Sunday, 28 December 2014

Mystery spin in the Womens Game

This article first appeared in my column "Seamstress" for Wisden India.


Last year, Maya Sonawane was a member of the  Maharashtra team that were joint winners of the women's domestic U-19 competition. She was only 14. For her, it would have been easy to say that she was happy just being a part of the squad of fifteen. She carried the drinks,clapped hard, and cheered her team mates from the sidelines in a tense final, and enjoyed the moment when she could call herself a part of a champion team. It could have been enough. After all, she was just 14.

 It wasn't.

Today, at  just 15 years of age, with 23 wickets from nine matches, she is the 2014-15 season's highest wicket taker in the U-19 competition.


A few years ago, a local corporator in Sinnar - A town some 30 km from Nashik, the wine capital of India-  built a cricket pitch in his backyard. He wanted his young school-going  daughter to learn to play cricket. No, this school-going girl was not Maya. Maya was the girl who would watch them play on her way home from school, and  hang around and pick up any stray balls that rolled in her direction. Maya didn't really find cricket. Cricket found Maya.

 Her disarming smile and outspoken innocence meant that soon enough, she befriended the girl and her father, and started bowling to the child, occasionally having a go with her bat after she was done.  Maya's older brother soon started accompanying her, in part because he recognised that his little sister had a talent at this, but mostly just to keep an eye on his little sister. A few girls from her locality also started coming along, in part to help the corporator's daughter play, but mostly because they occasionally got a ride in the corporators car afterwards.

Soon, a few boys who represented Nashik District, learned that a pitch existed in their backyard, and started training there instead of making their daily commute to Nashik. They passed on advice on the basics of the game to the girls, and that became the first rudimentary coaching that Maya received.

At some distance from  this makeshift coaching center of excellence, stood one of Sinnar's  major attractions, the Gargoti Museum. It houses a collection of  Zeolites (mineral stones native to the area.) ''They are the stones we use to start a fire'' says Maya, when I asked her what Gargoti meant.

And already, a few stones in Sinnar had started rubbing against each other, kindling sparks of cricket-fire in their young minds.


It is impossible to miss Maya. Standing just a shade over five feet tall, you couldn't pick her out of a line up.  But give her a ball in hand, and any lay man watching her bowl will tell you that she is different. Her unique bowling action, with her head pointing downwards when she releases her wrist spinners, is what sets her apart. Her arm speed, revolutions, and bounce off the pitch will make a few quick bowlers envious.  Watching her, one immediately thinks of Paul Adams, whom Mike Gatting immortalised in the imaginations of audiences by likening his bowling action to "A frog in a blender". Except that Maya bowls right handed, not left handed like Adams did. Ask Maya about him, and she coolly replies that she has never seen him bowl! "I've heard of him, but only recently. People told me that his action is like mine!''

So popular was Maya's bowling in her hometown, that girls from Sinnar found their parents telling them  to bowl like her! And so, more than one young girl from Sinnar was trying to send down deliveries- a la Paul Adams- at the Maharashtra U19 trial nets. It didn't matter that the girls bowled off spin and medium pace, they made sure they did it like Maya!

Maya in the middle of her ''frog-in-the-blender'' action in her hometown of Sinnar


 After attending the Maharashtra state U-19 trials as a 14 year old, Maya made her first appearance for the state in the 2013-14 season, though she only played in one match. Her fitness levels, bred naturally by a childhood spent in the great outdoors of Sinnar, impressed her peers and her coaches. But her inaccuracy meant she could not force a place in the starting XI that year. Her heterodox action - the fact that she used her little finger to spin the ball, instead of her ring finger which wrist spinners generally use- meant that standard coaching manuals were of minimal help. So it came down to sheer practice and repetition.

Back home in Sinnar, Maya applied herself to trying to hit the same spot over and over while bowling. The same little finger that she used to give the ball a rip now gave testimony to the amount of hard work she had put in. A large  nodule of raw skin protrudes from the knuckle of her pinky, looking gruesomely like a parasitic growth that does not belong there.

''The seam cuts open the skin every time I bowl'', she says of the wound in the belly of the nodule, an occupational affliction that many spinners share. "Now I have learnt to take care of it with tape."

When the 2014-15 season finally dawned, the pain she had endured in her many sessions of spot bowling bore fruit. In the first match of the season, against Baroda U-19, she took 6-17 in eight overs. Her flight , dip and variations in turn mean that opposition batsmen were afraid to use their feet against her, allowing her to dominate them. Against Gujarat, she returned figures of 4-6 in three overs, including a hat trick.

She continued to shine in the All India leg of the U-19 tournament, taking nine wickets in five matches, including three in the semi final, which Maharashtra lost. The diminutive tweaker though, could hold her head up high, finishing on top of the wicket takers list, her closest competitor a full six wickets behind.

A grinning Maya proudly modelling her first  Maharashtra Sr. team kit
Now as the youngest member of the Maharashtra Sr. squad, Maya faces the prospect of having to raise her game a notch to match the faster,fitter standard of play in senior cricket. Not happy with just being the travelling baby in the team, she wants a place in the starting XI.  But she knows she will have to earn it. Her young age and diminutive frame hide the courage and hunger that she has inside her, and she isn't afraid of taking on the older girls in duels in the nets, even if it means getting hit for six once in a while.

Along with state captain Smriti Mandhana and Devika Vaidya - both still in their teens - Maya will most likely form a core of young talent that Maharashtra is nurturing. She should be a regular in the side in the  years to come. But she can think about that later. Right now she spends her energy trying to land the ball in the right areas consistently, and worries mostly about not being able to watch Chota Bheem while on tour.


Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Sr. Domestic season 2014-15 Preview

The 2014-15 one day season will begin on the 6th of December at various venues across the country. For a look at the teams and fixtures,  have a look at my previous post (Plate division group A fixtures have changed since then, with the reintroduction of Rajasthan). The format is unchanged from last year. 
Elite Division Champions Railways have strengthened their squad with the addition of  current internationals Harmanpreet Kaur, Poonam Yadav, besides Priyanka Roy, and Shravanti Naidu. The Elite A pool could well be called the Group of Death. Giving Railways company, are Jhulan Goswami led Bengal,  who won the plate division last year, and whose U19 team recently lifted the national championship.  Then there is Hyderabad,  who are led by a new young captain, M. Shalini.  They ran Railways close in both their T20 encounters last year, and will look to go one better this time. And lastly Uttar Pradesh , last year's runner's up, and Delhi, who will be bolstered by the return of veteran Reema Malhotra. 
Elite group B also promises some close encounters,  with four of the five teams more or less equal in strength, boasting at least one player who has represented India. Underdogs Tripura will be keen to spring a surprise or two as well. 18 year old Smriti Mandhana will lead Maharashtra for the first time in the one day format, and will look to establish her captaincy credentials. Her young team also includes the U19 season's highest run scorer Devika Vaidya, and highest wicket taker, 15 year old Maya Sonawane.
In the Plate division, there are never any clear favourites, and all teams will hotly contest for the top spot in their pools, as this could mean a chance for promotion into the Elite Division next season. Shikha Pandey and Thirushkamini, fresh from strong performances in the recent home series against the Proteas, will look to carry that form into the domestic season. Their teams, Goa and Tamil Nadu respectively, along with Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh are the teams I would watch out for. Karnataka in particular, with Veda Krishnamurthy returning to their ranks, will be hard pressed not to reach the last two.