Thirushkamini becomes the first woman to score a World Cup hundred for India. The innings was a result of years of toil, battling pain, an insatiable appetite for runs, and tremendous family support © AFP
Thirushkamini becomes the first woman to score a World Cup hundred for India. The innings was a result of years of toil, battling pain, an insatiable appetite for runs, and tremendous family support © AFP

Murugesan Dickeshwashankar Thirushkamini, born July 30, 1990, burst into the international scene over a decade back as a teenage prodigy, winning the Player of the Series award in her first series. Years later Thirushkamini also scored the first World Cup hundred by an Indian, while her 192 against South Africa Women remains one of the greatest examples of endurance and stamina in women’s cricket. In an interview with Abhishek Mukherjee, Thirushkamini talked about the difficulties as a young female cricketer in the 1990s, her growth as a cricketer, her passion for science and literature, and the joy of making the perfect comeback.

Brabourne Stadium, 2013. Things went fairly well in those early overs. Poonam Raut had found the fence in the first over, thanks to a free hit. The World Cup had started on a high note for India Women.

Her partner, at the other end, was taking her time to settle down. Shakera Selman attempted a yorker in the fifth over. There was nothing wrong with the ball, but the bat came down at the most precise moment possible, rocketing past Poonam to the straight fence. Thirushkamini was off.

There was exquisite timing in the cover-drive off Stafanie Taylor that followed. And when Shanel Daley pitched one short, Thirushkamini cut the ball so ferociously that the sound almost reverberated across the stadium.

Runs came in singles, but she kept stepping out every now and then, sometimes going over the top, but mostly pushing them for singles. Then Thirushkamini decided to chance her arms off 14-year-old Anisa Mohammed. The ball rocketed above the poor teenager’s head. MS Dhoni, one of her favourite cricketers (Sachin Tendulkar and Adam Gilchrist are the others) would have been happy.

Her fifty came up when she guided Tremayne Smartt off back-foot past fine-leg for four. She still preferred to play second-fiddle to Poonam. Her focus was fierce: even when Poonam got to her fifty the hug lasted for barely a second before she returned to her crease.

The fireworks began once Poonam was dismissed. Thirushkamini danced down the track and dismissed Shanel over the deep mid-wicket fence. Three balls later she stepped out, realised that she had not reached the pitch of the ball, but went with the shot anyway: such was the power that mid-on had no chance.

Jhulan Goswami, promoted up the order, called and set off as soon as Thirushkamini paddle-swept Anisa. Thirushkamini took a couple of steps and waited till the fielder at fine-leg fumbled, then scampered for her hundredth run.

The first fifty had taken her 92 balls. The second needed a mere 53. It had taken India Women thirty-five years and eight attempts to register their first World Cup hundred.

As the dressing-room applauded, Thirushkamini smashed the air with the bat in ecstasy. There was no smile. The jaws were clenched under that blue sunhat, for she had waited for this moment for months, even years, for she owed a lot to herself, her family…

That grand comeback

Thirushkamini was making a comeback to the international side after three years. In fact, she had been out of serious competitive cricket of any level for almost two years. It had come at the wrong time, too: in her last match before her injury she had beaten Andhra Women single-handedly with 3 for 17 and 43 not out.

The knee injury was serious enough to keep her in bed for six months. What had kept her going all this while? “My family provided me huge support. They kept motivating me. When I went out to play my ultimate aim was to make sure I had to do something for my family,” she told me.

There was no easy way back for her. It never is, once you lose your spot at the highest level. The berth had to be earned. So she decided to respond with a deluge, scoring 749 runs from 13 innings at 68. Her lowest score during this phase was 21. She did not merely open the gate: she smashed it down to smithereens.

She was obviously picked for the Women’s Challenger Trophy after that. She responded with 95* and 14. And in the two warm-up matches before the World Cup she scored 43 against New Zealand and 30 against Australia.

It was not the first time her family would play a crucial role in her development.

Bleeding noses and Tamil classes

Thirushkamini had started watching cricket at a very young age. While that was common among Madras girls of her age, actually playing the sport was not, let alone professionally.

“At that period of time, Chennai was very different. It was very difficult for a woman to pick up sport of any kind. Girls used to focus a lot on academics,” she recalled.

To understand what Thirushkamini was talking about, it is imperative that we understand India, especially Chennai, of the late 1990s — an era when internet was unheard-of and satellite television was still making its way past the metropolitan cities.

India are still not a sporting country on the level of Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa (ask any parent whose child wants to take up sport as a profession), but things were even worse back then.

