The spinners raked in all the plaudits when India reached the final of the T20 World Cup for the first time, in Australia this year and rightly so. The quartet of Poonam Yadav, Deepti Sharma, Rajeshwari Gayakwad and Radha Yadav grabbed a total of 25 wickets at a combined economy rate of just 6.38 and were a major driving force throughout the tournament.
However, one bowler who flew under the radar and did her job perfectly was medium-pacer Shikha Pandey. In the first match of the tournament against Australia, with India defending only 132, Pandey removed the dangerous Beth Mooney inside the Powerplay and then came back to garner two more wickets. The second game against Bangladesh saw her pick up two more scalps but her biggest contribution came in the clash against New Zealand.
With Amelia Kerr going hammer and tongs in the final stages of the innings, Pandey stuck to her basics, got the yorkers on target and helped India win the game by three runs, therefore, booking a spot in the semi-final of the tournament.
Pandey has had her ups and downs. From being out of favour in 2018 to becoming the leader of the pace bowling unit has not been an easy journey but Pandey has been relentless in her pursuit. She recently spoke to cricket.com in a freewheeling chat about her journey as a pace bowler, interactions with WV Raman and how a Women's IPL could change the landscape of cricket in India.
Q. How have you been keeping up with the lockdown? What have you been generally upto in the last few weeks at home?
I have been trying to have a schedule, a time-table that I make and try to follow. It is very difficult for a professional athlete to not be doing anything. So, I have been doing my workouts twice a day and then spend a lot of time with my parents. I like reading so I have been reading a lot. As a kid, I always wanted to learn a musical instrument so I have been trying to self-tutor.
Q. The lockdown must have disrupted your fitness routine in some ways? How are you balancing that and have there been any directives from the BCCI trainers on specific routines to follow during the lockdown?
I have been in touch with our trainers. Naresh (Sir), I have been in touch with him. Obviously, the kind of gym setup you would expect is not there, but then whatever is there at my disposal, I have been trying to make full use of it. The best thing is that I get to spend a lot of time with my parents, which is something that I have not had the time to do. I have been doing whatever is possible.
Q. It must be doubly tough for you, especially as a fast bowler as you have gotten used to a particular routine. Are you in any case skeptical, that once the lockdown ends it will be tough for you to find your rhythm?
Yes, I am someone who kind of believes a lot in hard work and someone who if I don't put that many hours in place would not really feel that comfortable. So, that way initially when the lockdown started I was really skeptical, but then again it is the bigger picture that I need to look into. Probably sitting at home I am in a very good place, am very blessed and privileged. But there are so many others, who are struggling to find even a day's meal so looking at all of that, I think I am very blessed and privileged. So, yes, as a fast bowler I am not really thinking about missing my rhythm or anything but yes, it is very unfortunate. There were a lot of games in store for us like the IPL Challenge games. These games give us a lot of exposure in terms of the brand of cricket we play. That is one thing that couldn't happen. But the bigger picture matters right now. I have been trying to do my runs, there is some space where I stay so I have been trying to do everything possible.
Q. The 2019-20 season has been one of the best of your career in both ODIs and T20Is. What are some of the technical changes you made that ensured things work for you?
When the 2019 season started, we had the Challenger Trophy tournament and I was captaining one of the sides, India Red. And I did not know but (WV) Raman Sir, our coach, was there to watch our matches. In the final, I ended up getting a five-wicket haul and scored a few runs as well. We were supposed to fly out to New Zealand and when we landed there, the first two sessions, because there was rain, we were confined indoors, and indoors the medium-pacers do not really bowl that much. We try to bowl with a shorter run-up or kind of release the ball just to be in the rhythm. So he (Raman) came up to me and said that he would like me to work on this one little thing in my bowling. He thought there was a technical correction to be done in my run-up. And the other thing he said was that you are not going to get instant results, but you just have to have faith in the process. So, I didn't really get that many wickets in the New Zealand series but when I got back to India, I worked on it another one month or so and when we played England, the results started to show. Not just that, there are a lot of things that I have worked on.
Q. You have often heaped praises on your coach WV Raman. How has it been working with him?
Firstly, the kind of experience he brings onto the table is immense. I was recently reading about him and it is amazing. He got into the India side as a left-arm spinner, then started batting higher up. He is a very good reader. If things are not really going well for you, he will be able to pinpoint. I still remember, in one of the matches, the second ODI against the West Indies, he came up to me and said, ‘You are going to bowl really well this match and I am very sure about it.' And I remember that was the best opening spell that I have bowled for the longest time. I might have not gotten wickets, just got one wicket but it was great. There are things that he can actually pinpoint about what's going wrong and what is not. And also the mental part of it.
