The opening act
Jemimah Rodrigues’s maiden scoring shot on her international debut was a lofted, one-bounce four between midwicket and long-on. Coming in at No. 4 with India Women needing 118 runs off 91 balls in the first Twenty20 International against South Africa, Rodrigues made 37 off 27 balls and shared a stand of 69 with Mithali Raj to set up a seven-wicket win on Tuesday (February 13).
Rodrigues, just 17 years old, showed positive intent and batted fearlessly before falling against the run of play in the 14th over. Of her 19 scoring shots, which included four fours and a six, it’s the first that must have given her father Ivan, who was at Senwes Park in Potchefstroom to see the match live, the utmost satisfaction. It also must have reminded him of Sachin Tendulkar’s words that her daughter was ready to play in South Africa.
Rodrigues made 45 in 100 balls for West Zone in the second innings of a two-day game against Raj’s Central Zone in Raipur in March 2017. A sharp assessor of her own game, she felt that the score could easily have been 80 at the age-group level. The fielding standards were better, meaning she could not find the gaps. She did not have enough power to generate pace against the spin trio of Ekta Bisht, Rajeshwari Gayakwad and Poonam Yadav and loft them over the inner circle. Recognising the need to build more strength in her biceps, she called up Ivan, who is also her personal coach, to find her a gym.
Enrolling in a gym is an exorbitant affair in Mumbai, especially for an athlete needing a professional trainer with specific demands. One facility quoted Rs 1500 per session. Just when hope was fading, her brother’s classmate got the family to meet his father, Venancio D’Souza, who owns V’s Fitness in Khar.
The family was hesitant to seek favours, but on hearing about the teenager’s records, D’Souza told them: ‘We are going to take care of her. You don’t have to pay me. We know she is the future of the Indian team. We want to bless her.’
“They are really wonderful people,” Lavita Rodrigues, Jemimah’s mother, tells Wisden India. “His charges as a personal trainer are quite high, but he doesn’t charge her anything. V’s Fitness have given her the best.”
Ivan was aiming a breakthrough for his daughter at the 2017 World Cup in England, but two packed domestic seasons in which she played both age-group and senior cricket had not given him time to work on her game. It meant Rodrigues was short of runs to impress the selectors for a World Cup berth.
The 2016-17 season was over soon after that phone call from Raipur, and with everyone’s focus on the World Cup, Ivan found the gap in the calendar he was waiting for. The goal shifted to the World Twenty20 2018, scheduled in the Caribbean in November.
While D’Souza focussed on fitness, Ivan worked on power hitting. Access to MIG Cricket Club ground came as a big boost. It is an exclusive boys’ club, and she was initially rejected when she went there with her brother for a few days. But she was asked to join by Prashant Shetty, the coach, after she did well against them in a match a few years ago.
Every block of 50 balls was dedicated to one particular shot. Ivan would places cones to set fields. Sometimes, he would block the leg-side and bowl in the arc, and on other occasions, he would close the off-side and bowl outside the fifth stump. It was a deliberate tactic to strengthen Rodrigues’s willpower. The challenge for Rodrigues was to not get tempted by the trap. She had to play inside-out shots to balls on leg-stump and hit balls bowled on her right to the leg-side to score runs.
“It was not like continuous hitting – just go bang and come. No. You should not be hitting with the wrong technique,” Ivan explains, elaborating on how he went about adding new gears to Rodrigues’s batting. “When you hit the ball, people should be awestruck seeing your batting. That is what I wanted. Your technique has to dominate your game.”
The meticulously planned practice sessions resulted in a dream season. Apart from 1013 runs in the inter-state Under-19 competition in 2017-18, she finished third on the batting charts of the Challenger Trophy. Her inside-out shots in the tournament against experienced bowlers left an indelible mark on those who watched her bat.
The cricket community went into a tizzy after Rodrigues made an unbeaten 202 against Saurashtra Under-19 in November last year, but Ivan was hoping for a triple-century. Ivan, however, was satisfied when Rodrigues hit a six over long-on during another innings in the same competition.
“In school matches, she hits (double-century) every time. For that 202, I did not scream at all, but that day when she hit that six to long-on, I screamed. And, I did not realise that I was screaming, but she heard and waved her bat to me,” recollects Ivan, who now wants to see Rodrigues hit a six over long-off. “To play on the off-side, it requires more power. On the leg-side, your body weight helps, it is more natural. She has hit in the practice sessions, but in matches I have not seen her hitting a six to long-off. It is always one-bounce. I want to see that.”
The Under-19 exploits earned her a place in the India A squad for the home series against Bangladesh A. She did reasonably well, before missing the last game due to an injured finger.
After a point, it became obvious that a national call-up was not far away. Ivan amped up preparations ahead of the Challenger Trophy. He got state-level Under-19 boys to bowl continuously at Rodrigues at the MIG Club. When not playing against the boys, she faced the bowling machine on the centre pitch. When the ground was booked for matches, she prepared on concrete pitches inside the box net in one corner. With one eye on getting ready for South Africa’s bouncy tracks, she batted against hockey balls and different types of machine balls, some of which just skidded on, giving the batter little time to react, and some which bounced more. The pull, which fetched her the first international six, hook and square-cut were the shots that she worked on most.
After her 179 runs in three innings in the Challenger Trophy in Indore, Rodrigues and Ivan spent an exclusive hour at Tendulkar’s home. Tendulkar saw video clippings of Rodrigues’s batting from the tournament and was convinced that she had the game to excel in South Africa.
“When I went (to his home), I was quite scared and nervous. It was the first time I was speaking to him face-to-face. I had seen him in a group where he had spoken to us Mumbai girls,” remembered Rodrigues. “(But) the moment I went there, he made me feel comfortable. He spoke normally and calmed the whole atmosphere for me. When I said that I was nervous (about the South African trip), he said it was good that I was nervous as it meant I was concerned about my performance and I wanted to do well.”
Tendulkar went into details of innings-building, technicalities of facing a bowling machine, the need to play from the crease initially and then move forward a few steps, the importance of keeping external influences at bay and what it feels like to represent the country as a teenager. He also shared his thoughts on preparing for South Africa.
“He asked what we are doing to prepare for South Africa. I said since they are bouncy wickets, we are working on these (horizontal) shots and playing with the boys. He said, ‘Yes, it may be a seamer’s wicket, but I take it in this way that the better the bounce, the more nicely it will come and hit the sweet spot on the bat’,” Rodrigues revealed. “He said the bounce in the pitches at the Wankhede Stadium and in South Africa was pretty similar.
“It is just about how you take it. You can get scared that it is a seamer’s track and be worried about what to do, or you can take it in another way. He said cricket was all about the mind and how you took it,” she went on. “He said he always enjoyed playing on such wickets because the ball came nicely off the surface and hit the bat well. He said to be careful initially because there will be movement, and also told me to understand what shots to play initially and which to keep for later.”
Since Rodrigues’s bat weight of 1500 grams has raised a few eyebrows, Ivan asked Tendulkar, known for using heavy bats in his prime, for his take. His response: “That’s according to the player’s comfort. People have different opinions, but as long as you get your bat down at the right time, it should not matter. From a heavy bat, if you change to a lighter bat, your back-lift will change, your bat speed, timing and power will change, and it is going to hamper your game.”
The big picture
Mumbai’s close-knit cricket family coming together to push young talents from the maidans to the top of the system, is an age-old model. At 17 years and 161 days, Rodrigues, who could easily have been lost to cricket had she continued to pursue hockey, is far from the youngest to play for the country. She is, however, different for the timing of her arrival.
She is the symbol of the post-2017 World Cup wave; becoming the first woman cricketer in India to be anointed a star even before making her international debut. Now, for her to score around the globe and make the famed Mumbai school of batting richer.
Spiritual and articulate, Rodrigues has her family and Brother Manuel, her spiritual leader, to help her get a wider perspective of life and stay grounded.
“I know that God is the most important thing in my life and without Him I am nothing. He has given me the talent, the strength, the wisdom…everything comes from Him. Every good thing comes from him. It is all He has given me, and I am working on it,” Rodrigues stressed. “He gives you grace and you work in His grace. You are not just playing to get the glory, but to also give it back to God. Your life gets a whole new meaning. You are not just for yourself, you are born for something greater than yourself.”