Devika Vaidya Photo Courtesy: Devika Vaidya's Instagram Account
Photo Courtesy: Devika Vaidya’s Instagram Account

While children at the age of 6 years are busy memorising maths tables or are fascinated by Barbie or Disney, a certain Devika Vaidya was already inclined to cricket. Starting her journey at a very young age, Devika was hailed a child prodigy at the age of 15. By her mid-teens she was captaining the India Green and was named best Junior Woman Cricketer by BCCI. Knocking the doors of the senior side at an unthinkable age, Devika is slowly but steadily raising the bar for aspiring and budding youngsters across the country. In an exclusive chat with Shruti Hariharan, Devika opened up about her early expedition to international fame, her Dil Bole Hadippa moment, special bond with Smriti Mandhana and more.

‘Cricket main player nahi, uska bat bolta hai’ (in cricket it’s not the player but the bat that does the talking). The dialogue may sound familiar to you if you are a Bollywood aficionado without much respect for quality. Anurag Singh’s Dil Bole Hadippa revolved around cricket. Mira (played by Rani Mukherji) is a budding cricketer ready to go to any extent for the game. So much so, she played for the men’s national team under the guise of Veer Pratap Singh.

No, I am not the PR of Yash Raj Films. However, you cannot be blamed if you think the movie was inspired by Devika’s real life tale. Devika, you see, had masqueraded as a boy just to practice with the boys in her locality. Yes!

The mastermind behind this plan was her coach Pawan Kulkarni, the man who had unearthed this remarkable talent: “In Pune, a girl participating in cricket was not a known factor. So I was asked to cover my hair with a cap by Pawan-Sir.”

But a courageous Devika was not pressured to take this step. If anything, she was unfazed: “I did not consider it a challenge. I was too young to understand that this was a problem. I was seven then. I did not think much about it.”

Hailing from a city like Pune where education is given utmost priority, Devika was determined to make it large in a game that gave her happiness.

The 2003 World Cup final connection

It was an agonising day for India. Ricky Ponting and Damien Martyn annihilated India. Australia posted 359 for 2. India were bowled out for 234.

Just like most households in India, the Vaidya family was glued to the television that day. India lost by 125 runs, but Devika had already decided on her path ahead: “We used to watch cricket on the television. It was the 2003 World Cup final. Although I did not understand the technical nuances, I enjoyed the atmosphere. It was then when I insisted my parents on taking up cricket. My mother supported me but asked me to take the professional route rather than gully cricket. I agreed.”

“When I look back I think they thought it was a temporary feeling. All the same, I had found my source of happiness and had started practising.”

The final also gave Devika probably her first ‘favourite cricketer’: “I loved Brett Lee. I aspired to become a pace bowler watching him play.”

She is also inspired by another Australian, albeit for a different, almost funny, reason: “Steve Waugh was excellent. He spoke English so fluently; I was in awe of him. You could say, he was the one who inspired me to take up this profession.”

Once she decided to take cricket seriously, she adopted an approach different from most: “I used to practice from ground to ground. In one ground I learnt just the basics for two years that did not include any net practice.” Michael Holding would have approved.

Girls playing cricket was an unusual sight in Pune. However, support came from where it mattered, and Devika moved on to hone her skills further: “After a certain stage my game was not progressing. I needed some change. So I explored other grounds as well. Finally, I found the ideal coach who was part of my cricketing career for 6-7 years, Atul Gaikwad.”

The coaches

Most cricketers are grateful to one single coach for their successes. Devika mentions three.

Although Kulkarni was the one to spot her talent, it was Gaikwad who knew the skills Devika carried with her. In addition to being a talented batter, she also wanted to become a fast bowler. However, her frame did not support her dreams: “When I went to Atul-Sir, he made me understand that my built would not assist pace bowling. I nearly started chucking because I was not tall. I still am not. I lacked the required strength as well. The only option was to practice as a spinner. As a leg-spinner it is difficult to chuck. The only body parts that require attention in leg-spin are wrist and fingers.

“So he suggested me to get my leg-spin in place and get my hands straight. He also said that if I do well, maybe I could change to off-spin. But pace bowling was never happening.”

