She has just finished with a two-hour practice session in the indoor nets at the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium in Hyderabad. She stretches a little, wipes the sweat off her brow and proceeds to pack her kit before heading off to the restaurant inside the stadium.
During lunch she is the centre of attention. Seated among a bunch of enthusiastic youngsters, she is keenly involved in the banter. Her small stature allows her to blend into the group, and a casual observer could take her for just another player.
Anju Jain, former India Women wicketkeeper, is current coach of the senior and Under-19 women’s teams in Assam.
Jain is acknowledged as one of the finest wicketkeepers to have ever played for the country. In a career that spanned 12 years (1993-2005), Jain played eight Test matches and 65 One-Day Internationals. She kept wicket and opened the batting for almost her entire career, and served as captain for a brief period too. With 81 dismissals, she holds the Indian record for most dismissals by a wicketkeeper in ODIs as well.
Following Jain’s retirement in 2005, after the Women’s World Cup in South Africa where the team finished second, India were left with a huge hole … one they are still desperately trying to plug.
Ten years … 105 matches: eight wicketkeepers.
Karuna Jain, Sulakshana Naik, Arundhati Kirkire, Anagha Deshpande, Samantha Lobatto, Sunitha Anand, Sushma Verma and R Kalpana.
On an average, this adds up to just 13 matches per wicketkeeper. Enough to prove their credentials, one would think, but considering how far apart those matches may have been, it clearly has not been enough to get used to the grind of international cricket.
That’s an advantage Jain had.
“My father (Amrit Lal Jain) used to play cricket. He was a wicketkeeper and played in the Ranji Trophy as well,” Jain tells Wisden India when asked about the beginning of her cricket journey. “As a child I used to go watch his matches, and that’s how I became interested in cricket.”
As someone who always wanted to be a part of the action, wicketkeeping was an easy choice for Jain. “I didn’t want to just sit out and relax and watch the match from outside; I wanted to be there in the middle at all times. That was the driving force for me. I really loved to be involved and as wicketkeeper, that is key.”
Known for her exceptional glovework and quick reflexes, Jain would stand up to the stumps, even to the speed of Jhulan Goswami. Keeping to the likes of Neetu David, Purnima Rau and Nooshin Al Khadeer on slow, turning tracks was certainly not easy, but with 50 stumpings off the spinners in ODIs, Jain certainly had the faith of the slower bowlers too.
This level of performance becomes easier to explain in the light of her training methods.
Where pace and bounce, or seam movement was expected, Jain describes how her father would spend hours throwing wet tennis balls to her on a cement surface. “For a turning wicket, we would look for a rough patch of earth – no wicket or anything – where there was unpredictable bounce and the ball could go anywhere. I used to practice on that sort of surface with tennis and leather balls.”
She trained differently for different conditions. Where pace and bounce, or seam movement was expected, Jain describes how her father would spend hours throwing wet tennis balls to her on a cement surface. These were sometimes replaced by synthetic balls. “The ball would travel quickly, which means you have to get up with the bounce. That was something I worked really hard on,” she explains. “For a turning wicket, we would look for a rough patch of earth – no wicket or anything – where there was unpredictable bounce and the ball could go anywhere. I used to practice on that sort of surface with tennis and leather balls.
“In the nets I used to stand up to the bowlers, whether it was a boy or girl. That helped improve my reactions and footwork too.”
It is no wonder then, that she once pulled off a stumping off a wide down the leg side to the pace of Goswami – not necessarily a dismissal the speedster would look back at with any pride, but one that Jain savours.
It was a warm-up game, and Goswami, at her peak then, was consistently hitting the 120-kph mark, sometimes even flirting with 125 kph. Jain’s reactions, therefore, had to be lightning quick to catch the batter off guard. A swift movement to the left, a clean collection, and an outstretched right hand disturbing the bails.
Al-Khadeer, former India Women spinner and Jain’s team-mate, has a fond recollection of the dismissal even if she has forgotten the exact dates and details now. It is one she describes to all her wards in the Hyderabad Women’s team in her new role as coach. To put the dismissal into perspective, imagine MS Dhoni, standing up to Umesh Yadav or Varun Aaron, and effecting such a stumping.
