Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Super Story

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

One over.

Twelve runs to get.

 Five wickets down.

Gouher Sultana bowling for the Railways, the defending champions. Shweta Mane and Devika Vaidya batting for Maharashtra, the hosts.

We believed. The odds were against us, but we believed. 


Five days earlier:

It was the first game of the Elite Group ‘A’ T20 nationals, a tournament that rumours had suggested may not happen at all. My team, Maharashtra, needed 26 off the last two overs to win our first match vs Odisha, in front of our home crowd. We got 15. We lost.

I was disgusted with myself. After bowling a tight first three overs, I had given away two boundaries in the last over. We had lost, and we now had an uphill task ahead of us. We still needed to beat a strong Delhi, minnows Gujarat, and defending champions Railways, to give ourselves the best chance of finishing in the top two. And even that may not guarantee us the result we wanted: qualification for the Super League phase. 

I set the tone in the match vs Delhi. After bowling two maidens, I dismissed both openers in my third over. Devika Vaidya, who was the top run getter in the U19 season, was now showing just how valuable she is with the ball. Her leg spin claimed four wickets, and we contained a strong Delhi batting line up for 82.

After an initial scare, where Amita Sharma hit our opener Priyanka on the head with a bouncer (in a spot very close to where Phil Hughes was hit), we chased the total with a few overs to spare and 9 wickets in hand. But more significant, was the fact that our 18 year old captain got some valuable runs. Smriti Mandhana had had a horrible one day season , with a top score of 28. To see her get some quick confident runs, and anchor the chase, brought joy to her well wishers and lifted a load off her shoulders. 

The next day, Delhi did us the favour of beating Odisha, which opened up the group. Net Run Rate was definitely going to be a factor, so we kept that in mind as we made short work of Gujarat, chasing their total of 63 in the ninth over, with Smriti making 36* off 27 balls, without hitting a single ball too hard. As we hung around to watch Delhi play Railways in the next game, we almost saw our chances diminish. 

Delhi put in a spirited batting performance, with Latika Kumari (who had scored 79* in the previous game vs Odisha) making a run a ball 51. But the real fireworks came from old war horse Amita Sharma(27* off 17), who reverse swept Gouher Sultana for four, not once, not twice, but thrice in one over! The third of those shots was especially spectacular, a switch hit that sailed over the head of a helpless short third man! Delhi ended up with 129.

A Railways win would improve our chances, so we cheered every shot their batsmen played, but watched as the match seemed to slip away from them. When Mithali Raj was bowled with  91 still  needed, we thought Delhi could pull this rabbit out of the hat. But Harmanpreet Kaur and Shravanti Naidu kept Railways in the chase, barely. When Shravanti fell in the penultimate over, it left Railways needing 11 off the last over, with Harmanpreet stuck at the non strikers end.

Harrman had bailed Railways out of trouble in their previous game. Gujarat had Railways reeling, at seven for the loss of four wickets in four overs, when she walked in and stamped her class on the match, smashing 81* off 47 balls, with four sixes. So if anyone had the panoply of shots to get Railways home against Delhi, it was Harman.

As the shadows lengthened, and the odd bird of prey made a swoop at the ground, Reema Malhotra began the final over. Shubhlakshmi swung and missed at one ball, and was out the next. We could see how desperate Harry was to get on strike. Poonam Yadav obliged, but that left her 10 to get off three balls. 

We watched open mouthed and dumbstruck as Harry smashed Reema's quicker delivery over long on for a huge six! She ran two off the next ball, but got only one as Yadav was run out at the other end. Three needed off the last ball, two to tie. But Harman had no intention of tying this match. She smashed the last ball straight where long off mistimed the slide and the ball rolled over the fence for four! Railways rejoiced, Maharashtra breathed a bit more easily, and I reflected on the coming of age of Harmanpreet Kaur. 

As we arrived at the ground the next day, we knew we had to beat Railways. Only that would guarantee us qualification. A loss may have allowed Delhi to slip ahead on run rate. After their openers fell Mithali and Harman kept taking singles and caressing (Mithali) or smashing (Harman) a boundary ever so often.

