Punam Raut © Getty Images
Punam Raut © Getty Images

Being axed for the India Women side twice, Punam Raut, born October 14, 1989, has time and again proven her mettle. Punam’s performances with the willow makes her one of the finest openers India Women have ever produced in modern-day cricket. In an exclusive tête-à-tête with Shruti Hariharan, Punam narrates her journey from Prabhadevi to Borivali to Lord’s.

Harmanpreet Kaur’s assault of 171* in the semi-final had crashed Australia out of the 2017 World Cup. India had set up a date with England for the final at Lord’s. They were doing a decent job at 191 for 3 in 42.5 overs, chasing a target of 229. Smriti Mandhana was gone for zero, following which Mithali Raj had put up a steady partnership of 38 runs for the second wicket with Punam. After Mithali was dismissed, Harman and Punam had almost India on course to their first World Cup title.

Their fifties set the tone of the Indian innings, “The way we had started off, I was confident that we would lift the title. I had decent partnerships with Mithali and Harmanpreet,” lamented Punam Raut to CricketCountry.

Even after Harman perished for 51, Punam had Veda Krishnamurthy for support, the Kadur girl who had handed India a berth in the semi-final. Veda had raised hopes with her cameo before sloppy shot selection off Anya Shrubsole in the 45th over changed the script. Prior to that, Punam was trapped by Shrubsole for 86.

Sushma Verma, Jhulan Goswami, Shikha Pandey, none could escape Shrubsole’s massacre. India lost seven wickets in 6.5 overs when the equation read 38 off 43: “Not that we have not chased such a total earlier, but the crowd pressure and World Cup final got the better of us. We had done well in the previous matches. All of us provided match-winning performances. Of course, everyone got emotional towards the end. I do not usually express my emotions in front of anyone. But it was a very sad moment.”

Yet, Punam considers her fighting knock of 86 against England at Lord’s as one of her most memorable innings. Playing at Lord’s was memorable, not only to  Punam but several young girls who were playing a World Cup for the first time.

But how did Punam decide her journey to Lord’s?

Of childhood and Ganesh Raut’s relentless support

Loveyouforever#dad’sgirl#my1stlove

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I have interacted with several women cricketers till date. Some had to choose a hard fought path to take up cricket. Some, being the only child of their family, were allowed to choose the profession they wished to follow.

However, in the case of Punam, the cricket-keeda ran through the family. If anything, Punam fulfilled her father’s aspirations: “My father loved playing cricket. However, due to some societal norms, he was unable to fulfil his dreams.”

Punam was not inspired by any cricketer. She simply used to step out with her brother to the ground with the bat and ball to play cricket at the age of 6. Looking at Punam’s love for the sport, her father, a car driver for a private firm, provided undying support. So much so that he never let the financial crises affect his children: “After the World Cup, I got to know that my father had taken loan from someone just so that he could provide me a brand new cricket kit. He has never ignored my wishes.”

Women’s cricket was not popular in India in the early 2000s. In fact, there was just one women’s cricket academy in Mumbai, run by Surekha Bhandarkar at Matunga. Punam started playing cricket at Prabhadevi, her first home. Her family soon shifted to Borivali where she joined the Shivseva Academy, where she saw the same local boys who played gully cricket donning white jerseys.

Punam worked on her fitness and strengths to match the boys. She played with them in the academy for five years. And yet, she never faced any challenge from them as her batting did the talking for her. However, the Indian society was still new to the concept of women’s cricket, which resulted in her father and mother facing a word or two in the neighbourhood.

These complaints had made Ganesh Raut give up on his dream to play cricket. He was not going to let that happen again. He took a stand and prompted his kids to continue achieving their goals. Punam’s mother was not as lenient, but in the end she supported her daughter as well, inspired by her daughter’s progression at the academy.

Shivseva Academy also helped Punam meet her coach Sanjay Gaitonde. And that was how she took the first step to India Women by joining the Mumbai team.

Of Sanjay Gaitonde and Team Mumbai

The man who inspires me always..my coach…

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Before she could begin her expedition to the Mumbai team, Punam was not aware that an India Women’s team existed. Punam was 13 years old when she saw Mithali Raj and Anjum Chopra playing cricket for India Women for the first time on television. India were playing five-match ODI series against England at home during that phase. They won the series 3-2. Punam’s urge to represent India got stronger.

