Women's Cricket

The understated yet remarkable Ekta Bisht wrote her own path to the Indian women’s cricket team

Just one wicket short of the 50-wicket milestone in ODI cricket, the experienced 31-year-old is one of the team’s mainstays.

Some players like the limelight, on and off the field. Some love Instagram. Some are Twitter celebrities. Some get attention that they do not want. And some manage to not just fly under the radar, but go underwater and evade the sonar as well. Yet they make an impact.

That is Ekta Bisht for you.

India’s Super Six match against South Africa on Wednesday was probably a prelude to the final of the ICC Women’s World Cup Qualifier in Colombo. Have a look at the bowling figures. On paper, Shikha Pandey’s inswingers, that took four wickets for 34, had the most say. Off paper though, Bisht’s left arm spin that quietly took three for 22 was more vital. Neither won the player of the match award; the spotlight went instead to Mithali Raj. It is a batter’s game you see.

A small lady with a big heart

Bisht’s figures, and their lack of limelight sum up her career. Understated but unmistakable. Unremarkable but un-ignorable. More than one commentator has looked at her slight frame, diminutive stature (she is a little over five feet tall) and childlike face and made the mistake of using the word “youngster”.

Bisht is not young in cricketing parlance, nor in experience. At 31, she is the oldest member of the current Indian team, bar Mithali Raj, and the third most capped player. She has been wearing the blue (and once a singular white) almost uninterrupted since she made her debut in 2011, and now sits on the cusp of a milestone: 50 One-Day International wickets. Not bad for a small lady with a big heart, from a small town with big mountains, who started the game with no proper wickets to practice on.

Ekta Bisht wrote her own story. There were no role models she could look up to in her neighbourhood. No system she could navigate to the top. She is the youngest in a family with no real cricketing provenance. Raised in Almora (pronounced almoda) – 375 steep kilometres from Delhi – she became the first (male or female) cricketer from Uttarakhand, that young state of old mountains, to play for India. Nearly all year round, those mountains wear snow caps. Bisht, for six years now, has worn the India cap.

A decade and a half ago, if you looked closely at the boys playing in the streets of Almora, you would not have been able to pick out Bisht. With hair much shorter than the she wears now, she was a common fixture in the tennis ball tournaments in her chilly hometown. But what is cricket season for the rest of India is cold season for Almora, where temperatures routinely dip into single digits. Ever tried playing cricket when it is that cold? Your sweaters do not allow you to swing your arms, and Lord forbid if a ball should be cut your way while fielding at point. Try holding on to some ice and then receiving a high five. Now multiply that by two months and a leather ball.

Forging her own journey

But for Bisht, this was her normal. “Cold is cold”, she told Scroll matter-of-factly. “Once you warm up it doesn’t matter.” She does not make much of the multiple layers she would wear, or the many stings, her exposed fingers endured in fielding practice. No wonder the left hander does so well at point.

When Bisht was a teenager, she was coached by Liyakat Ali Khan, whose currency was hours, not rupees. “In the morning I would bowl for a couple of hours, and in the evening, sometimes more”, she said. Bisht has now bowled on the grass of six countries, but back then, there was no grass to train on. Any smooth patch of bare ground was enough for a practice session. “You don’t need a turf wicket for spot bowling”, she adds.

That is Ekta Bisht for you.

She started playing women’s cricket for Uttarakhand, under the now defunct Women’s Cricket Association of India. Quickly noticed as one to look out for, she was picked in the WCAI’s seminal India U-21 camp in Mysore in 2005, ahead of a groundbreaking tour of Pakistan. There, she learned from England’s Jane Powell, a level three coach, and head coach for that camp. “That was where it all started”, she recalled. “I found out what high level cricket was like.”

Although she did not make the touring party, Bisht carried more than memories and lessons from that camp; she also bears a scar from her time there. Looking to catch a powerfully hit caught and bowled chance in a practice match, she was hit by the ball above her right eyebrow, and needed stitches. I was playing in the same match, and remember the incident well. Despite the blood oozing from her eyebrow, she held onto the ball and completed the catch.

That is Ekta Bisht for you.

Not just any other left-arm spinner

After the Board of Control for Cricket in India started women’s cricket in 2006, Bisht had to play for Uttar Pradesh. Getting into the UP squad was no joke; it is fertile soil for left arm spinners, the land that gave India the great Neetu David (141 ODI wickets). Uttar Pradesh sometimes boasted as many as three in the playing XI. But Bisht always made her way into the squad, because she was never like any other spinner.

