"Our greatest growth comes from our darkest times. You go!"
The last 12 months have indeed been a very challenging phase in the life of Shikha Pandey. And it comes as no surprise that this quote fits perfectly on the wall of her room as she strived to make a comeback to the national side.
While most people expected her to take over the mantle after the retirement of Jhulan Goswami, the team management shocked the cricketing fraternity by dropping her unceremoniously from the ODI World Cup squad in New Zealand last year. A snub ahead of a marquee event and no formal press conference to follow, it opened a plethora of questions revolving around some of the debatable calls taken by the selection committee.
"I thought maybe I should walk away and leave the sport because I was probably just not good enough. The whole non-selection brought a lot of self-doubts," she said in a conversation with the Scroll.
Two weeks that followed were filled with despair, and a sense of uncertainty engulfed the Telangana-born player. However, she soon channeled it to reignite her love for the game by going back to her roots and rekindling the past relations that helped her don the national jersey.
“Somewhere behind the athlete you've become and the hours of practice and the coaches who have pushed you is a little girl who fell in love with the game and never looked back... play for her,”
A famous quote by Mia Hamm on the pressure of performing every single time at your optimum level is the exact reason why professional athletes fail to enjoy the sport they once competed with immense passion. Cos, with every step of working your way up the ladder comes the pressure of delivering, and we fail to enjoy the little things that made us fall in love with the game at a tender age.
And, in a career spanning over 15 years, it was important for Shikha to renew her love for the game and follow the passion that led her to first step onto the field despite the hardships.
"I realised I have so much more to offer to the game, and I kind of started finding ways of practising and finding peace and happiness in every session that I did after that," she said.
Coming from a city known for white sand beaches and football grounds, Shikha shattered stereotypes when she picked cricket over muddy fields. Nothing could give her more joy than the smell of a brand new cherry and bamboozling the opposition batters with her swinging deliveries.
While she graduated through the ranks of playing age-group cricket and her performances started making the noises for the right reasons, it was only a matter of time before she made her much-awaited debut for the national side against Bangaldesh in March 2014.
There ain't any doubt that the journey in the last eight years wearing the India cap has been filled with ebbs and flows, but Shikha embraced it all with a smile on her face.
The beauty of any sport is that it allows an opportunity to come back from the little stutters you face on the field. As smooth as her journey was in the Indian team as an understudy to Goswami, it was riddled with bumpy rides once the Bengal speedster called time on her international career in the shortest format.
With the onus of spearheading the bowling unit on her shoulders, Shikha failed to grab the opportunity, leading to her downfall. The emergence of Renuka Thakur and Meghna Singh added to her woes of holding onto her place in the national side after the away series against Australia in 2021.
"I thought during the Australia series that I was in a very good rhythm, and I was bowling really well. But, unfortunately, I didn’t make the ODI XI, and then, to miss out on the Test match at the last minute was even harder," she said.
Despite falling off the radar, Shikha vowed to stake a claim for herself in the national side. And it all started by preparing for the domestic tournament with Goa as the leader of the side and also the player who could create an impact on the younger generation. While the Indian team were showcasing their skills at the world event in the land of the Kiwis, Shikha was honing her game away from the glaring eyes of the media.
The performances slowly started to become the talk of women's sport as she scalped 20 wickets in 16 matches at an average of 13.4 and an economy rate of 4.6 runs per over in the domestic T20 tournament. While it was not enough to earn her place back in the squad for the Commonwealth Games, Shikha never gave up on her dream of staging a return to top-flight cricket.
Not knowing what the future holds for her, the all-rounder approached Belinda Clark to gain a bit of perspective about the game and life in general. A decision that not only led her to Australia for three weeks but also remodelled her approach to the game and allowed her a new lease of life.
“We sat down together and did a few sessions, the first of which was probably me getting emotional. The sessions that I had with her helped me immensely to bring in changes in my team environment, and we started believing more in positive reinforcement,” she said.
After a couple of sessions with the Queensland Fire squad and numerous club games on the weekend, Shikha was back in the country just in time for the national competition, a lot more calmer and wiser after her stint with the Aussie legend.
The mantra now for her was to not only focus on her performances but also create an impact on her state side that could lead the pathway for another gem emerging from the team. With the sheer weight of her domestic exploits that helped her and Goa create ripples in the tournament, she finally managed to break into the Indian side. A piece of news that got her grinning from ear to ear and made people believe in the magic of comebacks.
It was finally a Happy New Year in the Pandey household.
With months of hard work culminating into the tri-series ahead of the T20 World Cup and the showpiece event, all eyes were on the pacer as India aimed to use the series as a curtain-raiser ahead of the tournament.
With India opting to use a spin-heavy side for the majority of their games, Shikha missed out on the playing XI in a couple of games. The-33-year-old also played a bare minimum role in India's campaign in the T20 World Cup in South Africa, that eventually opened up question marks revolving around her comeback to the side.
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Despite the lack of game-time in the competition, Delhi Capitals showed immense faith in her abilities and acquired her services for INR 60 lakhs for the inaugural edition of the Women’s Premier League.
A year after not knowing if she would ever pick up the ball or get onto the field, Shilkha’s life had come around a full circle as she was now playing under the most decorated captain in Meg Lanning and sharing the new ball with Marizanne Kapp.
The first two matches against the Royal Challengers Bangalore and the UP Warriorz went wicketless, and there were doubts creeping into the minds of the cricketing pundits if it is the end of the road for Shikha in the shortest format. But, she ain’t the one who will give up on the challenges, and it was time to tackle it head-on.
With Kapp wreaking havoc against the Gujarat Giants with a five-wicket haul, little do the people know that along with the South African pacer, Shikha rattled them with a three-wicket burst to dismantle their middle order and power Delhi to an emphatic win.
Well, the inswingers were back again, and the ball started creating ripples in the extravaganza.
It was no longer Kapp who was the pillar of the Capitals’ bowling unit but a domestic talent that Lanning often turned to when the going got tough, especially in the middle overs and the back end of the innings.
In six innings, the fast bowler bowled eight overs at the death (16-20), scalping three vital wickets and conceding at an economy rate of 6.8 runs per over, the third-best among bowlers with a minimum of five overs in that phase. With 10 wickets in nine innings at an average of 21.1 and an economy rate of 6.6, Shikha not only repaid the faith of the team management but also showed young girls the power of chasing their dreams.
There isn’t anything that can halt a determined woman, and she once again showcased her never-say die-attitude as she guided the Capitals from 79 for 9 to 131 courtesy off a 17-ball 27 in the summit clash.
Every run and every boundary was followed with a fist pump, and every person in the stadium or watching it glued to their television sets could feel how much it meant to her.
“Things did not go our way, but the thing with Delhi Capitals is that we do not give up without a fight. It would have been nice to win the inaugural edition, but I can assure you and the fans we tried our best,” she said in a video released by the franchise after the summit clash.
“This tournament and Delhi Capitals will always have a special place in my heart."
Yes, the knock did not end on the winning side, nor would people remember her exploits after a certain time.
But, for Shikha and the army of people that supported her through the lean phase, it marks a new beginning for the player in what promises to be a glowing second chapter of her career.
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