Couch Talk

'Winning the World Cup is going to make a lot of difference to Indian women cricketers'

India allrounder Shikha Pandey talks about the potential impact of a World T20 win at home, and the satisfaction of playing Tests

You are one of the younger brigade in the Indian team that won two Tests, one away in England and the other at home against South Africa, and the T20 series in Australia. Let's begin with that Test win against England in 2014. You were one of eight debutants, India were playing a Test after eight years, against a top side in their conditions. What was the pre-Test mood like in the Indian camp?
When I started playing cricket, I used to wake up at 5.30am to watch the Ashes. I remember my father telling me that the true form of cricket is Test cricket, so I thought that if I did play cricket any time, I'd want to be a Test cricketer. When I started playing, I didn't see Test cricket happening for women. I was really lucky that when we toured England in 2014 I went there as a replacement, and I then happened to be in the playing XI. For eight of us who were debutants, it was a good feeling to beat a team like England.
After the merger with the BCCI, for two years - 2006-07 and 2007-08 - we had a two-day format in domestic cricket. But after that the two-day format was scrapped and we had one-dayers, so we didn't really know how to play a days game at that time. We had practice, but we were going into a Test match with all of us so new to it.
The only input was from the coach, Sudha ma'am [Sudha Shah] and Mithali di [Raj], who had already played Tests. Jhulu di [Jhulan Goswami] and Karu [Jain] di had also been in the XI [with Raj] that won a Test match in Taunton [in 2006]. We were depending on their experience. Our bowling did really well. It was a green track. Bowling first, we had the advantage.
"I'm sure in the near future we will be able to take part in WBBL, although having our own version of it in India would be better"
You bowled England out for 92 in the first innings but they came back strongly to limit the lead to 22 runs. They put on 200-plus in the third innings. What was it like to know that you needed only 181 runs to get your first Test win?
We always knew that as the Test progressed the wicket would ease out. That was very visible when England batted the second time, and the partnership that [Anya] Shrubsole had with [Jenny] Gunn kind of took the match away from us. But we kept believing in ourselves and kept telling each other that it was going to be a Test win for us.
The last day was crucial. If we'd lost a few more wickets, probably we would have got into a slump, but my partnership with Mithali di did the trick for us.
Could you take us through that partnership? Mithai Raj is a legend of Indian cricket . You were batting alongside her in your first Test match and you scored the winning runs.
When the third day's play ended, I was on 0 not out. I was told to just see the day through. We had lost three quick wickets that day in the last session. Mithali di told me, "Just play out. Don't take any balls on the pads." As you know, we had set a world record of 20 lbws in that match. She told me to see the ball and get in line to play it.
I'd always wondered what it would be like for a batter to remain not out overnight and bat the next day, and I actually felt it! There were butterflies in my stomach.
As we began the next day, the wicket had eased out. To play those world-class medium-pacers on that track was a new experience, and Mithali di always had some input on the opposition, a few tips here and there, so yeah, we got our team through.
What sort of influence do Mithali and Jhulan have on the youngsters in the team?
We are so fortunate we have both of them in our side. Any youngster who wants to be a medium-pacer would dream to train and bowl alongside Jhulu di. When I got my India cap, I got it from her, in Bangladesh before the World T20 in 2014. I have been fortunate enough to bowl alongside her. In every practice session in which we bowl in tandem, she has inputs.
You have a degree in Electronics Engineering, you worked for the Indian Air Force, and you come from Goa, which is known more for football than cricket. Could you take us through your cricket journey?
I'm from Uttar Pradesh - not many know that. I was born in Andhra Pradesh. My father has a government job, which involved transfers. I used to play cricket as a kid, like most of us do, in the gullies with the boys. I actually never thought that I'd take up cricket this seriously. When we shifted to Goa, I went for a season-ball cricket selection and I got in. The first Under-19 tournament I played in was very good for me. I scored heavily with the bat and did well with the ball too.
The India coach now, Purnima Rao, a former India captain, was the South Zone selector then. She called me up and said, "You are really good, keep working hard." When I heard her say that, I kind of believed that I can play for my country.
"Things are obviously looking better. We didn't have central contracts, but from this year we do. The BCCI is trying everything to help us out"
My father made sure I finished my education first. It was only in the second year of college that I started playing cricket seriously. I probably wouldn't have done engineering if I had known cricket was going to be so hectic! Goa Engineering College was very helpful in every single way they could.
After getting my degree, I took a year off to see how my cricket goes. I did really well that season but didn't get picked. In that one-year period I cleared the Indian Air Force exams and joined them. I thought if I'm good enough, they will let me play for India, because I was in the probables before joining IAF. The Air Force sports control board were there for me all along. They have been helping me because playing for India, they also take pride in it.
