Couch Talk 182 (Play)
Guest: Shikha Pandey
Host: Subash Jayaraman
Subash Jayaraman (SJ): Hello and welcome to couch talk. The guest today is Indian cricketer Shikha Pandey. She talks about how a team with 8 Test debutants won a Test in England in 2014, India’s T20 series win Australia, her rise through the ranks to play for India, and the upcoming World T20 and women’s ODI championship, amongst other things.
Welcome to the show, Shikha.
Shikha Pandey (SP): Thanks a lot, pleasure.
SJ: You are one of the younger brigade in the Indian team that won two Tests, one away in England and the other at home against South Africa, and T20 series win against Australia in Australia. Let’s begin with that Test match win vs England in 2014. You were one of 8 debutants, India were playing a Test after a gap of 8 years, you were playing against a top side in their conditions. What was the pre-Test mood like in the Indian camp?
SP: Firstly, I’d like to say that when I started playing cricket I always used to remember waking up early in the morning at 5.30 AM to watch the Ashes, and my father telling me that the true form of cricket is Test cricket. So I thought that if I did play cricket any time, I’d want to be a Test cricketer. When I started playing [in India], I didn’t see Test cricket happening [for women]. But then, I was really lucky that when toured England in 2014, we happened to play a Test match. I was very lucky in that I went there as a replacement and I then happened to be in the playing XI. For eight of us who were debutants, it was a good feeling to win the match, and to beat a team like England, we were on cloud nine that day.
SJ: Going in to that match, it was the only Test of the tour and England have been playing Tests a lot. However, India were playing a Test after 8 years. So what did you expect of yourselves in that Test?
SP: After the merger with the BCCI, for two years – 2006-07 and 2007-08 – we had a two day format in place but after that the two-day format was scrapped and we had one-daters. So we didn’t really know how to play days game at that time. We had practice, true, but going in to a Test match with all of us so new to it; The only input was from the coach Sudha ma’m and Mithali [Raj] di who had already played Tests. Jhulu di [Jhulan Goswami] and Karu [Jain] di were in the squad that won a Test match in Taunton. We were solely depending on them and their experience.
The way the things went, our bowling did really well. It was a green track. Bowling first we had the advantage.
SJ: Yes, you’d bowled England out for 92 in the first innings but they came back strongly to limit the lead to just 20-odd runs. They put on 200+ in the third innings an India had to chase 181 in the 4th. What was the feeling like to know that you needed only 181 runs to get your first Test win? Was there a sense of apprehension or nervous energy?
SP: We always knew that as the Test match progressed, the wicket would ease out. That was very visible when England batted the second time. The pitch had eased out, and the partnership that [Anya] Shrubsole had with [Jenny] Gunn that kind of took the match away from us. But then, we kept believing in ourselves, and kept telling each other that it was going to be a Test win for us.
The last day was crucial. If we’d lost few more wickets, probably we would have got in to a slump but then, my partnership with Mithali di did the trick for us.
SJ: Could you take us through that partnership? Mithai Raj is an absolute legend of Indian cricket. And you were batting alongside her in your first Test match, and you get to score the winning runs. It was an unbroken partnership that won the game for India.
SP: Of course, for any youngster that comes in to the side, it is a dream come true if you can bat alongside Mithali di. She’s a legend. When the third day’s play ended, I was on 0 not out. I was told to just see through the day. We had lost three quick wickets that day in the last session. Mithai di told me, “Just play out. Don’t take any balls on the pads”. As you know, we had set a world record of 20 LBWs in that match. She told me to see the ball and get in line to play it.
I’d always wondered what it would be like for a batter to remain not out overnight and bat the next day, and I actually felt it! There were butterflies in the stomach.
As we began the next day, the wicket had eased out, and it was good. To play those world class medium pacers on that track was a new experience, and Mithali di always had some or the other input on the oppositions, and a few tips here and there, and so yeah, we got our team through.