While sport was encouraged, taking it up as a career was typically scoffed at. To be fair to the parents, sport in India did not ensure financial security. Add to that the fact that Chennai always had a tradition of producing scholars and performing artists of the highest level, and one can understand the stress on academics.

Even under these circumstances, several superstars had emerged, braving the hot, humid conditions that were certainly not the best for sport. Unfortunately, only a handful of them had been female.

There have been exceptions, of course. Shilu Ranganathan was perhaps the first of them, achieving fame for her contributions in both cricket and tennis. There was the glamorous Lakshmi Mahadevan, arguably India’s first female tennis superstar. And Shantha Rangaswamy was India’s first female Test captain. But then, as I said, they were not common. There were not many icons to choose from.

But Murugesan Dickeshwashankar was no ordinary father. It helped that he was into sports himself, having played hockey for Port Trust. Not only did he encourage his daughter, he also played cricket with her and coached her.

“Had it not been for him, I would not have even played the sport,” she would later admit, for he had retired from his job to make sure his daughter got the best possible coaching.

By eight, Thirushkamini was playing out there, taking on boys older to her.

Boys older to her? How old?

“When I started playing I started playing with boys. I was very tiny at that time. Some of them were triple my age… 24… 25…”

Twenty-five? That’s no boy, that’s a man… wait, you were only eight!

But she carried on, nonchalantly: “It was quite challenging. As a girl, when you hit these elder boys, they felt humiliated. Then they came and bowled bouncers and beamers at me. On one occasion, when I hit a pull, a boy threw the ball at me. I got hit on my nose and had a bleeding nose for two days. I think I was about eight or nine.”

But Thirushkamini was too tough to be held back by injuries. If anything, the blows made her more determined. They also helped hone her defensive technique.

Within two years she was playing Under-16. She also kept wickets, but she quickly realised that she was better at bowling leg-breaks. Her journey had begun.

“It is all about sessions in Test matches. You should not look at the entire Test. It is like a war: when you go into a war you look at winning little battles. The war is won by the side that wins more battles. Similarly, if you win more sessions, the Test is ours.”

But that was not sufficient for Manimekalai, the matriarch of the family. Talent and success were fine, but education had to be carried on as a parallel.

That was fine with the youngster; unlike most successful sports stars, she actually loved studying. She loved science. She loved English (“I love the way the language works by itself”), especially the grammar bit. And then, there was Tamil, her second language.

However hard you try, you cannot take science and arts out of a Chennai girl.

The obvious question arose. There is little documentation, little literature on women’s cricket in India. Should a Test cricketer who loves two languages not be the ideal person for that?

She smiled: “I should do something after my career. I should really start writing. The game has given me so much. It had shaped me as a person. My character revolves a lot around this sport.”

Thirushkamini went to Sacred Heart Church Park School, where she found tremendous support. No eyebrow was raised when the teenager missed two, even three weeks of classes a month for her cricket commitments. If anything, teachers took extra time out of their schedules to make sure she got through school.

“I do not think I would have completed my schooling without their support,” she admitted.

But what was it like, batting for hours in the sweltering Chennai heat when her friends were having all the fun? Did it seem unfair?

“My parents did not stop me a lot. I went out a lot with my friends. However, there were restrictions, and they came at a very young age. But it did not matter.”

There was a diet chart in place, sans sugar, as she pointed out (“as you know, kids love sugar”). But even more demanding was the schedule. Waking up early was perhaps not difficult, for Chennai barely has winters, but things got worse as the day went on.

The first practice session of the day was draining. Then, just as the sun came out in its pomp, she had to travel to school (later college). This was followed by another session of practice.

“By the time it all got over there was little time left for myself,” she said matter-of-factly.

There were rewards, too: whenever Thirushkamini won an award (and she did win plenty), Sacred Heart Church felicitated her. At a very young age she was a celebrity of sorts in the school.

Those trivial childhood pleasures seemed irrelevant, for she was destined for bigger things in life.

She pursued both studies and cricket with fervour. “I loved to learn new stuff every day. I could not have sacrificed one for the other. I have always been doing something I loved. Had I been pushed into something, forced to do something, it would have thought it was a burden. That kept me going.”

Thirushkamini did her graduation and post-graduation from MOP Vaishnav College for Women. She even did her MPhil, from Madras University. Academics and cricket went hand in hand, till 2004. When I asked her who the nerd of the national side was, she admitted to being the one.

By then her sister Sugaragamini had made her way to the Tamil Nadu Women side.

But we have moved forward too fast. Let us go back to the bright-eyed teenager who plundered runs for her state (and beyond) when the focus of her classmates centred around homework.

Teenage sensation

“I was a very young debutant. At 16 I was playing for India with people who were 24 or 25. I have always played with cricketers older than me.”