Decades ago, another youngster had faced the same disappointment: thankfully, Dennis Lillee and rightly advised Sachin Tendulkar against fast bowling.

Gaikwad had taken Devika to a stage where she went on to knock the doors of international cricket. Then Niranjan Godbole took over: “After a gap of 6-7 years I required change. That was when I went to Niranjan-Sir. By then I had already played for India A.”

You typically do not compare your coaches, certainly not in media. However, Devika does not shy away: “Both are very different in their own ways. In the earlier stages, I had no idea about how to plan and strategise. That was when Atul-Sir helped me. Niranjan-Sir, on the other hand, guides me and has shaped me as a player.”

Balancing act

Devika Vaidya was inclined to Taekwondo and cricket Photo Courtesy: Devika Vaidya's Facebook profile
Devika Vaidya was inclined to taekwondo and cricket Photo Courtesy: Devika Vaidya’s Facebook profile

Apart from impersonating a boy, it was time for Devika to face the real challenges. To her credit she did not give up on studies. Amidst all this was taekwondo: “I used to play taekwondo before cricket. I used to be very hyperactive. I have always been inclined towards sports than studies. I continued to play both sports for 4-5 years.”

However, there was a time when Devika had to choose between both sports. Cricket got the nod: “I was selected in the U-19 state team at 12. This meant I had to give up on some taekwondo bouts because the dates clashed. I chose cricket because it obviously offered more scope. However, I did not stop taekwondo. I appeared for belt exams. I just stopped participating in competitions.”

Devika credits her parents for backing her during these tough times. Her academics were also at a crucial juncture as she continued honing her skills in two simultaneous sports: “My mother supported me a lot. During the 4th or 5th standard I used to begin my fitness exercises at 5 in the morning. I had taken special permission from school to attend lectures late and join by 8. After I returned, I would have lunch and complete my homework.”

Devika Vaidya with her mother Moushumi Vaidya Photo Courtesy: Devika Vaidya's Facebook profile
Devika Vaidya with her mother Moushumi Vaidya Photo Courtesy: Devika Vaidya’s Facebook profile

“If I had taekwondo and cricket matches on the same day, I practised cricket from 4 to 6 PM. Then at 7 I attended taekwondo matches until 8.30. If there were exams round the corner, I found time to study as well. But I never gave up on sports.”

She was — take a moment to let this sink in — 11 at this stage.

She paid little heed to the attention she was getting at school. Although she was praised by her batch mates, she chose to ignore the discussions: “I was never inspired by people talking about me all the time. I never reacted to the comments. Not that I did not like the attention but I got bored after a certain level.”

Roughly at the same time, another talent young talent was bubbling with energy and confidence. That was in Sangli over 200 km south of Devika’s place.

Smriti Mandhana and World Cup dream

Smriti Mandhana and Devika Vaidya were roommates during their domestic debut Photo Courtesy: Devika Vaidya's Facebook profile
Smriti Mandhana and Devika Vaidya were roommates during their domestic debut Photo Courtesy: Devika Vaidya’s Facebook profile

Smriti is not an obscure name anymore. Along with Mithali Raj, Jhulan Goswami and Harmanpreet Kaur, she has earned a special niche for herself. After her splendid start in the recently concluded World Cup, Smriti was suddenly a superstar (and the heartthrob) of the nation.

Devika and Smriti have a connection that dates back to when they were 12. They were the youngest players in the side when they debuted for Maharashtra. Smriti continues to remain Devika’s best friend: “We became friends at 12. At that point we were the only players who were that young in the side. We always went out and roomed together. We shared that special bond since no one was of our age group.”

However, there is one dream that both of them shared, to play in the World Cup. Both girls faced setbacks before the tournament. Devika missed the tournament due to an injury. Prior to the World Cup, Smriti was hit by an injury during WBBL and missed the World Cup Qualifiers.

