Sunday, 23 March 2014

Sky and Seam : The Dreams of Shikha Pandey

It was Holly Colvin's shock announcement that she would take an indefinite break from women's cricket to pursue other career options that inspired this post. As I was reading it, one name kept reverberating in the recesses of my not so distant memory. That name was Shikha Pandey. Or as she goes nowadays, Flying Officer Shikha Pandey.

Shikha Pandey in action in a domestic match

This is not an attempt at creating India's own Holly Colvin story, although the competitive nature of the game in our country and the secondary role traditionally assigned to women in our society will ensure that we have plenty of those. Shikha's story has its own stand-alone qualities. "Dream on, little dreamer", is what her whats app status said some time back. But what does one do when ones heart and mind is big enough for not one compelling, all-consuming dream, but two?

 Shikha, like Holly, had a strong educational background. While Holly studied natural sciences, Shikha is an engineer. That itself makes her a rare breed in the Indian women's cricket fraternity, and I dare say Indian sports in general. Few have successfully balanced the dual commitments of sports and academics, particularly in India's university culture which is unashamedly in favour of the latter (Anjum Chopra and Anil Kumble are a couple of cricketers who come to mind). But the parallels between Shikha and Holly stop there. While Holly represented England at the record breaking age of 15, and was the cornerstone of their spin bowling department for eight years, Shikha, now aged 24, is yet to represent her country. But that could soon change.

 I digress. Shikha's story lies not in her numerous and commendable accomplishments in the classroom or even on the field, but in the ambitious and limitless scale of her dreams. This young girl, who dreams of wearing the India cap someday, first dreamed that she could fly. Before she wanted to bowl her inswingers for India, she wanted to be a pilot.

Shikha was always fascinated by the thought of the Air Force. The idea of flying fails to inspire no one, and for her, serving ones country was the icing on the cake. The fact that her father teaches Hindi in a Kendriya Vidyalaya (Central School) in Goa, which by and large caters to children of servicemen, on a naval campus no less, could have a lot to do with her patriotic bend of mind. So the little dreamer in her started dreaming, and mapping her life out towards that dream. Engineering was her choice of route, and she was well on her way to getting there, when the audacious happened. She dreamt again. In a cricket mad country like India, thanks to the endless conversations that her father would have with her about the then Indian team, Shikha Pandey dreamt of serving her country by playing cricket.

Shikha only started playing cricket under the BCCI umbrella in the second year of her four year degree. Before that her cricketing encounters had been confined to matches with the boys in the noisy, congested gullies outside her home and on the idyllic, sandy beaches of Goa. When eventually introduced to the Goa Cricket Association, she took to the leather ball game like a fish to water. She quickly established herself as a big contributor in the otherwise small world of Goa Women's Cricket, and a love for the game had been imprinted on her soul (for further proof, see her blog). Her exploits with ball and bat saw her regularly included in South Zone sides and she soon made her first appearance in the Challenger Trophy. 

Things were looking up, and Shikha realised that she had a credible and time bound opportunity to represent the country. Credible, because her potential as a future India prospect had been established, and time bound, because she knew she couldn't play cricket forever. So, after completing her degree, she took the difficult decision of putting her dreams of flying on hold for a year, and threw in her lot with cricket.

 It looked to be the best call of her life. After a good domestic season with Goa, she was rewarded with an inclusion in the top 20 players shortlisted for a home series against the visiting West Indes women. She also played against them, representing India ‘A’. She was just one step away from wearing that coveted India cap.

 In the long off season that followed, she spent her days studying for her Air Force entrance exams, and her nights dreaming of what the future may hold in store. A tour to England was scheduled in the coming months, and her engineering bred logic told her that they would need an extra pace bowler, especially one who could swing the ball. So she waited, and she hoped. So all-consuming was her ambition, that she considered putting all other plans, including her Air force exams, on immediate hold if she was needed in England.

But the uncertainty of sports is supreme. She did not find herself on the plane to England, and the year she had given herself had not yielded the kind of returns that she had hoped for. Fate had told her that her time had not yet come, and perhaps she had deluded herself by dreaming these two compelling yet conflicting dreams. So, she did a Colvin, and hit her books with a determined mind and a heavy heart, knowing that a demanding Air Force career meant she may never be able to play cricket again. 

She did crack the entrance exams, and although she could not pursue her ambition of becoming a pilot, was drafted into the demanding and technical role of air traffic controller. This was a conscious decision, for after completing a yearlong training programme designed to reinvent cadets into officers, she could have chosen a comfortable administrative role on the ground. This would even have given her some breathing space to play cricket again. But she wasn't the types to take the easy way out. She wanted to be in the thick of things, even if that meant a posting in a busy fighter base in north India; farther from home, with more workload, night shifts, and an almost foreign climate (for someone used to the sun and sand of Goa). But she chose the road less traveled, her choice synonymous with her favourite Frost poem. And so it was, that with her family watching, she was re-christened; and in a way reborn, as Flying Officer Shikha Pandey.

And she wasn't finished yet.

There are bookworms, and there are cricket worms, the latter being the more stubborn of the species. Shikha never gave up on her dream of playing for India, and her kit bag was a queer and conspicuous companion whenever she traveled. Queer, for you rarely see them around Air Force bases, and conspicuous because, well anyone who has seen a cricket kit bag knows what I’m talking about. With the cooperation of the Services Sports Control Board, and guidance from senior officers and other Services sportspeople, she managed enough leaves to play the domestic season. In her first season back after joining the Air Force, her time away from the game was painfully visible. Her second, however, showcased a player posing difficult questions to the selectors.

In the first game of the season in the new Elite-Plate format, Shikha scalped five wickets against a hapless Haryana. And in the T20 leg, she shone with both bat and ball to help Goa qualify for the Plate group knock outs. All season long, her performances had impressed both the selectors and her superiors, and when the former picked her in the probables for the World T20 in Bangladesh, she was felicitated by the Chief of Air Staff on Republic Day, the only lady officer to receive that honour. 

The end of the recent domestic season meant back to work for Shikha; a return to the fast paced and exciting world of night flying and sorties. But she could not get her mind off the upcoming World T20. She yearned to know what cards fate would deal her this time, seeking clarity and perhaps closure. When the call did come, she was thankfully off duty, and didn't have to return to her post. She had been included in the Indian women’s cricket team for a bilateral series against Bangladesh, followed by the World T20 there (Team List here courtesy of Sportskeeda). Her fellow officers shared in her joy as they saw her off, and her parents beamed as she met them in Goa, where she would prepare to help try and reverse India's fortunes in women's cricket. 

This post represents a hope that girls all over the world will learn that like Shikha, and also dual international Ellyse Perry, we needn't bury one dream to chase another. We needn't neglect academics to play sports. And we need not be afraid; the real world is a scary place, but its big enough for all our dreams.

 P.S. : At the time of publishing this post, Shikha has played all three T20 matches against Bangladesh and is now looking ahead to the World T20. 

With her debut, she became the first Goa Cricket Association cricketer, male or female, to represent the country.  It also makes her the first Services employee to play for India, although she has not represented the Services in domestic cricket as they do not field a women's team. Here's hoping her selection will change that. 

Shikha being felicitated by the Goa Cricket Assn.