Jain has spent much of her retired life coaching various teams, including a fairly long stint with the Indian team. She has worked with many of the wicketkeepers that have represented the country and believes they need to be given a longer leash. “After me, I felt Karuna should have played for a longer time. They should have given more opportunities to her,” Jain says. “I worked with Sushma and Kalpana in the NCA (National Cricket Academy) camp recently. They are good, too. Sushma needs a little work on her basics, some glovework issues. She is a good keeper, and a hard working girl. But the important thing is that it is up to the selectors now. Whichever keeper they select they need to give them a longer run.”
Wicketkeeping is an area neglected by both coaches and players, the former Air India captain believes, saying, “When I started off, people always talked about grace. That comes when you have a good technique and good fitness and are willing to work consistently hard. This is one problem area with the younger girls – they don’t want to put in the hard work and they want quick results, but it is a process.
“I think these are things all the coaches should realise. Coaches just make them collect throws, or get into the nets – but that is not enough. You need to analyse and work on their basics. That’s the way they can improve and you can produce good keepers.”
Every keeper, Jain says, requires at least 30-45 minutes of extra practice a day to work on one particular element of their game. “You need to focus on one thing in one session. You can’t focus on everything together, you will just be confused. You also have to work according to the requirement of the keeper.”
Another worrying trend since Jain’s retirement is that the keepers that have come in to the Indian team set up have been batting very low – sometimes even at No. 9, 10 or 11. With the exception of Karuna and Deshpande, who were genuine top-order batters, and Naik, who occasionally found herself in the top three, the other wicketkeepers have been languishing lower down the order with the bowlers. This is not the case only at the international level. At the domestic level, too, most keepers are not utilised as batsmen by their state sides. It appears that in India, the wicketkeeper’s position is reserved for the best stumper and not necessarily the best wicketkeeper-batsman.
In a game that is ever changing, players are expected to contribute significantly in at least two of the three departments. Just like the bowlers and batsmen have been pushed to improve their fielding, Jain believes keepers must be encouraged to improve their batting as well. “Even though keeping is a specialised area, you have to be able to contribute with the bat,” she points out. “For me, everyone has to bat (in the nets). It is not like only the main batsmen will bat for half an hour each, and the others just do their drills. The game has changed so much now. You need contributions from the lower order as well. If the top order does the job for you it’s great, but you need the lower order also.
“Keeping is a thankless job. If you take five catches, they say ‘koi taali-waali ki zaroorat nahin hai [There’s no need of any appreciation]. It is your job.’ But if you drop one, every single player is in your ear about it.”
“And for keepers, as a coach, you have to work with them, and make them aware that they have to contribute with the bat. This is something that needs to be improved on.”
As a right-handed opening batter who scored 12 half-centuries with a highest score of 90 at the top of the order in ODIs and has a Test century to her name, Jain was known for her fighting qualities in front of the stumps. Kumar Sangakkara once said that wicketkeeping and opening the batting were difficult tasks to combine, but Jain saw things differently.
“I think it really helped me because before I went in to bat I knew what sort of bounce I was going to get and stuff. So for me it was good,” she reasons. “If they tried to push me down into the middle order, I never liked it. I always wanted to open. Even in the Test matches if I had kept for two days, I wanted to open the batting. I think that is the best thing. Because you are there, and you are watching from the best position, you can see how the wicket is behaving, how it has changed, etc. You are aware of everything and it helps, I think.”
The best keepers are those that quietly get on with their job. Their brilliance is usually understated, gone without notice, they say. Jain’s thoughts reflect these beliefs, “Keeping is a thankless job. If you take five catches, they say ‘koi taali-waali ki zaroorat nahin hai [There’s no need of any appreciation]. It is your job.’ But if you drop one, every single player is in your ear about it. Even then, no one makes the keepers practice extra.”
With every keeper that gets tried and tossed aside, and tried again, her frustration increases, but Jain is silently working on her own wards … probably preparing an army of wicketkeeper-batters of her own, away in Assam.