A question from listener Dan: Your Twitter bio says you are a greentop lover. When you see a rank turner, what do you feel, and which one you prefer to bat on?
I'm a greentop lover because you hardly get to play on greentops. When I heard about my selection for the Australia tour, I was very happy, thinking about the bouncy wickets there. But when we went there, there was so little for the medium-pacers. It was a batting paradise.
Most of our domestic matches happen on rank turners. Baroda, for example, where one of the inter-zonal matches took place, the ball was turning so much, I couldn't believe it. I would like to play on a pitch that gives batters and bowlers an equal chance, but those are really hard to get these days.
In these conditions, I just listen to Jhulu di. She says, "It's really easy to bowl on wickets that are going to help you. It is that much more difficult to bowl on wickets that are not going to help you. Only then you will be able to judge how good a bowler you are."
India won the T20 series 2-1 in Australia after winning only one out of eight T20 matches against Australia. What was different this time?
From the time we got to know we were going to Australia, I believe we were very positive. We kept backing each other. When Australia batted first on that wicket [in Adelaide], we knew it was a flat batting wicket. We knew if we had wickets in hand, we'd be able to sail through, which we eventually did.
From the time we landed there, we kept telling ourselves that we had to do well in the series because this would lead us to do well in the World T20. Winning the World Cup in India is going to make a lot of difference for all the women cricketers in India, so the belief that we had to do well was the reason we did well.
Australia came back and won the ODI series 2-1. Would it be fair to say that the longer the format, the better the Aussies are than India at this moment?
I actually felt we were pretty close in the second ODI. If we had taken two more wickets, we could have won that.
"After getting my degree, I took a year off to see how my cricket goes. I did really well that season but didn't get picked. In that one-year period I cleared the Indian Air Force exams and joined them. I thought if I'm good enough, they will let me play for India"
See, we were playing in Australia against Australians. They knew the wicket better. I'm sure in no time you will be saying the opposite, probably. I'm hopeful that we will continue doing well. As Mithali di said, we are not as good in the shorter versions as in the longer format, but we have proved to ourselves and everyone else that we are good even in the shorter formats. We will strive hard to do well in ODIs as well.
England, Australia and New Zealand have had contracted players for a while now. They have a more stable system. Now 11 Indian players have been centrally contracted. Where do you see the need for further improvements to close the gap between them and India?
Things are obviously looking better [for us now]. We didn't have central contracts, but from this year we do. Next year probably there will be a few more additions to that list. The BCCI is trying everything to help us out. The domestic set-up has improved a lot as well. An U-20 T20 tournament has come up. All these steps are in the right direction.
A question from listener Brinda: Do Indian women players have the option of playing domestic cricket abroad, for example, in England or Australia? If that option were to exist, would you consider it?
I really don't know. The summers in England are in July and August. I don't think the BCCI would have any problems with that, because recently [Cheteshwar] Pujara went to England and played domestic cricket. I think we need to have our calendar in place first for that, because last year we played New Zealand in June-July. Shouldn't be a problem [if the players are free].
The Women's BBL was a tremendous success in Australia this year, both at the grounds and in terms of the viewership on TV. There were players from a lot of the countries in WBBL, but none from India. What do you think of Indians taking part in WBBL?
I'm sure in the near future we will be able to take part in WBBL. We had the domestic season going on this year, so we couldn't really commit to WBBL. I was just following the scores - South Africa have beaten England and [Marizanne] Kapp played a brilliant knock. You get better when you play against the best in the world. Hopefully, we get to play in the WBBL, although having our own version of it in India would be better.
You are getting ready to play Sri Lanka, and then you have the World T20, and then the ODI World Cup in 2017. Obviously winning the cup at home would be great, but where are you as a side now?
We take it one series at a time. Next on our to-do list is the ODIs against Sri Lanka. The first three matches are really crucial because we want to collect all six points, as that will decide our standings in the ICC Championship table. Considering we are playing those matches in India, we should be able to do well in those. Following that, there are three T20s against Sri Lanka, which will be our preparation for the World T20. Exciting times ahead.
India are currently seventh in the ODI Championship table. The top four get automatic qualification to the World Cup in 2017. Do you see India realistically making the top four?
The best we can do is what's in our hands. We will try to win all the nine matches we have against the three countries [Sri Lanka, West Indies and Pakistan].