SJ: I mentioned about you being part of the young brigade. We talked about Mithali Raj, and you also have Jhulan Goswami who’s an absolute star. The two of them – well experienced – what sort of influence do they have on the youngsters in the team in molding them?
SP: We are so fortunate we have both of them in our side. They are legends of the game. Any youngster that wants to be a medium pacer would dream to train and bowl alongside Jhulu di. When I got my India cap, I got it from her. This was in Bangladesh before the World T20 in 2014. It was a dream. I have been fortunate enough to bowl alongside her. She is someone that something to tell you, always. Every practice session that we bowl in tandem, she has inputs. She and Mithali di have bundles of knowledge and we are always on the look out on how much more we could imbibe from them.
SJ: Let’s talk a bit about your growth as a cricketer. You have a college degree in Electronics Engineering, you worked for the Indian Air Force, and you come from Goa which own more for Football than cricket. Could you take us through your cricket journey?
SP: I’m a native of U.P., not many know that. I was born in A.P. My father has a government job and is transferable. I used to play cricket as a kid, like most of us do, in the gullies with the boys. I actually never thought that I’d take up cricket this seriously. When we shifted to Goa, I went for a seasoned ball cricket selection and I got in. The first under 19 tournament I played in, was very good for me. I scored heavily with the bat and did well with the ball too. The now-India coach, Purnima Rao – she’s a former India captain – she was the South Zone selector then. She saw me and called me up and said, “You are really good, keep working hard”. For me, when I heard her say that, I kind of believed that I can also play cricket for my country. My father made sure that education came first. He made sure I finished my education. I did my 10th and 12th in C.B.S.E. and then went on to Engineering college. It was only in the second year of college that I started playing cricket seriously. I probably wouldn’t have done engineering if I had known cricket was going to be so hectic!
Somehow, I was able to manage the two. Being an Engineer and a professional cricketer was difficult at times. Goa Engineering College was very helpful in every single way they could. The dream of playing for India was still there. After my Engineering degree, I took a year off to see how my cricket things go. I did really well in that season but didn’t get picked. In that one year period, Indian Air Force happened, and I cleared all their exams, and joined them. I thought that if I’m good enough, they will let me play for India, because I was in the India probables before joining I.A.F. Things did work out. The Air Force sports control board were there for me all along, the higher level officers. They have been helping me because playing for India, they also take pride in it.
SJ: There is a question from listener Dan: Your twitter bio says you are a green top lover. When you see a rank turner, what do you feel, and which one you prefer to bat on?
SP: I’m a green top lover because you hardly get to play on green tops. When I heard about my selection for Australia tour, I was very happy thinking about the good, bouncy wickets there. But then, when we went there, there was so little for the medium pacers. It was a batting paradise.
I’ve played on rank turners as well. Most of our domestic matches happen on rank turners. Baroda, for example, where one of the nter-zonal matches took place, the ball was turning so much, I couldn’t really believe it. I would like to play on a pitch that’s a 50-50 probably, that gives batters and the bowlers an equal chance but those are really hard to get these days.
In these conditions, I just listen to Jhulu di. She says, “It’s really easy to bowl on wickets that are going to help you. It is that much more difficult to bowl on wickets that are not going to help you. Only then, you will be able to judge how good a bowler you are, to bowl on flat wickets and still end up taking wickets.”
SJ: You mentioned about going to Australia. I’d like to talk about that. India won the T20 series 2-1, after winning only 1 out of 8 T20 matches vs. Australia. What was different this time in team’s composition and approach? Could you take us through the behind the scene things?
SP: From the time we got to know we were going to Australia, I believe we were very positive. We kept backing each other. When Australia batted first on that wicket (in Adelaide), we knew it was a flat batting wicket. We knew if we had wickets in hand, we’d be able to sail through which we eventually did. It was just a case of just having that belief, and being positive. From the time we landed there, we kept telling ourselves that we had to do well in the series because this would lead us to do well in the World Cup [World T20]. Winning the world cup in India is going to make a lot of difference for all the women cricketers in India. So, the belief that we had to do well was the reason we did well. Also the support staff kept reiterating the same fact that if we are able to stay positive, we will be able to achieve the series win.