 When Mithali holed out to long off in the 17th over, we knew we could keep build some pressure towards the end. Devika delivered yet again, dismissing Harman an over later. We had kept them down to 113. And we backed ourselves to go for the win, and not take the easy run rate option. 

Smriti continued where she had left off against Gujarat, smashing Shubhlakshmi and Kavita Patil for three fours in the first two overs. Railways pulled things back through Ekta Bisht, who dismissed Tejal, Smriti's opening partner. Thereafter, Smriti and Anuja Patil milked the strike, and kept us close to the asking rate. 

By then, a sizeable crowd had gathered to watch, comprising mostly of students waiting for their evening coaching session to start, plus former players and families of the host team. Shadows were creeping along the ground as surely as the required run rate was creeping up. In the dressing room, the countdown had begun, and outside the boundary, the crowd were vociferously getting behind us.

 Shubhlakshmi dismissed Anuja in the 12th over, and Smriti fell in the 14th with 49 still needed off 41 balls. I joined Shweta Mane at the crease, and we ran like hares for every run, I even ran one run short, which I shrugged off, as we tried to reduce the widening gap between runs required and balls left. 

When I was dismissed, I was asked to wait as the umpires checked for a no ball. I hoped against hope that luck would somehow grant me another shot, that I could still affect the outcome of this match in some way. Little did I know that fate would grant me my wish in dramatic circumstances.

One over. Twelve runs to get. Five wickets down.

 Gouher Sultana bowling for the Railways, the defending champions. Shweta Mane and Devika Vaidya batting for Maharashtra, the hosts.

A world class bowler against a well set batsman. We believed. The odds were against us, but we believed. 

Shweta helped the first ball to fine leg for four. Eight off five needed. a two, a run out and two singles meant that we needed three off the last ball.

Shweta slogged to deep mid wicket. The batsmen ran two, and the match was tied! It would go into the Super Over!

A mixture of adrenaline, wonder, and pure joy and excitement coursed through me. And amidst all this, a sillage of regret as I thought back to my one short run! 


The Super Over. The crucible in which small quantities of the chemicals are mixed together and a fire is set beneath them, provoking them into a reaction. The ultimate condensation of the game's evolution in pursuit of a result. It doesn’t get smaller than this. Or bigger. 

I have only been involved in two matches featuring Super Overs previous to this. In the first, for India vs England Academy in 2011, I remember Harmanpreet smashing an off spinner for a six over mid-wicket to win the game. We knew she would be batting. So we went decided to go with pace for the super over. I was to bowl it, and the match had once again unexpectedly pulled me into its fabric, like a hurricane sucks in an unsuspecting feather. 

But first we had to bat. And Smriti and Anuja did not disappoint. Smriti creamed Shubhlakshmi for two boundaries, and Anuja one. Helped by two wides and one no ball, we notched up 20 runs!  

But we could not relax. None of us had forgotten Harman's heroics against Delhi just a day ago. She was the key, her six hitting ability elevating the danger she posed our attempted upset. So when she was caught at cover second ball, off a top edge, we knew we had a foot in the door of the Super Leagues. Despite Mithali sending the last ball to the point boundary, I conceded 10 of the entire over, and we erupted in an outburst of celebration. Our team mates and the audience streamed over the boundary line towards us! We had just handed Railways only their second ever T20 loss since the tournaments inception, and had sealed a place in the Super League. 

We had believed. 

Our celebration after the match. 


In the Elite Group ‘B’, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh qualified for the Super Leagues and will join Maharashtra and Railways. In the Plate Division, Karnataka, Goa, Bengal, Himachal Pradesh, Andhra and Assam qualified for the Knock out Phase. 

Monday, 19 January 2015

Railways, Andhra, emerge One Day Champions 2014-15

The 2014-15 Elite Division saw a familiar scene with Indian Railways brushing aside all opposition to once again emerge Champions of the One Day competition. Their batsmen established a fruitful relationship with concrete: the top order with the concrete like batting pitches of Rajkot, and their middle order with the concrete floors of the dressing rooms, as they were hardly required to  bat. Chief reasons, were opener Punam Raut, who  notched up scores of 100*. 71* and 98, and Mithali Raj , batting at three, who scored   47, 67 and 49 . Their form ensured that Railways shrugged off their rare loss in the group stage, and continued on their winning ways. 

