Mamatha Maben Photo Courtesy: Mamatha Maben's Facebook profile
Mamatha Maben Photo Courtesy: Mamatha Maben’s Facebook profile

Despite her topsy-turvy career, Mamatha Maben, born November 15, 1970, had as much impact on women’s cricket in India as almost anyone. Her contribution to the game in her last two years had helped India Women gain near-unprecedented recognition. Although cricket left her side on many occasions, Mamatha always found her way back to the sport, on the field or with the pen. In an interaction with Shruti Hariharan, Mamatha speaks about her hurdles, her love for cricket, the China-Bangladesh connections and her bond with the Indian Eves.

Discarded after one failure, Mamatha had been out of the international side for over eight years. The chance came when England Women toured India in 2001-02. India beat England 4-0. Much of the success in the first two ODIs was credited to their bowlers — Neetu David and Jhulan Goswami.

Mamatha did not get to bat in the first two matches. In the third she brought her charismatic batting to display. She had to wait for two matches to get an opportunity to prove, but it was worth it.

When Mamatha entered the crease, India were struggling at 116 for 4. The top-order had collapsed. Mithali Raj, already being hailed as the next great thing in Indian cricket, was also back in the hut. It was up to Mamatha and Arundhati Kirkire to steady ship in the final 10 overs. “We got some 80 runs in the death overs. In the process I got my fifty and we also bowled well. Ultimately we won the match. So that comeback was good for me,” recalled a relieved Mamatha to CricketCountry.

That broke the shackles. Mamatha would have no further doubts in the illustrious careers that followed.

New kid on the block

The mid-1970s had witnessed the first batch of rise of Indian female cricketers. The early days featured some cricket (despite limited aid from the board), with Doordarshan televising some matches following intervention from Indira Gandhi.

However, it was really the 1983 World Cup triumph that tilted the scales for the sport in India. Cricket caught Mamatha’s imagination as well. She followed every ball that was there for watching.

Mamatha receives one-time benefit from her idol Ravi Shastri Photo Courtesy: Mamatha Maben's Facebook Page
Mamatha receives one-time benefit from her idol Ravi Shastri Photo Courtesy: Mamatha Maben’s Facebook Page

She even found her idols at this stage: “Ravi Shastri inspired me. I took up this game and felt like playing cricket, thanks to the 1983 World Cup. Those days it was Ravi Shastri and Imran Khan who were my idols. I liked them a lot. Of course, Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev were all there but if I have to pick one Indian player it will be Shastri.”

Unlike other women cricketers, Mamatha had a late start to her career.

But that was not what Mamatha was going to be content with. She also needed to play the sport herself. Being the youngest of three siblings helped: there was almost no restriction on Mamatha, who was raised like a boy (remember, this was still India of the late 1980s).

She began to play cricket on the streets. She settled into a routine. She returned home from school, changed into loose shirts and shorts, and went out to play with the boys. The boys had a hard time coping with this little girl who would walk out to toss for India one day. When the family shifted base, she picked out new boys in the new locality and bettered them as well. With time she became a certainty in almost all local XIs.

Such ‘unfeminine’ activities raised quite a few eyebrows — as was often the norm in India at that time. Mamatha remains indebted to her parents for the support: “People did come and ask my father a lot of questions, but he never paid heed to them. Even my mother never said anything.”

Joseph, a family friend, was the first to spot how special she was. Mamatha was immediately taken to the iconic Central College Ground. Little did she know that her rendezvous with Shantha Rangaswamy would build the love affair with the sport where she went on to play 40 ODIs and 4 Tests.

As Mamatha Maben says, 'with the legend'... Photo Courtesy: Mamatha Maben's Facebook Page
As Mamatha Maben says, ‘with the legend’… Photo Courtesy: Mamatha Maben’s Facebook Page

Struggles and Shantha

Those early days were not easy for Mamatha. She had to take local transport to attend practice. And practice did not begin immediately after the girls arrived: “We had to water the pitch, put the mat ourselves and add the nets. After we finished practicing, we rolled the mat and remove the net, take it and keep it in the corner. There was no space to practice. We had to go somewhere at the corner and practice strokes as well as chucking. There was also a gutter around. Whenever we hit the ball it used to end up landing inside the gutter. We used to get the torn and old balls. Those days were totally different in comparison to the facilities given today.”