“We dreamt of playing World Cup together for India. Unfortunately, I got injured before the World Cup,” Devika stated matter-of-factly. Nevertheless, she enjoyed every bit of Smriti’s innings in the World Cup and heaped praises on her ‘best friend’: “When Smriti got injured she was dying to play again. She told me, ‘I just want to go there and score a century. I cannot wait to lift the helmet.’ That’s all she talked about. To watch her live that dream was amazing.”

Yet, Devika looks forward to the day when the two will play a World Cup together for their nation.

Bright domestic season

Devika might have stepped into the domestic side by 2009, but it was in 2010 when she found recognition with her patient knock of 59. Baroda had put up 138. Chasing 139, Manasi Patwardhan perished early before Smriti and Devika joined hands. And once Smriti fell, Anuja Patil came to rescue.

Devika remembers the innings quite vividly: “I did not care about the target. I just had to build a good partnership with Smriti. After her dismissal, Anuja contributed as well. I just kept the run rate in mind and played my innings. I did not worry about my half-century as well.”

She took her maiden five-for in 2013, against Himachal Pradesh. The performance assured her of her bowling abilities: “When I went to bat, I was dismissed first ball. I made a silly error; I left a ball that hit the stumps. I remember Smriti was playing well and I had to give her the strike. When I was coming back to pavilion, I felt it was over for me. However, the coach had faith in me. He did say I was going to take five wickets in the match. But I was not sure about it.”

After Smriti’s 115 took Maharashtra to 207, Devika swept the game away from Himachal Pradesh despite their strong start: “The opening partnership was going strong and the target was achievable. The pacers looked in trouble. Smriti was the captain and I asked her to send me into attack. And the rest unfolded.”

Devika’s next game against Hyderabad was a do-or-die match. She had to prove herself to get selected for future tournaments. Opting to bat, Hyderabad had put up a decent total of 154. Devika got a solitary wicket.

Then Maharashtra lost 3 quick wickets, and the onus fell on Devika. Her unbeaten 78 handed Maharashtra a win. She rates the innings above her 89 against Sri Lanka: “Against Himachal I got out on 0. I did take 5 wickets but at the end of the day only runs can make me happy. Against Hyderabad we were chasing 155. When we went to bat, Smriti was gone too soon. During those days I was not allowed to sit with the girls since I chatted a lot. When I was sitting in the dressing-room listening to music, I thought ‘If I don’t play this match, we will lose and I will not be selected anywhere else.’ It was a play-or-perish moment. We were 25 for 2 when I went to bat. When we chased, it was the best innings. I regained my lost confidence.”

“Somewhere, music helped me too,” she added.

By 2015, Devika was a rising star. She became the India Green captain. BCCI named her the best Junior Woman Cricketer. She was the leading wicket-taker in the T20 Inter-State competition and the leading run-getter in the Inter-State ODI competition. In 2015-16 she amassed 258 runs and bagged 9 wickets in only 5 matches.

This was her ticket to international cricket. Devika’s fortunes unfolded further when she met Anil Kumble after the 2014 IPL auctions and received some personal bowling tips.

Anil Kumble meets young Devika Vaidya

Devika and her family headed for a vacation to Bengaluru in February 2014, just after the IPL auctions. Her father Purnendu took her to Anil Kumble, then Mumbai Indians (MI) Head Coach, through a common friend. Kumble had asked for Devika’s detailed profile and videos of her bowling.

Devika was all praises for the legend: “First of all, I got an opportunity to speak with him. He spoke so freely that we could not believe he was such a huge entity. He did not have any sort of air in him. He enlightened me on some tactics that can help a leg-spinner in the long run.”

She also told in lengths on the suggestions he had passed on: “Anil-Sir said I have reached a certain level. From there it was more about tactics on how I could buy wickets. I remember his words clearly: ‘You need to keep the batter guessing. That is how you can get wickets at an international level. At the international stage every batter is excellent. It is far different from domestic matches. You have to make the batter think and puzzle him. Everyone possesses skills but you need to be different.’ That conversation really helped and as he suggested me, I started practicing differently.”

Debut for India 

Playing for her nation at a young age, Devika caught the attention of many. Her transition from domestic to international cricket happened in a jiffy.