She notched up her first fifty in cricket while playing with the boys in the Shivseva Academy. Her coach Gaitonde was the umpire. “I used to watch cricketers like Sachin Tendulkar and other big names scoring fifty. So it was a great feeling,” she recalled.

Punam credited her coach Gaitonde for guiding her at every step and recognising her talents: “Gaitonde-Sir was very supportive of me. He never made me feel that I was the only girl amongst all the boys. He made me feel like one as well. He continues to train me and guide me at every step even today.” Her rapid progress in the cricket academy landed her admission in the women’s academy in Matunga.

Unfortunately, the transition was not as easy as it sounds. After facing fast deliveries, Punam had to face slower balls that did not allow her shots to go even beyond 30 yards: “I became a little more serious about fitness and diet since I could not play the desired shots. Earlier I used to eat as per my preferences. But I understood it was necessary to build up my strength and that’s when I started giving importance to my diet.”

Punam steadily earned her name amongst the girls as well. Gaitonde heaped praise on Punam’s performance and she was sent for a summer camp with Surekha at Dadar. However, Punam was frustrated to find herself with a group of girls who were not well equipped with bat and ball. Having playing with the boys for almost seven years, Punam was surprised to see the level of cricket the girls played: “During the net sessions I was called last to bat. I started hitting the net bowlers hard and that’s when they asked the main bowlers to step in.”

Impressing the selectors at the camp, Punam was soon called to the Mumbai team.

A topsy-turvy international career…

Punam soared in the domestic arena in 2008-09. She piled on 1,356 runs with 3 centuries cricket in all cricket. Her success in domestic cricket earned her a call-up in the Indian team — in the 2009 World Cup in Australia, no less. Harman made her debut for the Indian side at around the same time.

However, Punam had a forgettable start: “My first game was against West Indies and I was out for zero. It was not just in the World Cup, I was out for zero in Tests and T20Is as well.” It was not of much consolation that Harman had an awful start to her ODI career as well.

Punam picked up the pace and sealed her spot in the side across formats thereafter. However, she could not create much impact in T20Is and was dropped for the West Indies tour in 2012.

She refused to get bogged down by missed opportunities. Instead, she proved her stance through domestic tournaments during this rough patch. She scored a total of 840 runs in 16 matches in 2012-13: “During that bad patch, I worked hard on my playing style. I proved myself and made it back to the Indian team.”

And upon return, Punam roared against Bangladesh with her knock of 80 while Harman notched up her second ODI century. The series did not consist of any senior Indians. Harman led India while Punam was her deputy. The duo thrashed Bangladesh by 46 runs to claim the series.

Punam continues to remain in awe of Harman’s batting since that day: “She is aggressive and handles the pressure well. I was inspired by her. At that point we were just putting our experience into play. Even today we learn from each other a lot. She is also my very good friend.”

In the T20Is, Punam scored 75, her highest score, and India Women eased through against Bangladesh in that series as well.

She made her Test debut against England in 2014, where she got 0 and 16, but the bowlers and Mithali’s fifty helped guide India to their second Test win against England.

Their next battle was against South Africa in India. Thirushkamini and Punam’s centuries were the highlight of India’s victory. Their centuries put up mammoth total of 400 for 6. Despite a battling century by Mignon du Preez, Harman bundled out South Africa for 233 and 132.

Punam cherished her Test century all the more as she was yet to score a century in the ODIs. However, the clouds of axing hovered across the horizon again.

A mediocre outing in the Australia ODI series and just one match against Sri Lanka in 2016 saw her being left out of the T20 World Cup. She was also overlooked for the West Indies ODIs and T20Is.

She, however, was determined and showed character as she kept her hopes alive of returning to the side: “I knew I was not up to the mark and wanted desperately build my form before 2017 World Cup. I worked on my techniques and skills. I started playing with the boys again and built by strengths. I played as an opener with them and that helped.”

India Women, on the other hand, were struggling to find the right opening combination. Deepti Sharma and Smriti could not add much luck to the Indian side as openers against West Indies. India also tried the combination of Deepti and newbie Mona Meshram during the World Cup Qualifiers, which also failed.

Around the same time, Punam was flourishing in domestic cricket. She was the second-highest run-scorer, piling 273 runs in 7 matches in T20 matches.

And while India won a thrilling game against South Africa in World Cup Qualifiers, Punam was busy in the inter-zonal tournament where she smashed 346 runs from 4 matches: “I changed by playing style and worked on my techniques. I was patient and finally, the results paid off.”