Thirushkamini grabbed attention at the highest level against Pakistan Under-21s Women at their den, in 2005-06. Her chance came only after India went 3-0 up. She eased her way to 63 at the top; captain Karu Jain got a fifty; and Sravanthi Naidu and Diana David spun India to an easy win.

The next season saw her rule Indian domestic cricket. Her 141 runs came at 47, but more sensationally, her 12 wickets came at a mere 9 runs each, and at an economy rate of 2.85. They could not keep her out any longer. She was selected for Asia Cup 2006, in India.

Thirushkamini was not the first sixteen-year-old to make international debut for India against Pakistan. Unfortunately, Jaipur did not attract as many people as Karachi had, seventeen years back, for Sachin Tendulkar’s debut Test.

The Indian team consisted of several big names, from Anjum Chopra to Jaya Sharma to Hemlata Kala to Neetu David to Mithali Raj to Jhulan Goswami. What was it like to share dressing-room with the greats? “I was very young. I learnt a lot. They were very kind to me. It mattered,” she responded.

She made sure it counted. There were 4 boundaries in that 24-ball 22. India lost quick wickets, but Hemlata and Rumeli Dhar added 105 before Anita Sharma’s lusty blows took them to 215.

Pakistan Women reached 81 for 1, but runs were not easy to come off Thirushkamini’s leg-breaks. She first got fellow debutant Bismah Maroof (43), whose career would coincide with hers. Sajjida Shah (44) hit one back to her after another big stand. And she rounded things off nicely by bowling Qanita Jalil.

Thirushkamini finished with figures of 10-1-19-3. Pakistan were crushed by 80 runs.

Sri Lanka Women were no match for the wrist-spin of Preeti Dimri (3 for 14) — still the only Chinaman bowler to play for India — and Thirushkamini (2 for 38). After they were restricted to 145 for 8, Thirushkamini and Sulakshana Naik ensured a 10-wicket victory. Both openers were named Players of the Match.

She took 2 for 9 when India met Sri Lanka again. And after she was pushed down the order in the last league match against Pakistan, she got 34 before taking 1 for 20. She had little to do in the anticlimactic final (India won by 8 wickets).

Not that it mattered. She topped the bowling chart with 8 wickets (at 10.87), and of batters, only Dedunu Silva scored more runs than her 135 runs (at 33.75). Dedunu and Thirushkamini shared the Player of the Series Trophy.

That earned her the Allan Border Scholarship. She practised in Brisbane for two weeks. What was different?

“I got to learn a lot. The wickets were different. They focus a lot on fielding. Back then it was very different, but that had to do a lot about how Indians and Australians look at sport.”

However, she agrees that right now there is little to choose between the two countries: “I’m really happy with the way women’s cricket has transformed in India after BCCI took over in 2006. From there, the facilities have improved. We play on better grounds. We get the best of the support staff. We get similar facilities as the men’s team. And with the central contracts coming in, the players feel a lot more financially secure. The graph has really gone up.”

Rangaswamy would not have agreed: “There is progress, but not at the pace at which things are going. I think we are still very slow,” she told me earlier this week. With Diana Edulji at the helm and the announcement of the Women’s Cricket League, the situation definitely looks brighter.

Australian blues

The Quadrangular series at home after the Asia Cup was not a great success for Thirushkamini. She played a solitary match in the next edition of Asia Cup, without much success. Then came the Australia tour, where she scored 0, 1, 33, and 3 before being axed for the final ODI. And in the World Cup that followed in the same country later that summer, she got 3, 1, 2, and 11.

What went wrong? “I was 18 when I played those early games. Understanding the Australian conditions took some time. Adaptability is very important when you play international cricket. Preparation is very important when you take on these big teams. I think that was where I lacked.”

She did return to the country seven years later. She looked in touch before she was run out — somewhat embarrassingly — for 10. And Ellyse Perry snared her for a golden duck in the second. Next time, perhaps.

The question of run outs had to come up, for they have amounted to 9 (over a quarter) of her 32 ODI dismissals. The reason was not what I had expected: “I used to play with a lot of seniors initially. I used to feel nervous. I didn’t communicate well with my partners. When you have a senior batting at the other side, I found it very awkward to call. I was a kid at that age. I should have communicated better with my seniors.”

She has adapted. That Canberra run out is the only one in 11 attempts (and four years). Of course, she has found other means of getting out: against West Indies at Vijayawada last year she became the first woman to get out obstructing the field in an international match.

The girl who refused to get out

India Women did not play a single Test between 2006 and 2014. Mithali, Jhulan, and Karu Jain were the only survivors from the previous era when the team took field at Wormsley; just like at Taunton eight years back, India emerged winners — this time with eight debutants.

