Shikha Pandey is the the most experienced pacer in the Indian team after Jhulan Goswami and has formed the backbone of the pace attack with the veteran in her seven-year career so far.
Yet, the 32-year-old was omitted from the squad taking on South Africa earlier this year, purportedly to give other players a chance and it became one of the biggest talking points ahead of the Indian team’s first international series in a year. The inconsistent bowling attack, among other factors, was one of the reasons India went down in both the ODI and T20I series in March.
The pace-bowling all-rounder was recalled for the multi-format tour of England in June, which will include India’s first Test in seven years.
In an interview after the teams for the England tour were announced, the pacer spoke about how she overcame the disappointment of missing out on the South Africa series, what aspects of her game she is working on, playing Test cricket again, memories from the historic 2014 win in England, future of pace bowling in India and more.
Excerpts from the free-wheeling interview:
What was your mind space like after missing out on the series against South Africa?
I was disappointed not to be playing international cricket.
How did you deal with the disappointment?
I have this term, virtual blinkers: I know that I have to keep my head down and put in the hard work. It’s a life lesson that my father has instilled in me: just put in the hard work and it never goes to waste. If I know that I have done the work, I may not get the results right away but I want to always be the hardest working member of the team always and contribute in whichever capacity I can.
I was very lucky that there was cricket happening, I went back and captained Goa. I have always loved playing alongside my Goa teammates, there are a few who were there with me when I debuted for India. I started playing cricket because I loved the sport as a kid and I have now realised that if I am not enjoying the game as much as I should, I wouldn’t get the results. So it’s just about the process and love of the game. I am an overthinker and I brood a lot so I try not to think too much and keep it simple. Get the process going and the result will follow.
In the time spent away, is there anything specific you were working on to fine-tune your game, especially batting?
Before the lockdown, I was working on my batting. I take a lot of pride in my batting skill, I bat No 4-5 for the state side. I spent a lot of time trying to sort out my batting, I think I can contribute a lot more with the bat. In bowling, with the lockdown on, it was not conducive, but I tried to get in as many sessions. After getting back from Dubai I worked a lot on my fitness. Being a medium pacer I know how important fitness is, at the international level you need to be fit to execute your skill. Our team trainer has been helping a lot in that regard. With fitness, fielding is taken care of to a large extent. I have tried putting in the hard yards and hope to get the results.
Given the team’s history, is there specific batting training for the lower middle order players in the Indian set-up?
We have always believed that the runs the lower middle order gets you can win games. It was evident in many games, such as against New Zealand [at the T20 World Cup]. With the Test match also it becomes important that the tail bats. We have always made sure that bowlers do bat in the nets and face quality bowling.
Back to international cricket, what are you looking forward to most ahead of the England tour?
I’m excited to be getting back to the Indian side and getting some good international cricket under by belt.
The ODI World Cup, already delayed by a year, is months away now. How do you approach the three major tours given the main focus will be the big event?
There’s this road we as a team are traveling on and there are stops. England is an important stop, World Cup is a massive stop. Looking at this tour, we obviously want to win games but also get those hours under your belt. Any tournament we play, the short-term goal is to win the game, but the long-term plan is to get all the confidence we can gain for the World Cup.
Knowing how keen you are to play Test cricket, what does India having two Tests in a year, after six years of not playing the format, mean to you?
I am a huge fan of the multi-day format and Test cricket, as a kid growing up I always thought you wouldn’t be a cricketer unless you’ve donned the whites. I consider myself very fortunate that the year I debuted for India, we were able to play two Test matches. But after that it didn’t really happen, we didn’t play as many matches as we would have liked. There are many players who love the longer format. The year 2020 was not so great in terms of the amount of cricket we played but good things are coming in now with the Indian team playing two Test matches in a year.
Could you share some of your memories from the last Test India played in England, the historic win in 2014 where you scored the winning runs?
Not many people know this but I went in as a replacement in the 2014 Test squad but to be there and start in the Playing XI...