Punam returned for the quadrangular series in South Africa. She knew 2017 World Cup was not too far: “I once again opened for the side and scored plenty of runs. I automatically sealed my spot for the World Cup as well.”

Runs, runs and more runs…

Once she was back to Indian side for the second time, there was nothing stopping her. India posted a humongous score of 358 for 3 in the fifth ODI courtesy Deepti’s 188. Punam brought up her maiden ODI century. They added a 320-run opening stand, eclipsing the previous record of 268 between England openers Caroline Atkins and Sarah Taylor against South Africa in 2008. They also surpassed the men’s ODI record for an opening partnership of 286, between Sanath Jayasuriya and Upul Tharanga against England in 2006.

“When we went to our dressing room, that’s when we realised that it was a world record set by Tharanga and Jayasuriya,” Punam laughed and said.

She was thrilled to score her maiden century after so many years: “Once you score big runs, it builds the confidence for future matches as well. Mithali had appreciated my efforts as well. It was a fruitful series.”

Punam Raut celebrates hai maiden World Cup century © Getty Images
Punam Raut celebrates hai maiden World Cup century © Getty Images

Punam continued to stack up runs. She smashed her way to maiden World Cup century, against Australia, albeit in a losing cause. India had lost Smriti early on. Punam’s 136-ball 106 included 11 boundaries. She added 157 runs for second wicket with Mithali before getting out caught and bowled by Kristen Beams. Punam treasures the partnership with Mithali: “She is world No. 1 and whenever she comes to bat, I always think of building a strong partnership with her. Her presence enhances the confidence of the other batters as well.”

Of openers and captains

During the span of her 8-year old career, Punam has got the opportunity to play under the captaincy of young as well as experienced players. Although she has played just one series under each of Jhulan and Harman, Punam is clear about the contrasting leadership styles of them and Mithali: “So far I have enjoyed playing under Mithali. She handles the pressure well and she is very calm when it comes to batting. Harman and Jhulan are aggressive.”

She has opened batting with Smriti, Mithali, Deepti and now Jemimah Rodrigues. She believes that playing with youngsters eases the pressure off her and they bring different energy to the game.

She has now found a new friend. Remember the girl who smashed double-century in the one-day tournament last year? Jemimah and Punam played for India Green during the Challengers Trophy, where they played for the first time.

Jemimah and Punam had two century partnerships for India Green, 139 and 112: “I was happy to find another Mumbai girl coming forward. She plays really well and she is the future of India Women. It is a proud feeling to open the innings with another Mumbaikar. I am very happy for her.”

Post World Cup emotions, South Africa tour and more

Despite a 9-run defeat, India Women received a warm welcome back home after the World Cup. Apart from being felicitated by the Prime Minister at Delhi, some of the India Women cricketers were given raises in their professional set-up. Some became familiar faces by attending television shows while some were busy inaugurating cricket academies.

As for Punam, the celebrations were on in full-swing at her small chawl in Borivali. She was welcomed with a rally. “I had reached at 7 o clock at Borivali and I was home only at 11 o clock,” chuckles Punam.

She was also felicitated at Sarvarkar Udyan in Borivali by MCA secretary PV Shetty and Member of the Parliament Gopal Shetty. It was here they announced the launch of a women’s cricket academy that would bear the name of Punam Raut.

She provided a gist on what the academy was all about: “There were several girls who took admission especially after the World Cup. Every girl was given free coaching for the entire year. This was a very good initiative. At my time there was no girls’ academy nearby so this was a great step by PV Shetty and Gopal Shetty. They are the founders of this academy.”

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India Women have not played ODIs since the World Cup. The next few months will see them touring South Africa for 3 ODIs and 3 T20Is. India will then host Australia for 3 ODIs and play a triangular T20I series with England and Australia in March.

Punam is geared up for the upcoming challenge: “Whatever bilateral matches we play now, the only strategy for us will be to win them all. That paves the way for us to skip the World Cup Qualifiers stage and reach the World Cup directly. There several people following women’s cricket now. So that has increased our responsibility.”

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Punam proved her critics wrong after receiving second life by scoring 653 runs from 14 ODIs in 2017. She also completed 9 years of her international career on Wednesday. She celebrated the ‘anniversary’ with her close friend Harman:

Watch out for this pocket-sized dynamite. She may have more batting explosives to offer in the upcoming matches.