Most left arm spinners are like classical music: the arc the ball makes as it loops up and dips down as elegant as any raga, and the bite with which it turns as tricky as the most circuitous taana. They bowl high arm, with trajectory perfected through hours of riyaaz. Bisht has all those skills, but is more indipop singer with a classical base.

Bisht fires the ball in faster than other left arm spinners, as if intolerant of the more languid pace of classical music. She varies the point of her release too, now high arm, now low slung, using her lack of height and a round-arm action to lower the point of release and skid the ball through. She relies on the lack of turn more than the turn itself. Of her 49 ODI wickets, 18 are bowled and LBW, a high proportion for someone who turns the ball away from the batter. That is Ekta Bisht for you.

But Bisht has always used her differences as her strengths, resisting suggestions from coaches over the years to fit the factory mould. “I have always bowled like this”, she said. “Of course with experience I added some variations , and made some changes, but I have never gone away from my natural style.” The list of batters she has dismissed more than once includes some of the biggest names in the sport, like Meg Lanning and Charlotte Edwards.

Her natural left-handed-pie-chucker style bowling came in handy on her India debut in 2011. She got her opportunity in England, a tough assignment for even the most experienced spinner. No matter that it came in one of the toughest tournaments on the women’s cricket calendar, the erstwhile Quadrangular series, featuring the world’s top four teams. In her third ODI, she won a player of the match award, with a gutsy spell of three for 15, that helped India defend 150 against New Zealand and claim third spot. The next year, she made history, becoming the only Indian to take a hat trick in any format.

That is Ekta Bisht for you.

‘Whenever the match is tight, I get the new ball’

Her first and till date only Test match took her back to England in 2014. On debut, she conceded only 33 runs in 32 miserly overs in the crucial second innings and picked up two wickets, ensuring she contributed in a game where the pace bowlers dominated. In the process, she helped the un-contracted India to a historic away win against a newly professional England. It paved the way for contracts for India the next year.

Her uniqueness has seen her survive of a churn of left arm spinners in the Indian team. From the effervescent Priti Dimri, who she replaced, to outlasting the talented Gouher Sultana, her contemporary and often her foil, and holding off challenges from the current crop; the likes of Preeti Bose and Rajeshwari Gayakwad. Central to her longevity, is her ability and willingness to bowl with the new ball.

Jaha match fas jata hai waha mujhe new ball milta hai (Whenever the match is tight, I get the new ball)”, she said with a grin. “I like it, though it can be a bit daunting, bowling within the Powerplay so often.” This ability makes Bisht a threat on both dry and green wickets, like she showed in England.

Like so many female cricketers in India, Bisht is a railway employee. She joined North Central Railway in 2012, and left Almora for the warmer Allahabad where she was posted. But there were more than practical reasons behind her decision; “I always wanted to play for Railways, a team that had so many quality spinners.” She formed the core of an Indian Railways side in transition, with Neetu David and Nooshin Al-Khadeer moving on, and has now become the lead spinner for the strongest team in the country.

That is Ekta Bisht for you.

Her policy of sticking to who she is shines through even off the field. Bisht has always had a cheerful countenance, and has more smiles to offer than the mint has coins. Known for bowling with her cap on, underneath it is a shrewd bowling brain that tells her when to vary her pace. She had a huge grin when she was told of nearing the 50 wicket milestone by a reporter in Sri Lanka. When I told her she was on 49 after the game against South Africa, pat came the reply: “Agle match mein nikalti hu (I’ll get it in the next game).” As fate would have it, she was rested in the next game.

Given her record and longevity, it is startling that Bisht has not become a better known figure in Indian cricket, like Harmanpreet Kaur or Veda Krishnamurthy. But that is a further reflection of who she is as a person; she prefers the quiet of her hometown and retreats there whenever cricket and work permits. Put a camera in front of her and she will bury her face in her cap. She has no Instagram account, no Twitter handle, and only public pages on Facebook. Coverage of her in the media is even more bare; ESPNCricinfo, the biggest cricket website in the world, do not even have a profile of her on their site.

Fifteen years ago, travelling to nearby Nainital for tennis ball tournaments with the boys was a big deal. Now, she has probably seen more of the world than the average Almora resident will see in a lifetime. Aesthetically her bowling may not always be as pretty as Neetu David’s, but it certainly gets the job done. It is time the world recognised that, it is time some light was shone on Ekta Bisht’s record. Reluctant as she may be, it is time Ekta Bisht be given centre stage.

Ladies and gents, meet Ekta Bisht.

Snehal Pradhan is a former women’s international cricketer. She tweets here.

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