While it was hard work, the girls also had the advantage of having Shantha Rangaswamy at the helm. Shantha ensured the girls got match practice, even if that meant crossing boundaries: “Shantha took the lead in organising matches, roping in sponsors. Eighty per cent of the time it was Shantha who spoke to the ministers for organising matches and getting the required equipments. Whenever the World Cup used to be held, it was a one man show. The main lead was taken by her. She ran the show both on and off the field.”

As Mamatha was growing as a cricketer, the scenario was undergoing a change at national level. The original interest around women’s cricket in India had subsided. Between 1984 and 1986 India Women had played 9 Tests and 13 ODIs; between 1987 and 1990, not a single international match. It took serious intervention from Women’s Cricket Association of India (WCAI) to change things.

Shantha played a crucial role in this revamp, organising cricket matches and improving facilities with a ferocity matched by few: “Shantha would lead from the front in organising matches. She was the de facto secretary,” recalled Mamatha. “That kept us going.” Things would improve even more following Shubhangi Kulkarni’s appointment as WCAI Chairman.

However, a big hurdle still remained (to be honest, it still remains): the awareness and popularity of women’s cricket in India. Remember, this was an era when having a television was considered a big thing.

But people, unlike today, flocked to the grounds to watch the girls in action: “Our local series were never empty. We used to play in small grounds and the stadiums used to be packed with around 10,000 to 15,000 people. In the local series we always received some crowd because we never played in the big centres. The New Zealand series which we won 4-1 was played in Bangalore amidst 5,000 to 6,000 people. Entry used to be free those days. These crowds used to come because we played in smaller centres. When smaller centres organise international cricket and the foreigners are playing, the crowd automatically comes to watch the match.”

In return, the girls made sure the fans were not disappointed. However, was the road really easy for Mamatha after entering the Indian squad?

India colours, struggles and journalism

When Mamatha made an entry into the sport in 1987, she was more or less content with the practice sessions. At that point she had no aspiration of playing for the nation: “The first five years I played, there was not a single international series. I just went, played and later forget about it. There was no urge in me to play for my country.”

Cricket resumed in early 1990-91 when India Women toured Australia. They drew the first Test but lost the other two by huge margins. Mamatha was not picked in the squad. That spurred Mamatha to get picked in the India squad: “After the Australia series something urged me to play for the country. At the age of 21, I took the game seriously and practiced accordingly. I had to put some efforts to train.”

The years of hard work and effort in the 1980s — despite there being no international tour in view — paid off. The call came in the 1993 World Cup, no less: “I was just excited that I got picked. I never prepared myself professionally. I was just happy to go and be in the squad.”

India won 4 matches in the tournament but lost to the big three — Australia, England and New Zealand. Mamatha did not bat in 2 of the 7 matches; in the rest, she scored 16*, 19, 6, 10* and 6. She was left out for eight years.

But Mamatha took it in her stride and strived harder. There was nothing that could forego her passion. The thought of quitting the game never crippled in her mind, “When I was 27-28 years old several people insisted me to discontinue playing the game. But I was passionate for this game.”

One must remember that women’s cricket of that era in India offered little scope for income. While pursuing cricket, she also wanted to help her family who were dependent on her. Then she was struck by a shoulder injury on the opening day of Rani Jhansi Trophy.

Mamatha decided to pursue writing as a second career path. She also received an opportunity at Asian Age: “I used to go around 2-2:30 as that’s when the stories start coming in. I used to stay until 11-11:30 and ended up making the page. I learnt the quark express to get it done. Finally, I used to arrive home in the midnight.”

Things were definitely difficult. “At 8 o’clock I used to go to Lalbaug. I did my training there and return to KIOC by 10. My Sir used to keep the net ready, some bowlers that had mix of leg-spinners and pacers. I would play for an hour, wind up and from there head for my office. It was tough but since I had the passion, I did it. Main reason I went to Lalbaug was the trees. Around 8-8:30 the sun would be blazing. In Lalbaug I could find shade and do my fitness activities.”

