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Saika Ishaque's rough path to WPL glory

Injury sidelined her, but after a few technical adjustments and a lot of hard work - including against East Bengal's men - she just keeps on striking for Mumbai Indians

S Sudarshanan
S Sudarshanan
"Bowler hoon, wicket lene ke liye aayi hoon [I am a bowler, so I am here to pick up wickets]."
The confidence in Saika Ishaque's voice was unmistakable as she put on the purple cap, having become the highest wicket-taker in the WPL with two strikes against Royal Challengers Bangalore on Monday. On Thursday, she stretched her lead at the top with three more wickets against Delhi Capitals, sending them on their way to 105 all out. Capitals headed into what was a clash between two unbeaten sides with back-to-back 200-plus totals. But they were undone by the brilliance of Ishaque, who's taken a rough path to the glitz and glamour of the WPL.
Ishaque comes from a humble background in Park Circus, a neighbourhood in south Kolkata. She was introduced to the sport by her father, who passed away 15 years ago. She did the hard yards at the Under-19 and Under-23 levels for Bengal before playing for the senior side. But a shoulder injury in 2018 pegged her back for a couple of years and the road forward was tough.
Ishaque struggled to pick up wickets on her return and was then left out of the Bengal side. Low on confidence, she was introduced to former Bengal left-arm spin allrounder Shibsagar Singh in 2021, and he helped her make technical adjustments. Watching some footage of her, Shibsagar observed that Ishaque was bowling very full and not letting the ball turn enough.
"I saw that she is talented and there is something different about her, and made her understand what her issue is," Shibsagar told ESPNcricinfo. "I asked her to pull her length back a touch, that allowed the ball to deviate, rather than bowling it full and not letting it turn. I also told her to not try for wickets but concentrate on bowling in the right way.
"I told her to focus on bowling one ball at a time and not think of the entire over or other stuff. Her mindset slowly began changing. Her earlier focus was on wanting to pick X wickets in Y overs."
Former India allrounder Rumeli Dhar, who also captained Ishaque at Bengal, loved the gusty, fighting character that Ishaque was in the side. Bowling to batters who attack was something she particularly revelled in.
"[Ever since her comeback from injury] she knows where she should land the ball to get it to spin and trouble the batter."
Rumeli Dhar, who was Ishaque's captain at Bengal
"When I was the captain, there were a couple of instances where I have asked her if she would be able to pick up a tough wicket and she upfront used to say yes and did it too," Dhar said. "She is badmaash [naughty] but she is fun-loving. She knows to have fun and also knows how to make people laugh.
"[Ever since her comeback] she knows where she should land the ball to get it to spin and trouble the batter. She has learnt how to respond to captains' and coaches' calls of bowling in specific areas and situations. She has a lot of control with her bowling."
Capitals would learn of it the hard way.
Meg Lanning and Shafali Verma, easily one of the most dangerous opening pairs in the WPL, had a 162-run stand in Capitals' opening game and then put up a half-century partnership against UP Warriorz heading into the game against Mumbai. Ishaque, though, struck the first blow off her sixth ball, having Shafali play around a flighted delivery that was slanted into the stumps to bowl her. Capitals were briefly buoyed by a fifty-run stand between Lanning and Jemimah Rodrigues - going from 31 for 3 to 81 for 3 - but then Ishaque was at it again.
Brought back in the 13th over for her third, Ishaque again attacked the stumps and just fired it in a touch, only for Rodrigues to go back and miss her cut and be bowled. The left-arm spinner then struck a telling blow on the last ball by floating one up outside off and enticing Lanning to charge down and take the aerial route only for her to hit it to extra cover.
This all came after a four-wicket haul against Gujarat Giants at DY Patil Stadium to set up her team in the WPL curtain-raiser. While it was captain Harmanpreet Kaur who stole the show with her scintillating fifty, Ishaque's exploits made sure everyone took note of her too.
And so far, of her nine wickets in the WPL, seven have been either bowled or lbw.
Ahead of the WPL, Shibsagar took Ishaque to the East Bengal club to train with male cricketers. He specifically asked them to attack her in a bid to prepare her for the WPL, and he liked what he saw.
"She is dimaagwali (intelligent). Never afraid to bowl the tough overs - she will bowl two overs in the powerplay and then also want to bowl at the death," Shibsagar said. "Any bowler can get hit but she is always confident of picking up wickets."
The WPL, it is expected, will be a means to unearth uncapped talents and fast track them into the national set-up. Given Ishaque's WPL performances have come at a time when India's incumbent left-arm spinners Rajeshwari Gayakwad and Radha Yadav are struggling for consistency and penetration, Ishaque could well be on this path.

S Sudarshanan is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo