On April 4, Sajana S led the Kerala under-23 women’s cricket team to the Twenty-20 Super League title in Mumbai with a five-wicket win over Maharashtra. It was the first championship win by a Kerala team, men or women, in a tournament conducted by the Board of Control for Cricket in India.
In the week gone by, 23-year-old Sajana has been hailed as Kerala’s most successful cricket captain, not just for her leadership but also for her personal performance – she took 14 wickets, the most by a player in the tournament. Her achievements become all the more special considering that she took up cricket less than six years ago.
“Life’s challenges made me tough and sharpened my fighting skills,” Sajana said when asked how she had come so far in such a short span of time. “I am from the Kurichia community, the Adivasi tribe of the warriors.”
High jump to cricket
Born to Sajeevan, an autorikshaw driver, and Sarada, a municipal councillor, in Wayanad district, Sajana was just nine years old when she was sent to the Government Model Residential School in Pookkode village. “I cried for hours when I realised that I would live alone at the school for Scheduled Tribe students,” she said. “But I made up my mind quickly and decided to stay strong. It made me self-reliant and strong.”
Sports helped her get over being away from her family. She excelled in athletics, consistently winning sprint, high jump and shot put competitions.
Sporting ability is not uncommon among the Kurichia people. The largest Adivasi group in Wayanad (16.6% of its population) after the Paniyas (45.6%), Kurichias are a predominantly agricultural community but are known to be adept in archery and hunting. Wayanad is home to Kerala’s largest Adivasi population with the group accounting for 18.5% of the district’s population, according to the 2011 Census. Driven out of their homes in the forests in the 1970s, the Adivasis of Wayanad continue to struggle for their lost lands and livelihoods to this day.
Counting her strengths, Sajana said, “Height is my biggest advantage then and now.” The cricketer stands tall at 5 foot 7. “I would have become a champion high-jumper had our school had a crash mat for training,” she added.
High jump’s loss turned out to be cricket’s gain. While she had been playing the game since childhood, she took up competitive cricket in 2012 as a Class 11 student at the Government Higher Secondary School in Mananthavady. After that, there was no looking back. She soon became an all-rounder with an uncanny knack for bowling off-breaks – a spinning delivery that causes the ball to deviate to the bowler’s right – and the ability to hit the ball hard while batting. But she considers fielding her forte. “I can dive easily to the right and left to deny opponents valuable runs,” she said. “The agility has given me a nickname, ’Jonty Rhodes’, [who is] the greatest fielder from South Africa.”
Road to glory
Sajana’s skills earned her a place in the Wayanad district women’s cricket team. After a memorable performance in the under-19 inter-district championship, she won her first Kerala cap and then the skipper’s armband in 2013. A year and some consistent performances later, she was drafted into the state’s under-23 and senior teams.
In 2016, she won high praise from Gautam Gambhir when she fielded for the cricketer during a practice session in Wayanad ahead of a Ranji Trophy tie. “Gambhir congratulated me and gifted me his bat after the practice session,” she said.
She put the bat to good use. “I scored an 84-ball 100 with that bat in an under-23 match against Tamil Nadu,” she said proudly.
In March, the Kerala under-23 women’s team won a spot in the Super League with wins over Hyderabad, Tamil Nadu, Goa and Karnataka and just one loss – a nine-wicket defeat at the hands of Andhra Pradesh. On March 28, it started its campaign in Mumbai on the right note – a seven-wicket win over Punjab. Victories over Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Mumbai followed. In the title match, Kerala bested Maharashtra with just a ball to spare.
“I was over the moon when we got past Maharashtra in a nerve-wracking match,” Sajana said. “It was the result of the hard work I put in all these years.”
Today, Sajana joins a talented pool of cricketers from Kerala such as KN Ananthapadmanabhan, Sunil Oasis, Tinu Yohannan, S Sreesanth and Sanju Samson. Many of her supporters say she also stands a good chance of earning a place in the national team. “I am dreaming of earning the India cap,” she said.
But even after that heady victory, Sajana remains practical. Becoming a professional cricketer has brought her and her family financial security, and she has not forgotten that. “The match fee was the biggest attraction,” she said candidly. “I spent each penny cautiously. My savings were used to construct my house.”
Even now, while dreaming of playing for Team India, Sajana says she first needs to find a job that will help her continue to play cricket: “I hope to get that secure job soon.”