All this after a dislocated shoulder?

It was not easy, but Mamatha had hidden her own superpowers: “I had heard that dislocation of shoulder needs to be given attention and it was my left hand. For a batter the top hand is very important. I did not move my hand for three weeks. I used to work only with the right hand. During the physiotherapy my hand was literally stuck. I knew that if I took good care of this hand it would function 90% normally. Once my hand was in order, I started off again.”

Soon Mamatha was on contract with Air India from 1994 to 2000. At that stage Air India boasted of players like Anjum Chopra and Anju Jain. However, home was where her heart was. She left Air India and returned to South Zone. She transformed their fortunes with her captaincy. She not only helped South Zone rise from the ruins but also got plenty of runs under her belt.

In the 6 matches she played for South Zone and Karnataka on her comeback, Mamatha got around 6 fifties to her name.

Aye, aye captain!

Mamatha’s success in South Zone earned her a recall in the Indian squad in 2002. At the same time, she had emerged as an eminent cricket writer.

At this point she was with thatcricket.com. Unfortunately, the journey was not as smooth as she had hoped for: “When I was playing from 2002 to 2004 I was working as sports correspondent. Initially they did give me leaves but later the tours became regular. By then I was not even the captain of the side. One day they said I would not get permission to play cricket anymore. We used to have two or three series in a year. They asked me to choose. I thought that I could work later but I will not get an opportunity to play. In 2003 I finally quit my job.”

While her second source of income was not there anymore, a pleasant surprise came her way. After guiding South Zone and Karnataka to success, Mamatha was asked to take over the reins from Anjum for the national side.

Surprisingly, at this stage she had no intentions to take up the role. Her sole objective was to improve on her cricket and become a permanent member of the playing XI. Unfortunately, Mithali, the other contender, was not as experienced as Mamatha would have wanted the new Indian captain to be. “Mithali was too young to take over the role,” she recollected.

Mamatha’s first assignment came against New Zealand, the then World Cup champions. How did she motivate herself and the girls? On the eve of the series, a selector walked up to Mamatha and said: “we don’t expect you to win but you must put up a fight.”

That single statement changed things. In her first team meeting as captain Mamatha asked her teammates what they had expected of the series. A New Zealand victory was the unanimous prediction.

“Can’t we win even one?” asked the captain. Somebody responded that a single victory was possible. Neetu insisted on two. But Mamatha was having none of that. “We will win 5-0,” announced the new Indian captain.

At this stage India boasted of Jhulan, Mithali, Anjum, Jaya Sharma and Neetu. With a power-packed side, India were bound to cross the boundaries. They were probably a superior team than they were aware of themselves.

India won the first four ODIs by 5 wickets, 9 wickets, 5 runs, and 4 wickets. New Zealand pulled one back in the last — but they finished their chase only off the last ball.

Mamatha herself led the bowling in the first match while Jaya shepherded the chase; Nooshin Al Khadeer bowled beautifully in the next before Anju, Jaya and Mithali made the 208-run target look ridiculously small; Jaya, Anjum and Mithali gave India the boost in the third before Neetu and Deepa Marathe choked the New Zealand batters; and in the fourth, Mamatha Kanojia and Deepa restricted New Zealand to 213 before Jaya, Anjum and Mithali made sure there was no hiccup.

The fifth ODI was the most dramatic of the lot. India failed to capitalise on the 144-run opening stand between Anju and Jaya, and reached a mere 186 for 5. Then Jhulan and Deepa hit back, reducing New Zealand to 110 for 6 before New Zealand pulled off the chase.

The Mamatha juggernaut continued. India thrashed West Indies 5-0. They then won the Asia Cup (which was essentially a bilateral series in Sri Lanka). India annihilated Sri Lanka in the tournament, winning by 123 runs, 105 runs, 6 wickets, 10 wickets and 94 runs.

