By Shashank Kishore in Sylhet
Professional education and the Air Force were stepping stones for the all-rounder as she made her way into the Indian team
Shikha Pandey, the 25-year-old Indian all-rounder, was all of six months old when Tendulkar made his international debut. And it's his life and career she grew up following, fashioning her own cricketing dreams along the way.
The love for cricket was ingrained in her by her father, who little imagined that his daughter would one day represent India. "My father is a keen cricket lover, who used to always be glued to the matches," says Shikha. "I remember very clearly, when I was nine years old, Sachin was playing the 'Desert Storm' innings in Sharjah. I was fast asleep and my dad woke me up from the middle of my sleep to watch the match with him. I think his interest rubbed off on me."
That interest became a passion and then a profession, as Shikha made her way into the Indian playing XI earlier this month, and is part of the team playing the ICC Women’s World Twenty20 2014 in Bangladesh.
Shikha grew up in Goa, a state known for pristine beaches and football, which is why her rise to become the first national team cricketer from the state – male or female – is fascinating. "I wouldn't agree to that although it's right," she quips when reminded of the status. "Sir Dilip Sardesai was from here, so he should have that title, but then he played for Mumbai."
The role played by the Goa Cricket Association can't be undermined, for without their encouragement and support, Shikha would have perhaps been lost. By the time she reached high school, she had already represented Goa in the inter-state competitions, and when it came to a very common dilemma in most Indian households – academics v cricket – she chose the latter.
Shikha was first selected for Goa in 2004, when she was all of 15. Women's cricket was far from established at the time, and the Women's Cricket Association of India, before the merger with the Board of Control for Cricket in India, had limited means. Although Shikha’s father backed her completely, he didn't want his daughter to be lost in the maze.
"I was academically inclined, scoring 90-plus in my class 10 and class 12 CBSE exams," she says. "It’s an age where most people contemplate a career. Around that time, an officer from the Services came down to my school to give a lecture on a career in the Indian Air Force as the school was situated in a defence set-up. That fired my imagination and I decided then that I wanted to be an Air Force pilot. The desire to serve the country was so big and my first route towards that dream was to do engineering."
Four years of hectic course work beckoned, but that didn’t mean cricket was forgotten. “My dad gave me the freedom to do what I wanted to, but made it clear that it was important to finish my education as well," she says. "Throughout my engineering, my parents were so supportive. I had gym and fitness sessions in the morning, college in the afternoon, net sessions in the evening and tutorials at night to make up for what I had missed at college. It was tough and wouldn't have been possible without the support of my family and college."
However, she says, "I actually didn’t think about playing for India, it was only in my second year of engineering that I started playing professionally.
"We were playing the Under-19 tournament where I scored heavily and was great with the ball as well. The then South Zone selector Purnima Rao, who is the current India coach, saw a spark in me; she believed in me. To hear it from a former India captain gave me confidence; from there on, wearing the India cap was my only dream."
As the dream to play for the country was taking shape, it brought with it a lot of apprehension. Suddenly, Shikha found herself at the crossroads. Should she take the road to a lucrative career, the fruit of four years of toil, or take the path less travelled?
A degree in electronics and electrical engineering was the stepping stone to the corporate world, but Shikha rejected job offers from three multinational companies to find her calling. She had represented the Board President's XI against the visiting England team in 2010 already. "I took a year off after my engineering course to see where I stand," she says. It was difficult for her family, but, “I knew if I work hard and play for India, there would be other opportunities later on as well."
Her bold decision bore fruit as Shikha was selected to attend a month-long camp with the India women's team at the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore. Then, in January 2011, she was selected once again for the Board President's XI to play the visiting West Indies Women. Shikha didn't make the final cut, but that didn't shake her morale.
Later that summer, the Indian team was to tour England. Shikha had done well in her limited opportunities. She had the numbers to show for her efforts, but was left out of the touring party.
Not one to sit back and brood, Shikha took the Air Force common admission test followed by an exam conducted by the Services Selection Board, and came out with flying colours. "I just gave the exam randomly and I got through," she laughs. "Even at that stage, I wasn't too keen on a job because cricket was the only thing in my mind. I didn't make it to the England team then and as destiny had it, I joined the Indian Air Force."
Work hours left little time for much else. Although she couldn't become an Air Force pilot, she is an ATC officer – a demanding job with a lot of responsibility. There was a possibility of her not being able to play cricket again. But it wasn’t quite the end.
"I was a bit apprehensive, but I got all the support from the Services Sports Control Board and the Air Force Sports Control Board," she says.
But there was a catch. Although Services continued to field their men's team in the Ranji Trophy, there were no provisions for a woman player – Shikha was the first for Services.
"If you want to have a career in cricket as a woman, the only employment giving body is the Railways," she points out. "There's no women's team in any other government organisation or private sector. But for me, being an engineer and working in the Railways wasn't an option.”
Fortunately for Shikha, her senior officers at Services were equally understanding and supportive of her desire to play cricket, and she couldn't thank them enough. "They backed me at all times," she says.
"My senior officers granted me leave to prepare for the domestic season and they knew I couldn't just be going one day ahead of a tournament. With the kind of hectic schedule we have, I thought I wouldn't be able to play again, but they made it so much easier for me to adjust and take it in my stride."
That allowed her the luxury of playing without worries, and the results started to show. Shikha played a stellar role in Goa's ascent to the Plate Group knockouts of the 2013-14 season in Dhanbad, and that was there that she finally caught the eye of the national selectors.
She was included in the India A squad to face the visiting Sri Lanka Women in February, and then handed an international debut in the first of the three Twenty20 Internationals against Bangladesh at Cox’s Bazar in the run-up to the World Twenty20 2014.
"Getting the India cap from my idol Jhulan Goswami was an unforgettable moment," she says with pride. "All I thought of at that stage was my parents, I was happy for myself and them. I have known all the senior players for quite some time now, they have been receptive and I've learnt a lot from them. For a youngster to come up shows the kind of confidence the selectors have in me, it's time to repay that faith."
Shikha’s journey has begun. She's overcome hurdles, challenges and crossed paths with two demanding careers. The road ahead could be arduous, but Shikha draws inspiration from real life heroes, those she has grown up watching.
"I’ve always admired Sachin, but when it comes to pace bowling, it has always been Javagal Srinath and Shaun Pollock," she says. "I’m an avid reader. I love to read autobiographies of sportspersons and draw inspiration from their experiences. The wait has been long but it has been worth it. If you work hard, dreams come true and don’t turn to dust. Obviously a sense of responsibility came in, which I have to live up to."
Looking at Shikha, you'd have to believe Tendulkar was right.