When Neha Tanwar stepped off the cricket field on February 13, 2014, she knew it was for the last time. At 27, she had decided to retire from cricket and start a family. In doing so, she was letting go of the game she loved. Little did she realise that the game had other plans for her.
Tanwar was born and brought up in Delhi; cricket as much a part of her childhood as smoggy Delhi winters were. But she never imagined she would one day represent her country. She was a talented sprinter as well, and turned up in a college to seek admission through the athletics quota. As fate would have it, athletic trials weren’t scheduled that day, but cricket trials were. Neha had a go, and cricket became the unlikely vehicle of her admission into college. That coincidence would shape her life.
At 18, her talent with the bat earned her a place in a strong Delhi senior team. As an opener, she worked her way up through the domestic ranks, and a few impressive performances in the Challenger Trophy in 2010 saw her make her international debut in the home series against West Indies in 2011.
Although Tanwar played only six more international games for India, she remained a constant presence for Delhi at the top of the order. It was only when she stepped away from the game in 2014 that she realised how much a she would miss having cricket in her life.
While expecting her first child, Tanwar spent her time watching cricket on TV. International, domestic, Ranji Trophy, IPL, it didn’t matter – she watched it all. Her gestation diet consisted of lots of leather on TV, supplemented by healthy doses of willow on YouTube. She badly missed the camaraderie of the dressing room, and had to be content with keeping in touch with team-mates and friends on the phone and following their progress online. She was out of cricket, but cricket was not out of her. She felt incomplete.
She spoke to her family about returning to the game. The only concerns they had were about her health. Once the doctor told her she could gradually resume training six months after her delivery, she felt a sense of peace.
On October 14, 2014, Tanwar gave birth to a boy they named Shlok. As planned, six months later, she was on the field, trying to jog herself back into shape.
Now, she faced a different demon: her weight. Over the course of her pregnancy, she had put on almost 20kg from her pre-pregnancy 60kg. She knew that to get back into any form of cricket, she would first have to shed those extra pounds. But despite having the support of her family, it seemed she did not have the support of her body. Having to eat for two meant that her regular cardio sessions hardly made a dent on the numbers on the weighing scale, and her spirits dropped.
But, she persevered. She slowly increased the duration of her workout. She says she accepted the fact that she might never get into good enough shape to play competitive cricket, but she kept training, more for her own satisfaction than anything else. With time, her stamina grew and she was down to 69kg. She started batting again, just knocking at first, and then brief net sessions.
In June 2015, a former international player was organising a women’s tournament in Delhi, and invited Tanwar to lead one of the teams. After initially hesitating, she threw herself into it. She knew it meant facing insensitive questions about her weight, not getting the ball in the middle of the bat most of the time, and testing her fragile fitness in the heat of competition. But it also meant a couple of decent scores under her belt.
Most of all, she loved being back on the ground. The feel of the bat in her hands, spikes on her feet, and sunscreen on her face. It didn’t matter that her fingers were pudgy, her spikes felt like they were made of lead not leather, and her sunscreen was running like Usain Bolt. There, in the searing Delhi heat, with sounds of bat meeting ball, and bowlers running in, and captains screaming at fielders, and her baby crying – there in that cacophony, she found herself whole again.
Seeing the participants of that tournament, friends and strangers, old pros and new kids on the block, filled her with confidence. She saw what it was like to play cricket again, to be a part of a team. It felt like meeting your oldest friend after years. She was reminded that every step she took in her training sessions would lead to this feeling. The energy of the players was rubbing off on her like the red of the ball on her trousers.
So she upped the ante. She took leave from work and doubled her training. With more time on her hands, she spent more time in the nets. And she threw herself into workouts of a difficulty that she had never attempted, even in her first innings as a cricketer. Her weight was now down to 65kg, and she allowed herself to entertain dreams of playing for Delhi again.
By the time the Delhi District Cricket Association selection trials for the 2015-16 season came around, Tanwar weighed 62kg. She earned a return to the Delhi team.
“It would have been impossible without the support of my family,” she said. “Every time I was away, my in-laws were looking after Shlok. Never once did they complain. And my husband took on more than his share of babysitting duties, so that I could be on the field. I dedicate this second innings to them.”
Being on tour meant that for the first time she would not go home to her son at night. It was a painful few days for her. She returned from that first tournament of the season to learn that the separation had, quite naturally, been tough for little Shlok too, who had kept the entire household walking on eggshells the first few days. But her family’s support was unwavering.
Despite a disappointing run with the bat in the one-day format, Tanwar is not disheartened. She sees this as only the beginning of her new journey and is keen to make an impression in the rest of the season. Besides, her role in the team is a greater one. In addition to being an inspiration to her younger team-mates as a senior player, she is also an example to the young girls that motherhood need not be career-ending.
“Motherhood is a woman’s second life,” she says, getting philosophical. “It changes everything, your body, your priorities, your entire life. But some things just never go away.” That’s how it is for Tanwar and cricket.