A visit by a foreign team, for an entire cricket tour or even a solitary match, creates a buzz in any city. If it’s a men’s game, the sheer celebrity status will pull the attention of the public, like a star pulls the planets into its orbit. The women’s games grab fewer eyeballs – the poor publicity not helping – but are a big occasion for one niche of cricketers: the net bowlers.
The young girls of the Vidarbha Cricket Association got such a chance when the Australia, South Africa and New Zealand women’s teams visited the city for their Group A matches. The young net bowlers had to work hard, often bowling sessions of an hour each, twice in the day to different teams. That after waiting most of the day till the teams finished their fielding sessions, with not much else to do. But are any of them complaining? No ma’am!
“It was really fun to bowl to them,” said 23-year-old Reena Paul. “I didn’t want the session to end at all, especially when I started getting them out,” she said with a grin.
They didn’t mind the waiting and watching either. “We were watching their fielding sessions, which are very different from the sessions we do here. They had four groups doing different activities, with a quick turn-around time. It was moving really fast,” said Komal Zanzad, 23.
Not only did the girls watch and learn, they also asked the internationals to show them some of the tricks of the trade. “We were comparing different deliveries, talking about the different grips,” said Harsha Bokde, after a session with the Australian team. “They were very involved in whatever they were doing. All the same they were taking time to interact with us. It was nice.”
Some of the players, like Tiffen, recognised me and complimented me for stepping up a level since the previous tour. She also hit me for my first ever six, and give me a real taste of what international cricket is like. But a simple “well bowled” from her at the end of the game gave me a shot of self-confidence few practice sessions can give – and no number of sixes can take away.
The sight of the youngsters sweating it out brought back memories of my own stint as a net bowler for an international team. Back in 2003 when New Zealand Women were touring India, they had a stop-over in Pune, where they practised for a few days. For most of us, it was our first look at a top international team. So us Maharashtra girls eagerly went to the venue and sat on the sidelines, ogling at them like they were the action figures we wanted the most as kids. This was five years before I represented the country. I was just another wide-eyed kid who didn’t know a legcutter from a leg gully.
Those were pre-BCCI days, and there were no such things as net bowlers. Knowing this, I decided to wear tracks instead of jeans and carried my spikes. To my delight, the White Ferns coach was more than happy to have me bowl in their nets. And so I rubbed shoulders, shared a ball and had a go at the likes of Haidee Tiffen, now coach of the side, Nicola Brown and Maria Fahey. And I got a few of them out as well. It remains one of my fondest memories.
It was more satisfying four years later to bowl against the New Zealand squad, when they were in Chennai for the Quadrangular Trophy. This time I was representing India A. Some of the players, like Tiffen, recognised me and complimented me for stepping up a level since the previous tour. She also hit me for my first ever six, and give me a real taste of what international cricket is like. But a simple “well bowled” from her at the end of the game gave me a shot of self-confidence few practice sessions can give – and no number of sixes can take away.
Perhaps some of the young girls in Nagpur will also receive an intangible moment of inspiration; a pat on the back here, a ‘well bowled’ there. It may even come from the customary selfie. These are small gestures for the internationals, who might think little of them and happily oblige. But it may inspire a young girl to train harder, dream bigger, want more. It might keep a player in the game longer, or to think differently about her own training.
Like 21-year-old Kruthika Pophli, who impressed with her inswingers and prompted Alex Blackwell, the Australia vice-captain, to gift her a pair of gloves.
Whether material or intangible, all the budding cricketers at those nets will have carried momentos from that session home. Some, like Krutika in their kit bags, some, like Reena in their mobile cameras, and some, like I did all those years ago, in their memories.