S Sudarshanan is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
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Left-arm seamer Mahika Gaur was only 12 when she made her international debut for UAE. Four years on, she is set to become a double-international after being called up for England's white-ball series at home against Sri Lanka.
If you were to create a left-arm seamer in a lab, the ideal ingredients would be a tall frame, lean build, and an ability to move the ball, all of which Gaur, who is over six feet tall, has. In terms of pace, she is not yet Mitchell Starc, one of her idols, but in a short span, she has been able to use her height and discipline to trouble some of the top batters in the game.
In Gaur's first match at this year's FairBreak Invitational Tournament in Hong Kong, she got a length delivery to lift off the surface and jag back into the hard-hitting Deandra Dottin, who swayed away but could only glove it to the keeper. In her second match in the Women's Hundred, Gaur kept Oval Invincibles openers Suzie Bates and Lauren Winfield-Hill on a tight leash with her swing while mixing her lengths. She bowled 15 of her 20 balls inside the 25-ball powerplay for only seven runs and got the wicket of Winfield-Hill.
Born in Reading in the south of England, Gaur was inspired to take up cricket after watching an IPL match in Jaipur in 2011: Shane Warne had starred in a Rajasthan Royals win over Delhi Daredevils and the atmosphere at the Sawai Mansingh Stadium captivated Gaur so much that she wanted to play as soon as she got back to England.
"I was practising bowling in the garden. I think my dad was just surprised that I could roll my arm fully without chucking the ball," Gaur said on the sidelines of the Fairbreak Invitational in April this year. "He was a left-arm bowler in college but never got to do his cricket thing. But when he saw that I have potential, he's always been on board."
Three years later, when the family moved to Dubai, Gaur enrolled in the ICC Academy, where she met Chaya Mughal, who later became UAE Women's captain. "The first time I went into ICC [Academy], she was training indoors and the coach over there, Adnan [Sabri] sir said that I can bowl to her.
"I was bowling loopy full tosses and she was defending them. She was the first person I bowled to there and I was star-struck. My dad told me she's from the UAE national team - that was pretty cool."
Mughal also remembers her first sightings of a young Gaur, whom she went on to captain in 16 T20Is for UAE. "A young girl, taking a long run-up, high-arm action, left arm - I was surprised to see a full package," she said. "The first thought that came to my mind was, 'Wow, she is going to be a fantastic player for the UAE side!'
"She was continuously hitting the hard length and wanted the ball to come into me. I was amazed to see such a talent and she was putting in a lot of effort in every ball. She wanted to do something new in every ball she bowled. The spark she had took me aback."
Twelve-year-old Gaur didn't quite grasp the significance of her international debut, in 2019, and wondered why her parents and older sister were "making such a big deal of it". She only realised how momentous her debut was when Theertha Satish and Khushi Sharma, two of her best friends in the UAE set-up, got their T20I caps in 2021 at ages 17 and 19 respectively.
But the major turning point in her life came in 2020. After a training session with UAE was cancelled, Gaur found herself bowling in a masterclass session with Manchester Originals at the Dubai Expo. Lancashire men's captain Keaton Jennings and former wicketkeeper Warren Hegg, the cricket operations executive at Lancashire and Originals, were impressed by what they saw.
"[Hegg] was just talking to me and found out I have a British passport," Gaur said. "So I could play in England as a domestic player. They got in touch with my parents and I moved to Manchester in December 2021."
The following June, Gaur took 11 wickets for UAE in the Under-19 Women's T20 World Cup Asia Qualifiers - the most among fast bowlers and second overall, and her economy rate of 1.36 was the best for any bowler with at least four overs in the tournament. Originals picked her in their squad as a reserve and she made her Hundred debut this August.
By then there was already enough indication that England were also interested in the tall seamer. In June this year Gaur was selected to play T20s for England A against Australia A in a shadow tour alongside the Women's Ashes. She also took 11 white-ball wickets for her domestic side, Thunder, in 13 innings during this period.
What has stood out in most of these appearances is her calm and her ability to keep batters in check with the new ball. In May at Old Trafford in a 50-over domestic game for Thunder against Sparks, she prevented a set Davina Perrin and Grace Potts from scoring eight in the final over; the match was tied.
Gaur's calm perhaps comes from wanting to emulate the other "Mahi", MS Dhoni.
"One of the players I looked up to was Dhoni," she said. "He is the CSK captain, so I am a big CSK fan. We would watch all his finishes. My first ever cricket jersey was a picture of Dhoni and on the back it said 'Mahi 7' because he's Mahi and I am Mahi as well.
"I think it's why I started liking cricket, because he was making the team win from impossible situations. When I was younger, I would also dream of finishing matches like he did."
Her other idol, Starc, sent her a video message on her 16th birthday that "made my day".
"I was just in shock. That was really kind of him, and hopefully in the future, I'll get to meet and talk to him about bowling."
For now, Gaur is enjoying learning from her more experienced team-mates across the world. At FairBreak, she shared a dressing room with Australia's Nicola Carey, Pakistan's Bismah Maroof and South Africa's Ayabonga Khaka.
"I prefer to know about how [the experienced players] approach something," she said. "We were in trouble chasing a tall total against Tornadoes when Nicola Carey went out to bat. From the dugout we just watched how she took responsibility and made us win comfortably when it looked like we were not going to win.
"Similarly, in one of the games, Bismah played a great innings but we lost. I asked her about what she was thinking on that surface that was tough to bat on.
"Ayabonga Khaka was telling me about when she goes to her yorkers and when is the right time to bowl a slower ball. When I got hit, she would tell me what I could have done [differently]. Just small stuff like that, not overcomplicating it. They just keep it super simple."
Gaur narrowly missed out being part of the inaugural Women's Premier League in March in India. Gujarat Giants put in a late bid for her at the auction but they had already exhausted their overseas quota. Had she been picked, she might have played as the fifth overseas player in the XI, since she was from an Associate side. Still, she was happy a team had bid for her.
Outside the game, Gaur is continuing with her education - she's studying biology, maths and psychology - but says juggling school and cricket has been difficult. "As much as I want to study, I don't want to just always be studying when we're in a new country [for cricket]. It's good to go out. I am not too upset that I haven't been studying that much. It is good in a way because I'm always busy, [either] studying or playing cricket."
Bigger challenges await her as an England international. There will be more competition for a spot in the XI, but also more game time compared to her UAE days, which means more opportunity for the opposition to dissect her skills. However, FairBreak and the Hundred have shown she has the appetite to put up a fight.