develop domestic women's programmes to feed into creating competitive national teams. Bhaskar lost out on playing international cricket for five years - her best developmental years, from ages 17 to 22. That changed in 2017, when the team was given a wild-card opportunity to play in the World Cup Qualifiying Series in Scotland.
Now Bhaskar & Co are looking to build on that opportunity.
She is an important piece in the ICC's plan for the US in the next two years. The team's main goal? Qualify for the 2020 World T20. A major challenge for Bhaskar will be to get the team to adapt to the format. She will rely on experienced team-mates such as Candacy Atkins, who played for West Indies, and Sindhuja Reddy, who played for India A and South Zone. "We will need some big hitters with the confidence to change the course of the game," she says.
The tour of Australia, where the US will play club and city teams, will mark the first time the national women will compete with the end goal of developing and improving their game. In the past, the team has toured only for ICC qualifier tournaments, and it was always a make-or-break situation.
Apart from the Australia tour, the ICC also wants to prepare the team before the qualifiers in the summer of 2019. According to Wade Edwards, the ICC's US project officer, the women will play in several other developmental tours, including one in the Caribbean before the Caribbean Women's T20 Cricket league later this year. They will also have a leadership programme, a strength and conditioning programme, and several combines from April to July.
"In the past, we haven't played a lot of tournaments leading up to the World Cup qualifiers," Bhaskar says. "We directly go into the qualifiers, and that doesn't work, right? The next 15 months provides a great opportunity for us to come together as a team and understand different playing conditions better - and I want to lead by example."
The next 15 months will be the most important time in Bhaskar's cricket career. In addition to evolving as an allrounder, she will need to figure out how to be an effective captain. "I would have loved to see her play for India, but at the international level, if there is going to be a superstar coming up, that status is what I'd like to see her attached with," Chandrasekhar says.
Indeed, Captain Cool has prepared her whole life for this moment.