After that boosting conversation with Kumble, Devika in no time was seen sharing the dressing room with the likes of Mithali and Jhulan. She was only 17 when she made her T20 debut against South Africa in November 2014.

Devika was 17 when she made her debut for India Photo Courtesy: Devika Vaidya Facebook profile
Devika was 17 when she made her debut for India Photo Courtesy: Devika Vaidya Facebook profile

Although she did not get an opportunity to bat, she had to bring her bowling skills in the forefront. One must remember here that she had attended no Indian practice camps till then, and neither had she interacted with the squad.

Of course, she was already an under-19 star by then. However, she did not let fame to bow her down. But then, while she was not under pressure, she was certainly in awe of the atmosphere: “Before the domestic senior tournament started, we had this series. I never got the opportunity to attend a single senior camp. So, of course, the atmosphere was very new. This was the only match in my hand to prove my stance. But I was not pressurised. Everything looked new.”

Devika conceded 30 runs in just 3 overs and went wicketless. The South Africans were strong. Marizanne Kapp and Dane van Niekerk looked at ease. Devika was not spared by them and she was thrashed. So was Harmanpreet.

India won by 16 runs. Poonam Yadav’s 3-wicket haul and Smriti’s fifty helped India to reach the finishing line. It might have been a terrible day at office but Devika never got disheartened by her debut performance. She took it in her stride and worked on her weaknesses: “The first two overs I bowled well. It was in the third over they knew my techniques and they smashed me for two sixes. When I returned home after the match I had a lot of thoughts running through my mind. I got a fair idea about how things work at a senior level and improvised my skills in the practice sessions accordingly.”

Every budding female cricketer aspires to share the stage with the likes of Mithali and Jhulan, legends they have watched live in action. For Devika, it was a similar experience. She has always been inspired by Mithali’s batting and Jhulan’s bowling. It definitely helped when both came to talk to her: “Mithali-di and Jhulan-di supported me, but they said there are some things I had to figure out on my own: ‘No one will come and help you.’ Their advices have helped me. I can see the improvements in my game.”

Devika has always admired Mithali’a batting. In fact, her fielding was affected during those Railways matches: “I was always in awe of Mithali’s batting. During matches between Maharashtra and Railways, I used to stand and just look at her bat, forgetting to field as well. She has never got dismissed at least whenever I have watched her play.”

However, Devika is also one of those fortunate souls who have dismissed Mithali several times. That, however, has not affected the awe: “Around three years back, I got her wicket in a T20 match. My happiness knew no bounds. I did get her wicket a couple of times later, but it is always a pleasure to watch her bat.”

The T20 debut might not have been the greatest for Devika, but that did not stop her from making it to the India squad once again.

Rise of the international cricketer

The ODI cap came two years after that forgettable T20 debut, against West Indies in November 2016. India had already sealed the series by 2-0 before Devika could come and snatch the game away from the West Indies.

“When I played against South Africa, I was not aware about the atmosphere in Indian team. As I said, I had not attended any camp till then. However, before the West Indies series I attended several MCA camps. We used to be together and finally I got a hang of the atmosphere. I found friends and became comfortable. It helped me adjust. I was waiting to debut for India during the series. Of course, it was a great feeling to receive the cap from Mithali-di,” she recalled.

India were in trouble of sorts in that match. Opting to bat, they had lost Smriti, Mithali and Harmanpreet early. Devika clearly remembers Purnima Rau, then coach of India Women, backing her to play at No. 6. Devika felt her chances were bleak to bat, however, it surprised her when the coach showed faith on her.

“Purnima Rau-Ma’am just believed in me, especially when India were 4 wickets down. There were still 15-16 overs remaining. She could have opted for an experienced player instead. But she trusted me and gave the opportunity,” she recollected.

When Devika entered the crease, Veda Krishnamurthy had already raised her fifty. With a fine player on the crease already, all Devika had to do was support her partner. Interestingly, Devika is called the next Veda in the squad.

