“Shot yaar, Hems!”

Meghana Sabbineni’s voice echoed across the ground as her long-time friend Hemalatha Dayalan crashed a loopy full toss from Karnataka’s C Prathyusha over the mid-wicket fence at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore.

The Indian Railways dressing room rose as one. They were inching closer to their 12th Women’s Senior One-Day title.

In the following over, wicket-keeper Nuzhat Parween bisected the tight ring on the off-side with a sweetly timed cover-drive to seal an emphatic eight wicket win. In the middle, the batting pair celebrated. In the dugout, Railways’ players were cock-a-hoop.

As Hemalatha walked off the field, shaking hands with the opponents and her teammates, she was warmly embraced by a proud, beaming Meghana. The pair, arm in arm, made their way up to the dressing room, giggling.

It has been a common sight over the last few years: their inseparable bond, rivalling only the bromance of Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne.

“The two of us are quite similar,” Hemalatha told Scroll.in. “We both eat and sleep early. We’re both very sincere with our batting; we always want to bat a lot. We talk about the game – how we can play in different conditions, tackle different bowlers, the improvements we can make – but we also like to just have fun. When we are together, laughter is never far behind.”

Now the two of them are in the India squad, together. Hemalatha, who last played for India in March 2021, has been called up to both the ODI and T20I squads to tour England.

‘Comeback is never easy’

Part of the same batch at age-group level, Meghana and Hemalatha were often competing with each other when they turned out for their respective teams, Andhra and Tamil Nadu. Runs from one, almost certainly meant runs from the other – the rivalry was unspoken, but it always appeared intense. When they joined hands for South Zone, theirs was the partnership that the team often relied on.

“We’ve known each other for quite a few years – right from South Zone days. Even then we used to share big partnerships – 100-plus, 70-plus and all. I guess that familiarity helped with the bond we now share. It just developed naturally, I guess… I mean, you know how batters are,” she giggled, as if hinting to the Smarnus bromance.

“We are always supporting each other, discussing lots of different things about cricket and otherwise. It’s nice to have her support.”

It should therefore come as no surprise that when Hemalatha’s name appeared in the Indian team list for the white-ball tour of England next month, after making a call to her parents, one of the first people she celebrated with was Meghana.

“At first, when I saw the team, I was quite shocked, and so were my parents. I think my father literally cried and my mother just went quiet for a while. They were so happy for me. They have been wanting to watch me play on TV for such a long time, so this means a lot to them as well.

“Making a comeback is never easy – it’s harder than making your debut. It is so much more emotional; it’s like a double prize,” she beamed.

“Having Meghana there just makes it sweeter. Obviously, I was really happy for her, seeing her name in the team. She was happy for me as well.”

Strong domestic season

The right-hander’s return to the Indian team after a two-year hiatus has come on the back of a strong 2021-’22 domestic season in which she scored a total of 339 runs at an average of 75 and a strike rate over 140 across formats. She shone particularly brightly in the T20s, finishing fourth on the run charts with 272 runs – the highest for a player batting largely outside the top three.

“I’ve actually been really enjoying my game this season. From the very start I have felt in good touch,” she said of her form.

“We had a lot of practice matches in the lead up to both the one-day and T20 tournament and that really helped me. I approached every match with an intent to score and make an impact, so getting runs gave me a lot of confidence. I started hitting nicely from then only and carried that flow into the state matches as well.”

Originally seen more as a touch player, Hemalatha bossed the competition with her fearsome strokeplay, crashing 35 fours and nine sixes through the tournament. Many of her teammates claimed she was hitting the ball harder than they had ever seen before. That exaggerated bat-swing, often sending the ball sailing into the stands or racing past desperate fielders.

She puts down this changed mindset to a better understanding of her role in the middle order: “Earlier, as an opening batter (for Tamil Nadu), I used to just time the ball nicely. I wouldn’t hit. It’s not that I couldn’t hit, but with the ball being hard and new, I relied more on my timing and placement. It was only once I settled down, that I would really go for it. But in Indian Railways and the Indian team I was always lower down the order, so I had to figure out how to play that role. I needed to understand what I was lacking and then practice accordingly and prepare myself.”

Much of that preparation involved facing plenty of throwdowns, learning to stick to her strengths and understanding how to hold her shape through a shot.

Slight in frame, but blessed with plenty of power thanks to her strong forearms and fast hands, in her early years, Hemalatha, struggled to find the boundary regularly – sometimes perishing after a string of dot balls thanks to a hoick across the line.

But now, older, wiser, calmer and more aware of her game and the options at her disposal against different styles of bowling, she is better able to tackle different situations. Her versatility was underlined by the two contrasting knocks that bookended her season.

The 27-year-old kicked off her campaign with a blistering 15-ball 35 not out, sharing a 66-run stand with Swagatika Rath in a one-day encounter against Chandigarh to take Railways to a mammoth 356 for 4, before she ended the domestic season with a high-quality half-century under pressure against Maharashtra in the final of the Women’s Senior T20 Trophy.

