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Feature

The many ambitions of Saima Thakor

The UP Warriorz fast bowler has had a long journey from football, through hardship and tough choices, to a WPL debut, but she's only ever looking forward

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
14-Mar-2024
Saima Thakor's first sporting ambition was to be the goalkeeper of her college football team in Mumbai.
"But we already had a goalkeeper, so my coach said, 'If you want to play in the XI, you have to be a forward,'" she remembered. "And I said, 'Okay. I'll do that.' I always loved running and I was quick."
She turned out to be quite good in the aggressive role before she was lured into the cricket side, which was short of players. "They had to pick from other sports, so they came to football and went to handball and I was one of the players they picked."
Once she was firmly planted in the new sport, she discovered her second sporting ambition: to be a wicketkeeper.
"But at that time I had a little financial crisis with my family and somebody told me you should become a bowler, because you just need one pair of shoes for that," she said. "For a wicketkeeper you need all the kit, for a batter you need all the kit - it's an expensive game - but for a bowler, you just need a pair of spikes. That's it."
And so Thakor settled for third-choice, with some knowledge of bowling technique from her childhood, a competitive spirit she says is "inbuilt", and a willingness to learn.
"I used to play cricket with my cousins and my brothers. I had very good endurance and good stamina but it was the judgement of the ball I had to learn," she said. "We played with a tennis ball but now it was a leather ball. Those are things I needed to change.
"I used to play gully cricket. I used to be with [the boys] always. I would not be with my sister, I used to be with my brothers and with my cousins."
While playing cricket in the streets was an acceptable pastime when she was growing up, as Thakor grew older, that changed. She was confronted with realities like the need to earn an income in a family that could use an extra paycheck.
"My father is a driver," she said. "He has worked really hard for all of us. Whoever I am right now, I am because of my parents. They've done everything they could. My sister also works very hard, she has a job. She keeps working day and night for us.
"When I told them I am going to play cricket seriously, my father suggested that I should take up a job. He said, 'Just help me out. It will be very handy if you have a monthly salary.' At that time, we didn't have much match fees and the sport was just coming up."
Thakor was knocking on the door of the Mumbai team around then, and though she understood her responsibilities at home, she wanted to see if it would open.
"I requested my father, 'Please I want to play this sport, just give me a year,'" she said. "He said, 'You can take your time but don't expect anything from me: no financial support, nothing. I said, 'Okay I will live with that.' I just wanted some time. I borrowed some money from my college friend to manage it somehow. It's a long story."
And it took an unexpected twist. Two months after Thakor made the decision to pursue a sporting career, when she was in and out of the Mumbai side, she suffered her first major injury: a stress fracture in her back, which sidelined her for several months.
She returned to play an Under-23 tournament in late 2019, and just as she was finding her rhythm again, dislocated her left shoulder in the quarter-final.
"It was an unfortunate injury. I was in very good form and picking up a lot of wickets. But I had to take three to four months off because of the dislocation," she said. "So I played cricket for two months and I had almost ten months off with two injuries. I was very frustrated because I was doing so well. There were so many tournaments going on. There was the Emerging Asia Cup and the Challengers Cup and I couldn't [play in them]."
"Somebody told me you should become a bowler, because you just need one pair of shoes for that. For a wicketkeeper you need all the kit, for a batter you need all the kit - it's an expensive game - but for a bowler, you just need a pair of spikes"
Though a typical shoulder dislocation does not require surgery - and Thakor's didn't - it still left its scars. On social media, she described her rehabilitation process as "dying 1000 times inside". She still speaks about the mental effects of the injury.
"It was suggested that I should go for surgery but then the doctors said, let's wait for six weeks and see how the shoulder heals, but there were still risks. I could dislocate my shoulder again. I was afraid to dive for almost a year after that," she said.
Eventually she learnt to trust the joint again by changing her perspective. "My physio said to me, 'You should just go for it. If you start having that fear, you are definitely going to dislocate it again. So face your fear.'
"I was physically strong but mentally I was not there. I had a very good physio and they focused more on that part. They said, if you are ready with your mind, your body will be ready sooner."
These days Thakor puts her body on the line without a second thought, assesses herself as "even fielding well", and is at her bowling peak. She has made a name for herself as someone who can nip and swing the ball around.
"The person I look up to is Jimmy Anderson," she said. "I love his bowling, I love his action and I love his consistency and the way he has so much patience in reading the batter as well."
The results are starting to show. In last year's Senior Women's T20 Trophy, she took 11 wickets at 13.00 and an economy rate of 4.93. A month later, at the WPL auction, she was picked up for her base price of Rs 10 lakh (approximately US$12,000) by UP Warriorz in what she called a life-changing payday.
"My parents are very happy. My sister is very happy and she is very proud of me. She said, 'When no one believed in you, you did it yourself,'" Thakor said. "I really appreciate that because in middle-class families in India, you don't speak up openly about all this," she said. "When WPL and UP Warriorz picked me and this came into my life, it changed everything, for my family and for myself. It was really great."
In return she's done her bit to make a mark on the tournament. Her first WPL wicket was the dangerous Harmanpreet Kaur, a batter most bowlers find tough to get on top of. Then she went on to have a fiery exchange with Shafali Verma and dismiss her for good measure, and take the wicket of her Mumbai team-mate Jemimah Rodrigues in Warriorz's win over Delhi Capitals, which kept them alive in the competition.
None of these things happened by chance. "I have been preparing myself for these moments for a long time. It didn't come overnight. I have been looking at [the batters'] batting, whenever they bat for India, they bat in WPL or when they bat in domestic teams. I have been really working on reading the batter and what they are going to do and keeping one step ahead of them. I am focusing on what I can do mentally and it got me a very positive result."
Mind over matter is something of a mantra for Thakor, who used it to help her through injury, and now hopes it will also lead to international recognition. At 27 she is approaching the peak of her powers and believes she has done enough to catch the eye of the Indian selectors, whose next task will be to pick a squad for the T20 World Cup.
"When you start playing, you think that one day I will hear that national anthem standing with my team-mates. That is my dream," she said. "I think I am closer than I think I am and I have already visualised it. I am a great believer in visualisation. I like visualising things that are good for me.
"It's not about overconfidence. It is about knowing what I can do. So yes, an international debut would be great."
And that is Saima Thakor's fourth sporting ambition.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent for South Africa and women's cricket