Mamatha’s bowling credentials came to the forefront here. It was not a new role for her: she had opened bowling for Karnataka and South Zone. Even then this was too special. Her figures from 5 matches read 22.2-7-48-10; whatever parameter you calculate from that makes ridiculous reading. In the fourth ODI she had figures of 6.2-3-10-6.

Sri Lanka were skittled out for 66 against her Mamatha’s medium-pace. Shashikala Siriwardene scored 28 of these. None of the others made it to double-digits. She came on as the fifth bowler after Sri Lanka had a not-too-bad start, and almost immediately struck gold: “Jhulan, Neetu, Amita, Nooshin started off but were getting hit. That was when I decided to take the ball and no matter what I did I was getting wickets,” Mamatha recalls fondly.

Neetu (7-5-6-2) played her part. Nooshin got a wicket. But Mamatha’s figures were too special, and she still remains proud of it: “It was one of those days, where no matter what I did, it worked out well. That one day in Sri Lanka stood the test of time.”

Mamatha continues to have unflinching respect for Neetu, her once partner-in-crime: “Neetu also played an important role in my era. Neetu has won us more matches with the ball alone. She would make the opposition dance. On their knees they would sweep Jhulan but the moment Neetu comes, they would be dancing. In India she has won us many matches. I feel Neetu has not got the credit. Unfortunately there was no publicity then.”

However, a greater obstacle lay ahead of the girls. They now had the herculean task of facing the dominant force of women’s cricket then — Australia.

The slide

India did not have a poor start to the series. Chasing 196 in the first ODI they had reached 143 for 3 before collapsing to 181 for 9. In the second, they lost in the last over. In the third match they pulled off four run outs; Jhulan and Neetu led the bowling; and Jaya and Mithali helped India chased down with ease.

Australia had their nose ahead in the 7-match series, but India had been almost as good. Unfortunately, they lost the next two matches easily and lost the series.

Mamatha was not happy with her series haul of 69 runs at 13.80 (and no wicket). She called it quits mid-series, handing over the charge to Mithali. India won the last 2 ODIs.

Where it all began from scratch for China, Bangladesh were blessed with skills... Photo Courtesy: Mamatha Maben's Facebook Page
Where it all began from scratch for China, Bangladesh were blessed with skills… Photo Courtesy: Mamatha Maben’s Facebook Page

From China to Bangladesh

Mamatha continued to play for her state side. Unfortunately, that was not enough to support her at a phase of her life when her family needed support from her; she even had problems paying her rent: “I struggled for two years. Fortunately for me the merger took place in 2006-07. Once that happened we received money for playing and they were 2-day games. For one season I earned INR 80,000 which were enough to pay off my rent.”

Then, in 2009-10, she was asked to train budding cricketers in China — an offer she accepted readily.

This stint will need some background story. The Chinese women’s team had already made its debut as late as in 2006. The team was not even have recognition by Chinese Cricket Association at that point; that came in May 2007. From 19 school teams, a squad of 21 was formed. These 21 girls had to undergo rigorous training to make it to the 14-member squad to participate in the ACC Women’s Tournament 2007.

The team, coached by former Pakistan cricketer Rashid Khan, had gone on to reach the semi-final. Mamatha took up the responsibility until Asian Games 2010.

This was a challenge of a unique nature. Facilities were inadequate. The diet was entirely different. However, with Rashid helping her out, things fell in place. Rashid stayed on the bowling coach as well as the men’s team coach while Mamatha nurtured the girls. At this time the Chinese board started to pump in special funds for women’s cricket.

The biggest obstacle was training a group of girls who had no cricket background: “When I went there, I had four or five girls who had some knowledge about cricket. The rest were raw, in the sense even club cricketers would have better sense than them. So the first one-and-a-half months, I suspended the nets. I just taught them the basics. There was a bowling machine and I taught them just one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon. I called them one by one, taught them the basic strokeplay,” Mamatha recalled.