With Railways chasing 161 to defend their crown, Hemalatha strode in at No 3 after Meghana had got them off to a brisk start. She started tentatively, playing and missing or inside-edging more deliveries than she cares to remember. But she stayed calm and battled through. One strong push off the front foot settled her nerves. After that, she was fully in control of proceedings, scoring a match-winning 65 off 41 balls to make sure Railways got home with 11 balls to spare.

“It was a pressure situation when I walked in,” she recollected. “Maggie (Meghana) was hitting nicely on one side, but the score was also a lot, so I knew I needed to keep it ticking as well.

“The pitch was quite slow and the ball was turning, so I took a few balls to assess it, but once I gauged the pace and bounce, I trusted myself and my shots. That’s what brought me success all season, so I didn’t change anything; I kept batting the way I had through the tournament. I just had a mini target in my head – a score we needed to reach by the end of every over – and tried to stick to that.

“I also targeted the bowlers depending on how their rhythm was that day: if someone was bowling well, we just milked them around, but if someone was dishing out loose balls, we capitalised and put them under even more pressure. We were so determined to win and that kept us focused on the task at hand. It was tough, but I really enjoyed that pressure. I understood how to handle it.”

Top runscorers in Women's T20 Trophy

PLAYER TEAM Inns Runs HS AVG SR 100 50 4S 6S
K P Navgire NCA 7 525 162* 131.25 172.69 1 4 54 35
Y H Bhatia BCA 7 325 72* 54.17 135.98 0 4 36 5
Shafali Verma HCA 7 303 75* 60.60 175.14 0 5 39 15
D Hemalatha RSPB 8 272 69 38.86 150.27 0 3 35 9
S Meghana RSPB 8 263 84 32.88 125.23 0 2 39 1
Stats: BCCI

Disappointment of Women’s T20 Challenge

On the heels of the T20 Trophy came the Women’s T20 Challenge in Pune. With two half centuries in the knockouts and useful contributions through the tournament, Hemalatha should have been a shoo-in. She was quietly confident: this was her opportunity to prove her worth and mount a comeback into the Indian team.

However, her runs were not quite thought to be enough.

Heart-broken, she retreated into her shell, cutting herself off from the wider world for the next fortnight. Where did she go wrong? What more could she have done? The questions haunted her. The snub was a tough pill to swallow.

“I was in very good touch and good form, so I was very disappointed. For 15-20 days, I didn’t go anywhere. I just stayed home. It was hard to deal with all the questions and messages I was getting. I didn’t know what to say to anyone. I just stayed silent and off social media,” her voice trailed off.

Having taken some time to process her emotions, Hema returned to doing what she knew best: batting.

“After some time, I just thought, maybe I need to do more and be better. I received a lot of support from my family, friends and coaches – they helped me to come out of that disappointment. They were always encouraging me and telling me I have more left in the tank. I need to keep improving and being consistent,” she said.

“So, I just went back to working on my batting and focusing on what I have in my control. I started batting and doing my fitness work. The best players are never satisfied. My aim was to unlock another level.”

Hemalatha now had a new goal ahead of her – to dominate the batting charts for another season. India’s tour to England was the last thing on her mind…

Back in India set-up

Now, after days to process the “shock”, she is keenly looking forward to the trip. This is, after all, her second coming, and just as her friend Meghana did a few months ago in New Zealand, she hope she can take her chances with both hands and show the world that she (and her swoon-worthy cover drive) belongs at international level.

“Out there, it is about being fearless and trusting your ability. You have to quickly assess the situation and figure out what you can do to help the team. That’s something I didn’t always do too well a few years back,” Hemalatha explained when asked about the lessons she will take from her first 14 international appearances.

“Having contributed to several wins and scoring in different situations (in domestic cricket), I am very confident and comfortable with my game – much more than I was when I made my India debut. I know I have the skills, both technical and mental, to succeed. So, I want to carry that form and belief into international cricket.”

The form and confidence from domestic cricket aside, Hemalatha will have one other familiar thing with her when she travels to England, the support of Meghana. If she does take the field, one can be sure that cries of “Full-aa aadu” or “Keep playing, Hems” will be heard coming from the direction of the Indian dressing room.

India’s T20I squad for England: Harmanpreet Kaur (Captain), Smriti Mandhana (Vice-captain), Shafali Verma, Deepti Sharma, Pooja Vastrakar, Jemimah Rodrigues, Sneh Rana, Renuka Thakur, Meghna Singh, Radha Yadav, Sabbineni Meghana, Taniyaa Sapna Bhatia (WK), Rajeshwari Gayakwad, Dayalan Hemalatha, Simran Dil Bahadur, Richa Ghosh (WK), K.P. Navgire

India’s ODI squad for England: Harmanpreet Kaur (Captain), Smriti Mandhana (Vice-Captain), Shafali Verma, Sabbineni Meghana, Deepti Sharma, Taniyaa Sapna Bhatia (WK), Yastika Bhatia (WK), Pooja Vastrakar, Sneh Rana, Renuka Thakur, Meghna Singh, Rajeshwari Gayakwad, Harleen Deol, Dayalan Hemalatha, Simran Dil Bahadur, Jhulan Goswami, Jemimah Rodrigues

Ananya Upendran is a former Hyderabad pacer, and now a freelance journalist. She previously worked as Managing Editor of Women’s CricZone.