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Pressure is no problem for RCB's 20-year-old matchwinner Kanika Ahuja

The allrounder dedicated the win to her mother, who played a crucial role in her rise as a cricketer

Zenia D'cunha
Kanika Ahuja celebrates with her team-mates after winning RCB the game against UP  •  BCCI

Kanika Ahuja celebrates with her team-mates after winning RCB the game against UP  •  BCCI

"Mere dimaag main bas yeh chal raha that ki mujhe match jeetna hain. [The only thing in my mind was that I want to win this match.] It feels normal to me [playing against the big names], I don't feel pressure."
There was a dazzling smile on 20-year-old Kanika Ahuja's face when she walked into the press conference room after powering Royal Challengers Bangalore to their first win in the Women's Premier League. She spoke with confidence, about talking with Virat Kohli and trying to imitate the 360-degree shots of Suryakumar Yadav.
It was her first press conference, Ahuja said later, but why would there be nerves? She had just stepped up and done what no veteran in her team had - handled pressure and got those first points. Ahuja's 46 off 30 balls is the highest score by an uncapped player in the WPL so far, and it came at a crucial time - in a must-win match after five straight losses.
Royal Challengers were chasing only 136 but had lost their big three - Smriti Mandhana, Sophie Devine and Ellyse Perry - when Ahuja began her innings in the seventh over. Heather Knight was dismissed soon after, with Royal Challengers needing 76 off 66 balls and in the middle of an all-too-familiar batting crisis.
How does Ahuja respond? By sticking to her game, finding the boundary, and keeping the asking rate in control. "The target was small so there was a chance to take my time and play, that's what I did," she said. "I waited for the loose balls and the only thing in my mind was that we have to win."
UP Warriorz's Australian allrounder Grace Harris said Ahuja had played a smart innings. "She played the conditions and bowlers very well," Harris said. "She saw pace on a couple of times and ramped [scooped] us, I thought that was very clever. She has got a good bat swing and as a left-hander, she can get under the ball."
Ahuja had already shown glimpses of her potential in the match against Mumbai Indians, where she scored 22 off 13 balls. "Everyone told me my intent was good but that I can do better. I regretted that I got a chance and got out early." Against Warriorz, she missed a half-century by four runs but there were no regrets; her team had finally won and that's all that mattered for now.
Ahuja dedicated the moment to her mother, her strongest support. "There was a time when my mother used to push me to play. Now, she is not doing well physically and I am playing here for her, playing because she is watching me."
Cricket was initially a way for her mother to get Ahuja out of the house as a child, but soon it meant more and it was her mother who stood by this decision.
"I used to mainly go because my mother would tell me to go out and play and not trouble her at home. If I was at home, I would fly kites on the roof so she would push me to go out and play," Ahuja said with a laugh. "My family didn't even know that there is cricket for girls… My father told me to focus on my studies as there is nothing in cricket, but my mother would say go and play."
That initial push to play and the continued support has brought Ahuja to the DY Patil Stadium, where thousands of fans chanted her name on Wednesday night. "I was enjoying it, it felt very good to hear 'Kanika, Kanika'. It's the dream of every player that people cheer for them, it didn't feel like pressure at all."
Ahuja is known for her big-hitting skills. In September, she scored 305 not out off 122 balls for Patiala in Punjab's inter-district women's senior one-day tournament. But to do it in your home state is different from nailing your shots in the WPL, irrespective of boundary sizes.
But again, what is pressure to one so cool? "Virat sir said that it's not pressure, it's pleasure."
Kohli had met the Royal Challengers women's team on the morning of their game against Warriorz. "He motivated us, some of his words stuck with me and it helped," Ahuja said. "When you are playing, don't take it as pressure, it's a pleasure that you are playing. Some people don't get the chance."
Kohli is not the only India men's cricketer that Ahuja looks to for inspiration. You can see some of Suryakumar's 360-degree range in her strokeplay. She also has an infectious energy on the field, as evidenced by Devine literally sweeping her off her feet after taking a catch.
A left-handed power-hitter who bowls as well, Ahuja is a prospect for the future, and the WPL is a platform built for players like her. Despite their poor results this season, Royal Challengers have the system to be a finishing school for players like Ahuja and Shreyanka Patil, who scored the winning runs against Warriorz. "This is a great experience as a domestic player to play against international players," Ahuja said. "If we prepare now, it will help the Indian team ahead."
Playing for India is her ultimate dream and Ahuja is on course to achieve it.