The Indian team was playing Test cricket after a huge gap of eight years, there were only three members from the side who had played the 2006 Test as well. Starting from the mass cap distribution ceremony, watching Jhulu di bowl with those 8-1 fields, the best spell of fast bowling I have seen by an Indian woman cricketer while playing alongside them... Niranjana was on fire, Smriti getting those runs, Mithali di soring that fifty, everything.
As everyone says, Test match cricket is the pinnacle and you get to learn so much, so I tried learning as much as I could in those four days. I think I was very fortunate to be hitting the winning runs and contributing the little I could in the win. They say that dreams come true so probably being part of a Test and winning against a very formidable side like England was a dream come true.
Did you think you’d get another chance to play Test cricket given the format was almost given up by most countries?
The very fact that we continued playing the multi-format in the zonals made us believe we will be playing the longer format in the future. But not many other boards were keen on us playing the longer format, so that was probably one of the reasons we didn’t have Tests for so long. Kudos to everyone involved, BCCI, Cricket Australia and ECB to put in all the efforts to make these two Tests possible.
What do you think will be the preparation needed to get into the Test match mode, given the Indian team will have many debutants?
We need to get out there and get in as many practice sessions as we can because of the situation back home. We are very blessed for the place we are in, we are privileged that we are still able to play with things the way they are due to the pandemic. It’s not really ideal for a cricketer but the number of practice sessions we can get in before the Test starts on June 16 will be key.
I would say that to be able to master the longer format you have to prepare and we will try to tweak our preparations in the best possible manner.
Talking about the day-night Test against Australia, have you ever played with a pink ball? What kind of specialised training will be needed ahead of it, according to you?
I’m hoping that once the team is announced we can have a camp and have open nets to get acquainted with how things work in a day-night Test. I have had little time with the pink ball, perhaps back in 2014, there was the Goa Cricket league where we were playing with the pink ball under lights. I didn’t play that match but that’s the closest I have gotten to watching a live pink-ball game. I have watched it on TV and read about it. The preparation will be important because of the intricacies which pink ball brings into the game.
A pacer in India uniquely placed with the spectrum between Jhulan Goswami, you and a bunch of much younger bowlers. How is the bench strength of Indian pace from what you have seen?
We do have the raw material for good pacers in domestic cricket, I can vouch for it because I played the domestic tournament this time. It’s about instilling confidence in them. Traditionally when we play in India it is difficult for medium pacers and I can tell you from my experience, the wickets are spinner and batter friendly. So it’s more about having the patience, keep going out there and bowling.
I still remember when I started playing and had my first India camp, I was talking to Jhulu di and she said ‘new ball se toh koi bhi wicket le lega.’ It’s about coming back in the second spell and toiling hard, it’s something I have picked up from her. As a medium pacer in subcontinental conditions, you need to have a never-say-die attitude coming in and bowling those long spells, you need to toil very hard.
In 2019, we had a pacers camp so BCCI was making sure we had this, but it didn’t continue because of the Covid situation. I am sure they have plans for specialist camps soon.
What role do you see for yourself in promoting gender parity in Indian cricket?
I believe that we should be the change we want to see. As a cricketer every time I walk in, I am playing for my country but there’s always this thought that if we do well, what it will do for a little girl who wants to pursue cricket as a career? When I started playing, not many people would take that leap of faith. But a lot has been done by the Board and the scenario is getting better.
I remember before the 2017 World Cup, we had this team talk when we reached England where we said that if we can do well what would that mean for a young girl who wants to play cricket. The former players have done so much, they haven’t really gotten their dues. For us, it’s all about inspiring young kids to take up cricket and I think if I can inspire girls to go out and take up cricket, it’ll be the least I can do.
If there is one thing you could suggest to boost women’s cricket in India, what would it be?
Just get us to play more... I said what I wanted to in my Twitter thread last year. There was this thing that when we wouldn’t hit sixes, it was a problem, now people have problems when we don’t bowl fast. It’s good because women’s cricket is being spoken about.
But if we could play more and have the media cover all games, it may sound very primitive and silly but if we could watch women cricketers on TV and the media has that much attention, every second kid would want to become Jhulan Goswami or Mithali Raj. When I started playing I did not know that there are women cricketers and organized women’s cricket, which is not the case now. It’s about giving exposure.
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