Two things about Devika Vaidya’s knock on Tuesday stood out, one measurable, one less so. First, she helped the Indian women’s cricket team post a score that figures in their top ten highest totals in One-Day International cricket. India made 259/4, setting up an opening win against Sri Lanka in the ICC Women’s World Cup Qualifiers at the P Sara Stadium in Colombo.
It is an important stat for a team whose bowling has traditionally been its strong suit, and who have only crossed the 250-mark 13 times in 229 ODIs. Secondly, and less tangibly, she outshone Mithali Raj, despite the Indian ODI skipper scoring one of the more fluent knocks of her career. Doing one of those things on any given day would have been an achievement. Vaidya did both.
A special talent
My first memory of Devika Vaidya is bowling to her in a Maharashtra team net session. She must have been eight years old, not yet five feet tall, and sported a waist-long braid under her slightly oversized helmet. Still, with surprising valiance, she faced up to my bowling, probably the fastest she had countered in her short (no pun intended) life. I knew then she would turn out to be a special talent. Eight-year-old left-handed girls with the technique and the guts to face state-level bowling did not appear every day.
That belief came good when she was 15. Vaidya had already established herself as a dependable leg spinner in our senior state lineup since her debut at just 13. Now, she was promoted to open the batting in a one-day game in the 2012-‘13 season. In the opposition was Niranjana Nagarajan, a tall fast bowler who had already played for India. The seven years since I had seen Vaidya had not added much to her height – at five foot one, she was dwarfed by Niranjana, who duly came up with the typical fast bowler’s response: a bouncer to welcome her to the crease. Vaidya calmly got on her tip toes and confidently pulled the ball to square leg, showing confidence beyond her years, as she notched up her first senior level half-century.
The benefit of a supportive family
Vaidya represents a new breed of young females who aim to be professional sportspersons when other young girls think about becoming doctors and engineers. Despite no great sporting influence in her family (her father is a captain in the Merchant Navy and mother is a stay-at-home mom), they encouraged her to pursue her interest in cricket, even shifting her from the traditional school system to the more flexible National Institute of Open Schooling. It was a big step for a family from Pune, where a culture steeped in education dominates most middle-class families.
By 13, Vaidya had earned a second degree black belt in taekwondo, as well as her first senior appearance in the Maharashtra team. Her parents also had the foresight to employ a personal coach – then Atul Gayakwad – for her since her teens, which has played a big part in her precocious development.
After a stellar season with the ball in 2014-‘15, where she finished highest wicket-taker in the Twenty20 format (Elite division), Vaidya made her debut for India in a Twenty20 International against South Africa at the age of 17. It was a fiery welcome, with the powerful South Africans repeatedly smashing her over the ropes; her three overs went for 30 runs. Still, writing in the Wisden India Almanack 2016, I had picked out Vaidya as one of the five young talents to watch out for. While I had highlighted her bowling as her stronger suit, it was with the bat that she made the first big impression on the international stage. Her 89 against Sri Lanka was the highest score for India, in a game where there were three half-centuries.
Her current coach, Niranjan Godbole, stressed that she has worked on dominating whenever she takes the field, whether batting or bowling. “With that in mind, we backward integrated what we need to do. Cover drives, inside-out shots, pull shots. We did up to 100 reps of each as part of her preparation.”
The results were there to see, as Vaidya, playing only her second ODI, made up for the slow start the Indian team had got off to. After taking some time to get her eye in, she took to the Sri Lankan spinners, favouring sweeps and lofted shots straight back over the bowler. What she lacked in height, she made up in footwork, getting to the pitch of the ball and then picking her spot. When she came in – ahead of Mithali Raj who usually bats at three – India were just 9/1 in the fifth over. When she was dismissed for 89, they were comfortably placed at 181 in the 40th.
An all-rounder with a special talent
“One thing that worked in her favour is that she likes pace on the ball,” said Godbole. “Batting up the order when the ball was hard when she got set was an advantage for her.”
Godbole exchanged text messages with his charge after the game, and said that she was happy with her first ODI fifty, but disappointed that she did not get a hundred. “But it was good to see her playing attacking shots so close to a hundred, putting the needs of the team first.
Four members of Vaidya’s family were present to see her first international fifty. Her parents and grandparents booked their tickets to Sri Lanka when they heard of her selection. Vaidya’s father was actually at sea when the team was declared, but fortunately was able to adjust his schedule so he could be there for this series.
“Her father tries to ensure that he is on duty in her off-season, so we can both be there for her games during the cricket season,” said Mousam Vaidya, Devika’s mother. The Vaidyas have been the Maharashtra team’s most loyal followers, regularly following the team around on the domestic circuit, even when matches have been in remote places like Rewa in Madhya Pradesh. I can hardly remember a domestic game in my playing days where they have not been present. “There has to be some audience for you girls, no? You work so hard,” Mousam added.
For now, Vaidya can bask in the well deserved attention of her achievement. Sterner challenges will present themselves as the tournament moves into the Super Six stage, where all facets of her game will be tested. But as she showed on Tuesday, and just as she showed when she was 15, she has the ability to grab an opportunity when presented with one.
Snehal Pradhan is a former women’s international cricketer. She tweets here.