SJ: Australia came back and won the ODI series 2-1. Would it be fair to say that longer the format, the better the Aussies are to India at this moment?
SP: I wouldn’t really agree with that. I actually felt we were pretty close in the 2nd ODI. I thought if we had taken two more wickets, we could have won that.
See, we were playing in Australia against Australians. They knew the wicket better probably. I wouldn’t say that there is a lot of difference between the two sides. We are pretty close, and we are getting closer to them. I’m sure, in no time, you will be saying the opposite probably. I’m hopeful that we will continue doing well. As Mithali di said, we are not as good in the shorter versions as in the longer format but we have proved to ourselves and everyone else that we are good even in the shorter formats. We will strive hard to do well in the ODI format as well.
SJ: England, Australia and New Zealand have had contracted players for a while now. They have ha a more stable system for a while now as well. Now, 11 Indian players have also been centrally contracted. Where do you see further improvements are needed to close the gap between them and India, and perhaps pass them?
SP: Things are obviously looking better [for us now]. We didn’t use to have central contracts, but from this year, we do. Next year, probably there will be a few more additions to that list. BCCI is trying everything they could to help us out. The domestic set up has improved a lot as well. A Under-20 T20 tournament has come up. All these steps in the right direction.
SJ: Question from listener Brinda: Do Indian women players have the option of playing domestic cricket abroad, for example, in England or Australia? If that option were to exist, would you consider it?
SP: I really don’t know. The summers in England are in July and August. I do not have an idea about getting the NOC and all that. I don’t think BCCI would have any problems with that because recently [Cheteshwar] Pujara went to England and played domestic cricket. I think we need to have our calendar in place first for that. Because last year, we played New Zealand during [June-July]. So, shouldn’t be a problem [if players are free].
SJ: The Women’s BBL was a tremendous success in Australia this year both at the ground and the viewership on TV. I was reading an article on it on Cricinfo recently. There were players from a lot of the countries in WBBL but none from India. Jhulan was asked in one of the press conferences about it and she said, “Things weren’t in place this year, but may be in the future.” What do you think of that – Indians taking part in WBBL?
SP: I’m sure in the near future we will be able to take part in WBBL. We had the domestic season going on, this year. And so, we couldn’t really commit to WBBL. I’m sure our players will be welcome there, not just us but other countries as well. And that’s reaping results already. I was just following the scores, South Africa have beaten England and [Marizanne] Kapp played a brilliant knock. You get better when you play against the best in the world. Hopefully, we get to play in the WBBL although having our own version of it in India would be better.
SJ: You are getting ready to play Sri Lanka, and then you have the World T20, and then the ODI World Cup in 2017. Obviously winning the cup at home would be great, but where are you as a side now?
SP: We take one series at a time. Next thing on our to-do list is the Sri Lanka series. The first 3 matches, for the ICC Championship are really crucial because we want to collect all six points that we can from these 3 matches as that would decide our standings in the ICC Championship table. Considering we are playing those matches in India, we should be able to do well in those.
Following that, there are three T20s against Sri Lanka which will be our preparation for the World T20 that will help us identify the combinations we will play in the world cup. Next month or two is going to be really important for us. Exciting times ahead.
SJ: You mentioned the ODI championship. India is currently 7th in the table. The top 4 get automatic qualification to World Cup in 2017. You mentioned the three matches against Sri Lanka, and have matches against West Indies who are 2nd in the table and also against Pakistan who are one spot ahead of India. Do you see India realistically making the Top 4 and get automatic qualification or it doesn’t really matter how you qualify for the world cup?
SP: The best we can do is what’s in our hands. We will try to win all the 9 matches we have against the three countries. What other sides do is not in our control. Do what we can do the best.
SJ: Alright, on that note, thank you so much for being on the show, Shikha, and I wish you the very best in the Sri Lanka series and the World T20 going forward.
SP: Thanks a lot. It was a pleasure talking to you.
SJ: Thank you.