At the same time she was aware that the Chinese expected results in the upcoming Asian Games at home, in Guangzhou. There was little time, so Mamatha made every session count: “There was no practice facility. We would just go to a football ground and practice there. I had to get them to India and Bangladesh to make them understand what it was to play on turf. By the time they reached the Asian Games, skill-wise they really looked in good stead. One of the best compliments I received was that they looked like cricketers.”

There was another battle to overcome. They students did not understand her language, and vice versa. At times she had to communicate in sign language. However, she was fortunate to find two girls who did understand English.

Thus the English lessons began. Mamatha arranged for the books herself; on the other hand, she started to speak the local tongue: “The girls and I picked up each other’s language. They took good care of me. I got habituated to a certain taste of food. I liked the street food. There are certain dishes I miss even today.”

The other stint, in Bangladesh, was reasonably easier. The Bangladeshi women were not outstanding cricketers when she took the assignment, but they were at least acquainted with the sport. The latent talent needed direction: “I just brushed them up and taught them the elite part of the game. Of course there were a few who needed to be taught the basic skills, but feeding and all was never an issue.”

Today, Bangladesh do participate in competitive cricket and their skills have got them ahead.

Mamatha with past and present of India Women's cricket Photo Courtesy: Mamatha Maben's Facebook Page
Mamatha pillars of India Women’s cricket Photo Courtesy: Mamatha Maben’s Facebook Page

Of Mithali, Jhulan and Harman

Dating back to 2002, Mithali was at her peaks. She was dealing with fifties and hundreds. It was just her fourth Test match of her career.

Mithali’s superstardom started with the record-breaking 214 at Taunton. However, it cannot be denied that when Mithali had walked out to bat at 45 for 2, the new ball had been negotiated; and that had been done by a makeshift opener: “Our openers in the previous ODI series were not clicking. When the Test match arrived, we had Jaya and Sulakshana Naik who opened the innings earlier. But Sulakshana felt that she cannot open the innings. We needed another specialist opener. That time we had Tarak Sinha as the coach. He wanted five specialist bowlers and one ’keeper. He did not want to leave out Mithali, Hemlata, myself and Anjum. If we bought a specialist into the picture we had to let go either a bowler or a batter. So someone had to put up their hand and say we will open. We did not want to sacrifice Mithali. So that is when I decided to open the innings.”

Mamatha fondly recalled Mithali’s innings as ‘sublime’. Shortly afterwards, Mithali was announced deputy to her. Mithali even stood in when Mamatha missed the fourth ODI against West Indies in 2003-04.

The two continue to remain close. Mamatha cannot help but be proud of her younger protégé: “Mithali’s family is very close to me. So whenever Mithali did well, I was always happy. I have been with the family right since they prepared her as a batter. The entire family is into cricket. From her breakfast to practice, everything is choreographed. Mithali doing well only brings joy to my heart.”

Mamatha continues to remain in praise of Jhulan as well. She hails her as one of those players under whom “cricket has grown.”

Since India’s remarkable campaign in the World Cup, the buzz for a Women’s IPL has been making rounds. BCCI has already silenced the news citing the reason of insufficient funds.

An IPL can change the skills of young women cricketers today, suggests Mamatha. Her thought is linked to Women’s BBL (WBBL) that has changed the form of Harmanpreet Kaur and Smriti Mandhana.

Harmanpreet’s onslaught in the World Cup semi-final needs little retelling. She had almost single-handedly knocked Australia out of the tournament that day. A heavy downpour had already reduced the semi-final contest to 42-over a side. Such was Harmanpreet’s assault that she vaulted India to the final of the tournament for the second time.

But Mamatha was not surprised: “I was not surprised at the intensity with which she played the innings. The ability of whacking anybody is the talent only she possesses. From the 35th over, she went hammer and tong for such a long time successfully. To do it for 15 overs is not a joke. The only thing that was so mind-blowing was the length at which she slogged the Australian’s.”

“If there was publicity in those days, Harmanpreet would have been a superstar well before WBBL,” she cannot help but lament.

And we cannot agree more.

World Cup today and yesterday

Women’s cricket has undergone numerous transitions over years, from no facilities to the advent of T20 cricket to increase in bilateral series as well as competitive tournaments.

