An excellent working relationship, involving both strategy and songs, has been key to the success of India's spin quartet
The dry humour of people from Uttar Pradesh always makes an impression on you. Imagine when three from the state are together, along with a fourth from a completely different terrain -- Karnataka -- but who is equally entertaining and the designated singer among them.
In their first-ever interview as a group, there is constant giggling, prodding and passing of a cricket ball, along with some intelligent analysis of their skills and admiration for each other.
Meet Ekta Bisht, Poonam Yadav, Rajeshwari Gayakwad and Deepti Sharma – India Women’s spin quartet. All of them wanted to be pacers before their respective childhood coaches suggested otherwise. They are aggressive in their approach, love Hindi songs, share a strong bond and point towards each other when asked to identify the best batter among them.
Bisht, the left-arm spinner, is the leader of the attack, having played for India first in 2011. She rates her hat-trick against Sri Lanka in the ICC Women’s World Twenty20 2012 as one of her most memorable performances and looks up to Neetu David. She has a round-arm action and bowls with a flatter trajectory, much like Ravindra Jadeja, always with a cap on so that her “long hair doesn’t lead to missed catches”.
Poonam, the legspinner, made her debut in 2013 and was named in the ICC Women’s World T20 2014 team of the tournament. Not a big fan of mobile phones, she has a calm demeanour and is insightful in her observations. Her action is smooth, and she gives a lot of loop to her deliveries to derive turn and bounce. Her googly is also deceptive, and she usually purchases wickets by forcing batters to hit in the air.
Gayakwad -- also a left-arm spinner, who hails from Bijapur -- admired Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly, and learnt bowling by watching Zaheer Khan on television. She lost her father before her maiden India call-up, for the tour of England in 2014, before making her debut, along with Deepti, during the home series against South Africa that year. Unlike Bisht, Gayakwad stands taller in her delivery stride, gets the ball to skid off the surface and also surprises the batter with the odd loopy delivery that bounces from back of the length. She is India’s most successful bowler in the last two years, with 29 wickets in 17 matches.
Deepti is a batting allrounder with supple wrists. She became serious about her cricket under Hemalata Kala, the current chief national selector, after her brother represented the Uttar Pradesh Under-23 side. She derives significant turn with her offspin, and became only the third Indian to take six wickets in an ODI, against Sri Lanka in Ranchi last year.
Bisht, Yadav and Deepti know each other from childhood, and they met Gayakwad for the first time during the 2013-14 Challenger Trophy – a domestic three-team tournament. Since coming together at the international level, they have picked up close to 60 percent of the wickets accounted for by Indian bowlers in that time frame.
With a combined analysis of 153-33-402-30 in the ongoing ICC Women’s World Cup Qualifier, they have played a big role in India remaining unbeaten for six matches and qualifying for the ICC Women’s World Cup 2017 in England in June this year. Ahead of their last Super Six game against Pakistan at the P Sara Oval on Sunday (February 19), they have an average of 13.4, an economy of 2.62 and a strike-rate of 30.6.
India’s Super Six game against South Africa Women was the first time that all of them featured together in the playing XI. The ploy of not allowing the batters any pace off the surface paid off as South Africa fell short by 49 runs in a chase of 206.
“We have different qualities. We keep developing on our individual strengths and have improved when we have got our chances,” Poonam, the tournament’s second-highest wicket-taker with 11 scalps, tells Wisden India. “It’s the team-management’s call on who they want among four of us. Whoever gets a chance wants to do well.”
Cricket is full of stories of bowlers hunting in pairs and the healthy rivalry between them even as they apply pressure from both ends. These spinners are no different, though they want you to believe that intra-rivalry is not part of their dictionary.
“It’s not like if she has taken wickets then I have to also take wickets,” says Gayakwad. “When someone is getting hit from one end, we try to contain from the other end. We are always working towards bowling in partnerships and giving as few runs as possible.”
India’s spin department, which also constitutes of Harmanpreet Kaur and Devika Vaidya in supporting roles, has made up to a large extent for the lack of a proper pace unit. Opponents have been clever in the recent past with tackling Jhulan Goswami, the world’s No. 1 bowler, and then targeted the other seamer. It has forced Mithali Raj to bring in Bisht within the Power Play overs more often than not, a challenge the Almora girl seems to relish.
“I have always loved bowling with the new ball. The new seamers who are coming through have to work hard to make a name for themselves,” says Bisht. “When Jhulu di is bowling we focus on giving her all our support. If she contains we get wickets or if we contain then she gets wickets. (Also) it depends on when we come to bowl. If the team needs a breakthrough, we focus on getting a wicket. If the team needs dot balls, then we go into run-containment mode.”
The spinners have also got a bit more breathing space with the emergence of more batters to play around Raj. “I want to stay at the wicket and bat as long as possible based on the merit of the ball,” Deepti lays out the new batting policy that has given India 11 consecutive ODI wins for their first time, going back to February last year.
Bisht feels that the spinners really got into the groove in the home series against West Indies Women last year. They bowled out West Indies for 131 and 153 in the first two games, and then defended 199 to complete a clean sweep and collect six championship points.
“The West Indies series was a complete performance because the batting, fielding and bowling contributed,” says Bisht. “From a bowling perspective, we won low-scoring games and our analysis was good.”
As the senior-most in the quartet, Bisht does most of the talking through the interaction. The others are effusive in their praise when they are asked to describe what they like about her.
“She is the most aggressive,” says Yadav of Bisht. “Whenever she comes the situation is usually difficult, and she handles it well as a senior player.”
“I am usually the first to bowl so aim is to do well so that those who follow me get good help,” Bisht explains her thought process. “When a batter plays a few balls, we get to know what she is good at and what her weakness is. Mostly we study that and bowl, but at times I change my mind in the middle of my run up. Sometimes it works, sometimes I get hit for a four. Those who play the sweep better, it is a bit difficult to bowl against them.”
There is praise even for the youngest member. “Compared to all of us, Deepti has the maximum turn. She can bowl in any situation because of her turn. She bowls well against lower order,” says Gayakwad, even as Bisht chips in: “When there is extra bounce and one odd ball keeps low there are lot of thoughts running in the batter’s mind. Plus her turn makes it difficult for the batter. She still has to learn a lot about variations and about changing pace.”
Deepti’s sharper turns though doesn’t insulate from being bullied by virtue of being the group’s only teenager. “Han kichte hain (Yes, they pull my leg),” says Deepti. “Masti bhi bahut jyada karte hain (We also have loads of fun).”
By the time the World Cup arrives, Deepti would be enjoying her last few months as a teenager, Bisht would have become the ninth Indian with 50 ODI wickets, Gayakwad would have sung more songs to her friends and Poonam would have added a few more scalps to the kitty. Hopefully, that would have set them up for more fun and more group interviews.