Punam Raut's form ensured that Railways clinched yet another title.

The real fight, emerged for second and third places. Maharashtra, Delhi and Odisha were matched in a battle of nerves;all three of their encounters were low scoring affairs, which went down to the last over. In the end, Odisha edged past the other two, chasing on both occasions, and scraping home by three wickets against Maharashtra, and one wicket against Delhi. Delhi had to be satisfied with third, while Maharashtra finished fourth. 

The Plate division delivered the unexpected surprise of the season, with unfancied Andhra pipping an in form Goa team to the title in the Final. The only domestic team to have a foreign coach, former New Zealander Maria Fahey, Andhra finished the tournament as the only unbeaten side in both divisions. 

In their respective semi finals, Goa executed their strategy of fielding first to perfection. They allowed their pace bowling quartet, led by Shikha Pandey, to extract early movement, and skittled out Karnataka's much vaunted batting order for 93. Skipper Yetrekar and Pandey then proceeded to anchor the chase and see them home. Andhra meanwhile, made heavy weather of a small total of 120 vs Madhya Pradesh, but managed to cross the line with two wickets to spare, Sneha Dipti's unbeaten 45 seeing her team home. 

In the final, Goa's strategy of fielding first backfired as Andhra opener Monika Sai and No.3 S. Meghana stroked half centuries and set Andhra on route for a strong 189, despite Pandey's three wickets. The total proved too much as Goa failed to chase it down, ending up on 137/8 in their allotted 50 overs, to hand Andhra their first ever national level title. Both teams earned places in the Elite Division for the next season. 

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Endgame : Who will be crowned Champions?

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


As I write this, the Boxing Day test between India and Australia is into it's fourth day, with the outcome just starting to take shape. My favourtie commentator, Harsha Bhogle, is using one of his favourite analogies, tallking about how the match has moved into its business end, much like a chess match moves into its end game. The pawns have been sacrificed, the strategies revealed, and it often coimes down to who holds their nerve and sticks to their plans better. The same can be said of the women's domestic season, where the next few matches will decide who will be crowned Champions of 2014-15.

In the Elite Division, the four teams who have progressed will play out one of the most evenly contested Super League phases in recent times. Defending Champions Railways, and Delhi from pool A will meet Odisha and Maharashtra from pool B in a round robin format in Rajkot on the new years day. All four teams come in with a 3-1 win loss record from their pools respective pools. Holders Railways will be concerned with the good form of Delhi's batting unit, and Odisha's bowling unit. Odisha, after slumping to a loss against Maharashtra, came back in superb fashion by skittling out Mumbai for 28 and then Tripura for 30 in decent batting conditions. Meanwhile, Delhi will be banking on in form openers Latika Kumari and Priya Punia, who have put on stands of 29, 86, 87* and 67 in the league phase. With the experience of Reema Malhotra and Amita Sharma to come down the order, a great start will be just the launching pad they would want to challenge for the title. Maharashtra's Anuja Patil will look to continue her fine form with bat and ball, and her team will need it to threaten the other three teams. Railways, after suffering a shock defeat to Jhulan Goswami's Bengal, will have shed their skins of complacency and will look to reassert their supremacy. Railways and Delhi will start with an added advantage, having played their pool A Matches at rajkot itslef.

In the Plate Division, as per my prediction in my preview post, Karnataka, Goa, Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh made the cut, along with Andhra and Himachal Pradesh. The knock outs will take place in Hyderabad, also from the new years day, with Goa and Andhra having earned byes in their quarter finals. With places in the Elite division next year up for grabs, the stakes are high. Andhra, coached by  former White Fern Maria Fahey, are the only team with an all win record. However, Karnataka, with a star stutted batting line up, and left arm tweaker Rajeshwari to boot, will start favourites on paper. But they must first get past Tamil Nadu in their quarter final. Tamil Nadu will depend heavily on Thirushkamini, who registered a ton against Gujarat in the group stage.

A close endgame awaits as the best teams in India go head to head, and followers of the game will be hoping for a reversal  in the trend of low scoring matches the group stages witnessed. As the pawns are discarded, it remains to be seen which of the more puissant chess pieces will make it all the way across the board and be ordained queen.