The first time he took over, he spoke to us and he said that he will be helping us in terms of the physical preparation, and the mental preparation, it is something he will try helping us. And he has helped us a lot in that part. He is that assuring face in the dressing room. There are days when things will not go according to what you wish for and I am someone who overthinks but from the time that he has been here, I just realised that cricket is not life, it is just a part of life. There are things that will not go your way and it does not matter.
One other thing that he shared, that will always stay with me for life is that whatever you do on the field will not define what you are off the field. So irrespective of how it goes, you should be the same person off the field.
Q. You have had to deal with a lot of ups and downs throughout your career. Especially when the chips are down, how do you motivate yourself and is there anyone specific you speak to get away from the game?
The support system that I have at home, my sister, my parents... the best thing about them is that we don't not really talk cricket. Initially, when I started, we would talk cricket but now I don't really talk cricket to them. And I realised that as my parents, they also take the bump on the road whenever I am not doing well. So we try not talking cricket as much. I am a huge cricket buff. But now I don't really watch cricket anymore as much. I would probably just watch Test match cricket and some matches that I think are going to help me, the first six overs, the death bowling. I have always worked with a few mentors, who helped me a lot. And after I got dropped in 2018, I realised that I wasn't really enjoying the process, I was looking into the result part of the game. That is when I told myself, from now on whatever be the case I am not going to be worried about the results, I will try to control the controllable. Also, I told myself that I will play cricket like the five-year-old that fell in love with the game. It might sound like a cliché, but that is when I realised that it really works a lot. We, as cricketers, need to realise that it is such a huge honour to represent the country, not everyone gets the chance to do it. I always try to remind myself that my love for the game should never diminish.
Q. How was your experience of playing in front of jam-packed Melbourne Cricket Ground at the Women's T20 World Cup final?
Probably a lot of us forgot because we lost the final as to how lucky and blessed we were to be playing in a jam-packed stadium. And I still remember what Raman Sir spoke to us before the final. He just told us that you guys should consider yourself so lucky that you are playing here. And he literally said that 'If I could cheat, I could actually cheat and get onto the stadium tomorrow and play.' And the very fact that not everyone is going to get the opportunity like that to play at the 'G'. We have played there before in 2016 and we won that match and won the series against Australia. But obviously the attendance was hardly 3000-4000. And to have 86,000+ people coming down to watch us, we were literally ambassadors of women's sport, not just cricket and to have Katy Perry perform, I mean who would get a chance like that. It was amazing.
Q. In India, it gets even tougher especially for a medium pacer with the tracks on offer. Are there any more variations that you are looking to add to your repertoire?
It would be ideal if I could have a very good slower ball. I have a good off-cutter but a back-of-the-hand slower ball would be good. I have been working on it. I probably need to put in those many hours behind it. I have been practicing my yorkers a lot and I take a lot of pride in my yorkers that is my go-to ball in the death overs. In India, you do not always get tracks for pacers, they are either turning tracks or flat surfaces. I could write a 1200-word essay about how unhappy we are about this but then I captain the Goa side and I still try having three medium-pacers in the side because unless we give the medium pacers a chance to bowl and get used to the conditions, they will never learn. I remember talking to Jhulu (Jhulan Goswami) di about this and I have so much respect for her because she has played a lot of domestic and international cricket and to get those many wickets at the economy rate that she has had, it is amazing. Whenever you feel it is unfair, you look at her and see what she has done.
Q. While you have been one consistent pacer over the past few years, there have been others who have come into the side but haven't quite been able to cement their place. What do you think has been lacking?
I don't know. Probably because of the emergence of good spinners on the domestic circuit, I would say. Also, like you said the wickets are so spinner-friendly...I will not be lying if I say there are days where I have felt so unfair that the ball is not doing anything and these are the days that you actually have to go back and think of what other things you can do. Like bowl a slower ball or bowl a yorker, so I would say the wickets in India are one of the biggest reasons. And it is not that we do not have good medium pacers on the domestic circuit, but they will have to be groomed well.
Q: Lastly, what are your thoughts on a Women's IPL?
It has to commence as soon as possible! You can see the difference it makes when you play those high-intensity games. In 2016, if you remember, Hayley Mathews facing Elysse Perry, she played her as if she has been facing her for a long time and one of the reasons was that she played for Hobart before in the WBBL. I am sure if you play those kinds of high-intensity games and on a regular basis, you will become conditioned. As someone who has played 100 games, for sure if I am facing a situation in a game, say in a T20 International, I would have faced it before because of the number of matches that I have played with very good players. Not just that, you get to learn a lot, you get to speak to other international players about their experiences, things that they are working on and you get to work so. I am sure if we have something like an IPL, it would be great just for the growth of women's cricket. We would get that much more media attention, more young girls would be watching us play. I am not saying they are not right now, but it is about the frequency. It is said that the biggest story ever told is the biggest story ever sold. So, yes it will help a lot in the growth of women's cricket in India, especially.