"I know what they'll say. 'Her action is so unusual, just like Paul Adams.'"
Uncapped Indian bowler Maya Sonawane was speculating about what the cricketing world at large would think about her when they saw her play in the Women's T20 Challenge. Sure enough, when she came on to bowl for Velocity in the 11th over on her debut in the three-team tournament on Tuesday, the reactions that emerged on social media were almost exactly as she predicted.
The impossible-looking contortions of her body when she delivers are invariably the first thing that catches the eye about the 23-year-old. Like it did former Australia player and commentator Lisa Sthalekar's during Sonawane's debut game. "My body is in so much pain watching her bowl," Sthalekar tweeted during the match, in which Sonawane went for 19 runs in two wicketless overs. "Whilst it is unique and unique can sometimes be gold, can it be sustained at a top level for years?"
"Many people have told me there isn't anyone with a similar action in women's cricket, but I don't see it as something extraordinary or detrimental," says Sonawane, who considers Rashid Khan and Shane Warne her idols.
"I didn't know who Paul Adams was, what he looked like, whom he played for, until I made it to the Maharashtra senior team," she says. It was then, at 15, fresh off a chart-topping wicket haul at the national Under-19 competition, that she first heard she was different from most wristspinners, but that there was a precedent in international cricket for the way she bowled.
"One of our senior bowlers, Snehal Pradhan, walked up to me and said, 'Maya, do you know who you bowl like?' I said, 'No, didi.' She then showed me a picture or video of Paul Adams, and I said. 'Hum dono toh same hi hain. Yeh kaise ho gaya?' [We are identical. How can this be?] she remembers saying.
Shivil Kaushik, a male left-arm wristpinner who bowls with an action like Adams', evoked a similar social-media reception, including from Adams himself, when he first arrived on the scene, at the IPL in 2016. Unlike both those men, Sonawane is a right-armer, which makes her something of a first of her kind.
"[The action] has always felt natural to me. That's how I have bowled ever since I first decided to try bowling from the popping crease and not run in from a distance to deliver the ball," she says. Back then, barely ten, Sonawane didn't know what a spinner was, or a pace bowler. "I didn't know what legspin or offspin was," she says. "All I knew was, some people bowl from a distance, some from closer to the crease. One day, I felt like bowling from closer and my action turned out to be what it is now."
"If I continue working hard and doing well, who knows, I might get to play for India. And then if some other bowler comes along with a similar action, people might start saying, 'She bowls like Maya'"
The captain of the senior Maharashtra side Sonawane made it to was India opener Smriti Mandhana, who also led them in the recently concluded Senior Women's T20 League, where Sonawane made a mark with two four-fors in eight innings and placed fourth on the wicket-takers' table in Maharashtra's run to a runners-up finish.
Ahead of the Women's T20 Challenge, in which Mandhana is leading defending champions Trailblazers, she spoke about the strides Sonawane has made. "She has a good wrong'un and a legbreak. And the best thing is now she knows which will go which way. I think two years back that [knowledge] was missing."
Deepti Sharma, Velocity's captain, believes a bowler like Sonawane can add an edge to an attack. "She has a lot of variations. Her control over her lines and lengths are very good, which makes her somebody who's ready to take on challenges and bowl the kind of deliveries a captain may require her to in a situation."
Sonawane rubbed shoulders with both Mandhana and Deepti at a preparatory camp in Bengaluru in August last year, where she made it to the ranks of the probables for the multi-format tour of Australia after winning the 2021 One-Day Challenger Trophy with India A. She counts being selected for that camp as one of the highlights of her career.
"Jhulan [Goswami] di and Mitthu [Mithali Raj] di, and Ramesh [Powar] sir spoke affectionately in that camp and motivated me to do well," says Sonawane. "I couldn't make it to the squad for the Australia series but gained a lot of confidence by interacting with the India players and all the support staff. And Mitthu di even gave me a pair of gloves and said, 'Do well.'"
A similar gesture from Mandhana a few years earlier also left a strong imprint. "We were playing a domestic tournament in Baroda and Smriti di was our captain for Maharashtra. She said if I took three or more wickets, she'd give me shoes. I ended up taking four or five in that game and she gifted me a pair and encouraged me to do even better."
Sonawane comes from a family of humble means in the town of Sinnar, some 30km from Nashik in Maharashtra, where she currently trains. "My father and older brother do low-paying jobs that require a lot of hard work," she says. "So it's not like it has been easy for me to carry on with my cricket, but I am grateful to be continuing."
Like her Velocity and former Maharashtra team-mate Kiran Navgire, Sonawane says she has benefited from the goodwill of several well-meaning people. One of them was the local corporator in Sinnar, whose backyard was the first place where she played cricket.
"I was eight or nine when I came upon a house when I was out playing in the evening after school," Sonawane remembers. "There, he [the corporator] was playing cricket with his daughter on a pitch he had built for her. I was so enchanted by the sight of the girl playing cricket that I stayed there for two hours straight, collecting any balls that came my way and throwing them back."
As Sonawane became a familiar face, the corporator asked her to join them properly. "That was where it all started for me," she says. "My older brother found out that I used to go there and had started playing. He told my parents about all that I had been doing and asked them to encourage me to play cricket."
Sonawane first trialled for the Nashik District Cricket Association (NDCA) team at 11. She started training under Shivaji Jadhav, her first coach, who was part of the NDCA set-up. Her brother regularly helped with her training too. In the inter-district competition in 2013-14, she turned in an impressive performance, which paved the way for a call-up to the Under-19 Maharashtra side. She didn't get a game that season but was the leading wicket-taker in the tournament the following year, with 23 dismissals in nine matches, which helped her break into the senior squad.
"Everything I have been able to do in cricket, becoming the highest wicket-taker in the U-23 domestics or being on a hat-trick in three consecutive overs for West Zone U-19s in 2018-19 - they have all happened because of the way I bowl, how I bowl," she says.
"I am grateful to my coaches, Pradeep Ingle and the late Avinash Agarkar sir, for their guidance. Pradeep sir is one of those who has always backed me against changing my action."
Velocity coach Devika Palshikar too is among those who think the action, tortuous though it may look, is not something Sonawane needs to alter. "I saw her eight years back, when I took my first West Zone ZCA (Zonal Cricket Academy) camp. That time, when she was 14, she was just the same," said Palshikar. "Many coaches tried to change her action, but that's her natural thing. She's still doing that and there is no injury, so we don't need to change that.
"She's very much comfortable with that and doing well for her state. There will be stress on her back and shoulder, but I would say she's lucky that till today she hasn't got any injuries as such."
Asked how she would like to be best described as an unorthodox wristspinner, Sonawane smiles and says, "Maybe for now you can say, 'Maya bowls like Maya.' If I continue working hard and doing well, who knows, I might get to play for India with this action. And then if some other bowler comes along with a similar action, people might start saying, 'She bowls like Maya.'"