Not many from the current circuit have seen the transition apart from Jhulan and Mithali. Similarly, many were not aware about the skills the team boasted about in the 2005 World Cup.

When Mithali and Jhulan took the stage along with the other youngsters in the 2017 World Cup final at Lord’s, they were reprised of their roles once again.

It had been a one-sided affair at Centurion in 2005. India were humbled by 98 runs. It was a lot closer this time, but the first one was special too.

What is the difference between the two sides? Mamatha answers: “During that time, the concept of T20 cricket did not exist. So the mind had not opened up to power-hitting. Skill-wise, however, I will say the team in 2005 were on top. Jaya, Anju, Anjum, Mithali and the bowling unit with Jhulan and Neetu was far superior. The spinners were a different breed. We played a different brand of cricket.”

“Now I can say what we are better is the fielding over all. Out of eleven at least ten are active on the field. That is a big positive. The big hitting is a plus point too. Everyone has practised big hitting. Everyone knows how to loft the ball; and everyone can come and play cameos. So this T20 is a game changer. However, skill-wise we were a superior lot,” she added.

Mamatha also lauded the youngsters and the Karnataka champions who have the potential to take women’s cricket to a different level today.

The next-gen cricketers

The World Cup was not about the troika of Mithali, Jhulan and Harman either.

Smriti lit up the first two games with her opening blitz. Her scores of 90 and 106 were rewarded with Player of the Match awards.

In the following matches, one witnessed excellent bowling from both seamers and spinners. Standing tall above all was teenage sensation Deepti Sharma. Mamatha was particularly in awe of Deepti after her composed knock during the Sri Lanka match and in the final: “I feel Deepti, her body language, commitment… are huge revlations. Now her brother has opened a cricket academy just for her. These are bound to bear fruits. The calmness she shows for her age that has worked in the favour of India.”

And then, there was a special performance from another Karnataka superstar, in the must-win match against New Zealand. Veda Krishnamurthy of Kadur stole the thunder from Mithali — despite the latter’s hundred — with a whirlwind 45-ball 90. That is an innings Mamatha cherishes: “Veda now has become a superstar and got a celebrity status. Yet, she is down to earth.”

Mamatha’s affection for Karnataka cricketers is special. She continues to impart knowledge and pieces of advice to the youngsters time to time.

Mamatha enjoys her free time with her Karnataka girls...Photo Courtesy: Mamatha Maben Facebook Page
Mamatha enjoys her free time with her Karnataka girls…Photo Courtesy: Mamatha Maben Facebook Page

Of course, she enjoys time with them off the field as well: “I have seen Vanitha [VR], Veda and Karu Jain playing right since the age of 11-12. The rapport is very good. The mutual-admiration for each other is always there. We have played during the WCI days and seen the hardships together. Even today, Veda, Vanitha and Karu are level-headed. When all these cricketers come home, I cook some good food and we enjoy.”

The road ahead

Women’s cricket has gained following in India since the success of World Cup. With lucrative pay packages and an A team and an FTP in BCCI pay and panning out an A team as well, women’s cricket in India may witness an unprecedented rise.

Mamatha, currently coach at RX Cricket Academy, can see the difference as much as anyone else: “The future looks good and now everyone wants to take up cricket. Earlier I had to run behind girls to join the Academy. Now I can see the energy in them. They want to learn and do well. The craze is catching up all over. In Bengaluru at least 50-60 students have joined the academies which are huge numbers for women’s cricket. That’s the sort of impact World Cup has had.”

And what does Mamatha do in her free time? Well, despite not being from the ‘selfie generation’, she is quite active; she also credits social media for the growth of women’s cricket in India.

And what does the future hold for Mamatha?

Mamatha would love to work with the young girls if there is an opportunity: “If the need arises and my coaching is good enough to get into mainstream, then nothing like it. I will be more than happy to deliver.”

Mamatha’s CV makes impressive reading. Her students continue to hold her in the highest esteem.

What’s more? A women’s KPL might be in the pipeline soon.

One might witness Mamatha soon donning the coaching cap once again.