Kalpana hails from a village in interior Andhra Pradesh and her father still drives an auto-rickshaw in Vijayawada. © ACA

Kalpana hails from a village in interior Andhra Pradesh and her father still drives an auto-rickshaw in Vijayawada. © ACA

Maria Fahey watched with pride as R Kalpana, the Andhra wicketkeeper, was presented with her India Women cap on Sunday (June 28) at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore.

Fahey, a former New Zealand international, wasn’t the only one to feel that way – the 15 members of the Andhra women’s side that she coaches along with MSK Prasad, the former India wicketkeeper and the state’s Director of Cricket Operations, and Srinivas Reddy, the assistant coach, were also there to support Kalpana.

They weren’t cheering any ordinary milestone, because Kalpana had just become the first cricketer from the state to represent India Women.

Fahey has been a guide for Kalpana for much of her journey. On Sunday, the former New Zealand international was witness to her ward taking on the country she once represented, and the glint in her eye was unmistakable.

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Kalpana hails from a village in interior Andhra Pradesh. That her father still drives an auto-rickshaw in Vijayawada explains the financial status of the family. Handpicked by Reddy and Purnima Rau, the head coach of India Women, during her time as the consultant with the women’s wing of the Andhra Cricket Association in 2008, Kalpana, at 19, has emerged as just one of many talented cricketers on the horizon in the state.

“ACA’s women’s wing conducts rural camps every year, so Kalpana came through in one of these camps,” Prasad, who turned administrator after retirement from first-class cricket in 2008, tells Wisden India. “We selected 20 girls and got them to train at our women’s academy in Guntur, where their boarding and lodging expense is taken care of by the association. Along with training, they also play matches across the country. Kalpana, we hope, will be the first of many from Andhra to play for the country.”

It sounds quite simple. But it wasn’t quite as easy, because, as Prasad says, the socio-economic conditions that prevail in some backward Andhra villages are a major challenge. “Take the example of Kalpana. Dowry is a big issue, so when someone wanted to marry Kalpana without dowry, her parents agreed,” elaborates Prasad. “It took a lot of convincing from the association and the coaches to her family before which they allowed her to pursue cricket. Today, they are happy.”

Since the women’s academy was set up at a college facility in Guntur in 2010, the trainees have been provided with a monthly stipend along with cricket gear. With the association setting up training facilities and imparting coaching in schools courtesy land grants from the government, the onus was on the women’s committee to appoint a head coach who could take charge of the entire group. After an exhaustive process, Fahey, who became a coach at an age – 27 – when many of her contemporaries were just beginning to make a mark at the top level as players, was offered the role.

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A broken jaw during a warm-up game an hour before selection for the 2009 Women’s World Cup put paid to Fahey’s hopes of featuring in the tournament, where New Zealand Women finished runners-up. Although Fahey returned for the Women’s World Twenty20 in the West Indies in 2010, health concerns forced her to quit early.

“The hurt of not being able to wear the black jersey was there. The only way I could get over that was to give back to cricket, so when this opportunity came about, I took it up after deliberating for close to three weeks,” explains Fahey, now 31. “One of the first things I told the team was, ‘It doesn’t matter where you come from. Small place or big city, you can play for the country.’ It was important to get that across.”

Since coming on board in 2012, Fahey has spent close to seven months a year coaching and travelling with various age-group Andhra sides for tournaments around the country.

“Just teaching them the mental side of the game was essential. So we get into a fitness regime for two months every year, before we get into specifics. The idea is to get them a step ahead of the other state sides so that they are ready. For us right now, the natural progression is to ensure each player has equal opportunity. Within any given team, we are giving every player equal opportunities. Also, each age-group is given priority, so the results have been there for everyone to see,” she says.

Fahey isn’t exaggerating when she talks about the results. Andhra’s Under-16 team has won the national tournament the last five years, while the senior side became All-India champions in 2014-15. She hopes other states would take things equally seriously in order to boost the profile of the sport in the country.

“I firmly believe in quality, not quantity. While it is important to play a lot of matches, they need to play opposition tougher than themselves and with purpose,” points out Fahey. “So raising the standard of cricket uniformly is very important. That will ensure you are always being pushed. So that is what women’s cricket needs in India, because unlike New Zealand where there are just maybe 70 players and six teams, here the volume is much bigger, so the need to streamline talent is that much more important.”

A vision, the love for a country she toured as a player twice – in 2003 and 2006 – and passion for the game keeps Fahey going. The good thing, as she says, is that this could just be the start of something big, because things are slowly but surely falling in place for women’s cricket in India, starting from Andhra.