Devika Vaidya is known as the next Veda in the squad Photo Courtesy: Devika Vaidya's Instagram Account
Devika Vaidya is known as the next Veda in the squad Photo Courtesy: Devika Vaidya’s Instagram Account

Both girls are reputed for their hyperactivity and their fierce hitting. On this day, however, Veda guided Devika throughout the partnership: “She told me to play according to the ball and not to hurry. Despite all her advice, it was in the fourth or fifth ball where I went to drive and it edged and fell short of slip. I was on zero at that stage. Veda walked up to me again and told me: ‘Relax. The ball will come in your area. Just wait.’ If Veda was asking me to be patient then I had to. In the same over I stepped out and hit the first four, over cover. I enjoy these conversations with her. Many say that we are similar. I feel it is true.”

Despite some good show from Kycia Knight and Hayley Matthews, West Indies succumbed to the Indian Eves and were brownwashed. While Rajeshwari Gayakwad was the pick of bowlers, Devika earned a wicket too.

Devika rose to prominence during the World Cup Qualifiers match against Sri Lanka. India scored 260, of which Devika got 89. Her sensational knock handed India first win of the tournament.

Opting to bat, India lost a wicket inside 10 overs. As decided by the management, Devika was sent to the crease along with Deepti Sharma, another youngster. Both girls took their time but duly thrashed the Sri Lanka bowlers once they got set.

As Devika says, Deepti had more knowledge of the Sri Lanka bowlers as she has played against them earlier: “The bowlers were new to me. If Deepti knew about a particular bowler, she simply guided me. We accordingly decided on when to run and when to take risks. We constructed our innings simultaneously kept an eye on run rate. We were batting first and it was their home ground. They would be aware about how to pan the innings while chasing. So we played with an intention to put up a competitive target on board.”

Deepti might not have stayed with her till the end, but Mithali’s entrance in the final 15 overs kept Devika at ease, “When Mithali-di came to bat there were just 10-15 overs remaining. I asked her what our plan was, and what kind of target we were looking at. She said, ‘you are doing well. Just go with the flow and the runs will build accordingly.’ I really enjoy playing with her whenever I get the chance. Her presence boosted my confidence. I wanted more runs. I did not know I was approaching century. It was a batting Powerplay and I was dismissed.”

Devika was gone for 89, missing out on her maiden century, by the 40th over. Though Mithali scored 70, for once she was eclipsed, that too by a teenager.

India went on to win by a huge margin of 115 runs. Devika won her first Player of the Match award. Ekta Bisht and Rajeshwari shared 4 wickets between them but as I mentioned the ‘Dil Bole Hadippa’ dialogue earlier, Devika ka bat ne bola.

More attention for women’s cricket?

The injury did not stop Devika from enjoying every bit of India’s World Cup campaign. She credited the team effort and enjoyed Mithali’s innings the most: “All innings of Mithali inspired me. The way she batted was worth all the applause. We could see the whole team supporting each other. This has been happening since the West Indies series. We were winning all the matches and were in perfect rhythm. The atmosphere in the team has also helped the side to perform well. That is what I liked the most.”

With the help of media and broadcasting matches, India Women are almost walking hand in hand with their male counterparts today. Yet, Devika feels that there is not enough women’s cricket to leave an impact on the audience.

As always, she put emphasis on action: “The players just need to go out there and win matches. The rest will fall in place. Everyone is talking about women’s IPL. These things are obviously not under our control. We need to give our 100 per cent in whatever tournament we play. That is how we can gain more attention from everyone.”

Devika’s future goals and objective…

Devika was in her peak in 2015. However, her +2 board exams were lurking around the corner as well. She had to appear twice. It was not easy: “I used to study when I went on tours. I had assured my parents. But it got difficult to open the book and study, especially after the matches were done. Sometimes I just stared at the books for around half an hour. During that phase, my board exams were scheduled in March. At the same time, the three-day inter-zonal matches took place as well. I had no option but give my board exams a miss. I had to enrol myself for the re-exam sessions meant mostly for failed candidates.”

Devika’s attitude is her strength. Today, she is busy preparing for her first-year BBA and yet works out and practises with boys with a hope that someday she could pick the bat and play.

It need not be playing for India. Any cricket would suffice. Cricket, after all, is oxygen to her.