“When I started playing I started playing with boys. I was very tiny at that time. Some of them were triple my age… 24… 25…”

After Niranjana Nagarajan shot out England for 92, Thirushkamini added 40 for the opening stand with Smriti Mandhana before Jenny Gunn had her caught-behind. India’s lead was restricted to 22. This time Jhulan rose to the occasion, bowling out the hosts despite Jenny’s late-order resilience.

India Women needed 181. Only Australia had chased down a bigger target (198) before, but that was at home, in 2010-11. To add to their woes, Shubhalakshmi Sharma, having dislocated a shoulder while fielding, was unlikely to bat. Things looked bleak.

To begin with, India needed to blunt out England’s all-seam attack. While Smriti played her strokes, Thirushkamini, solid in defence, punctuated her innings with the occasional trademark cover-drive. She eventually scored 28, but the opening pair had amounted to 76, and the new ball was 34 overs old. Mithali took over from there, sealing a 6-wicket victory.

Thirushkamini had scored 17 and 28 on debut. Perhaps a more telling statistic was the 170 balls she faced in the Test on a difficult wicket. The magnum opus was about to follow.

India had three more debutants when South Africa played at Mysore later that year. Mithali won the toss and decided to bat. Smriti fell early, but Thirushkamini batted. And batted. And batted. And batted…

There was no instruction for quick scoring. At the other end was Poonam, Thirushkamini’s comrade-in-arms in that long stand during her World Cup hundred. This time they dug down even deeper. Their hundreds came up just before close of play; in fact, both were exactly 100 not out by the time stumps were drawn. India Women were 211 for 1.

“As a cricketer that is what you prepare yourself for. I batted for nine hours. I think I really did a good job,” she smiled.

How does one bat for so long? “It is all about sessions in Test matches. You should not look at the entire Test. It is like a war: when you go into a war you look at winning little battles. The war is won by the side that wins more battles. Similarly, if you win more sessions, the Test is ours.”

So she looked at sessions the next day. She batted for a whopping nine hours and faced 430 balls for a mammoth 192. No one has scored more against South Africa Women till date. Unfortunately, she fell 22 short of Mithali’s Indian record of 214.

The innings is also the fourth-longest in terms of balls faced. There have been only two innings of longer duration. And we are talking the entire history of women’s Test cricket — of course, in matches where minutes and balls were tracked.

As for the 275-run partnership with Poonam (whose 130 was completely overshadowed), it is the second-highest in all women’s cricket.

India Women declared at 400 for 6. Then Harmanpreet Kaur took 5 for 44 and 4 for 41 to rout the South Africans. India became the third side to win three consecutive Tests — involving an eight-year gap.

India Women are yet to play another Test. In fact, there has been only one women’s Test since then.

“I think it has a lot to do with the points table,” she opines, referring to the ICC Women’s Championship, which does not involve Test cricket.

However, she is optimistic: “Test cricket has to come back. Test cricket is how you challenge every player. That is where technical aspects are tested.”

Given her penchant for those marathon innings, is Test cricket her favourite format? Not quite: “I do not enjoy any specific format of the sport. I really can’t pick one. I enjoy the thrill T20 provides. I love the excitement of ODIs and the patience required for Tests.”

The P Sara hundred

“I did not get a hundred for three years, but I did not play much either.”

Indeed. Thirushkamini had played a mere 10 matches between the 2013 World Cup and the 2017 World Cup qualifier. She was due for that big score, but she had not had opportunities either.

The form from the Tests had rubbed on to her. Now she went on to dominate the home series against New Zealand. She missed the first ODI but returned for the second.

Thirushkamini started shakily, edging twice off Lea Tahuhu. Then, once she got going, she unleashed those booming drives. She sought out Morna Nielsen for special treatment, taking her for two fours and a six. The fifty — her first in 50-over cricket since that World Cup hundred — came up in 70 balls when she steered Suzie Bates to the fence.

At 59, she attempted to sweep Leigh Kasperek, pulled a muscle, and hobbled off. She resumed her innings but added another two.

New Zealand went up 2-1, but India chased down 221 in the fourth ODI to square the series. Thirushkamini started in spectacular fashion, hitting 7 fours in her 31. And in the decider, her 62 not out helped India chase 119 and clinch the series.

Despite missing a match, Thirushkamini topped the runs chart for India Women, with 158 runs at 52.67. She also had the highest strike rate among top-order batters from either side. A whopping 85 percent of her runs had come in boundaries.

Five matches later she got her second ODI hundred, this time against Ireland. Only Mithali (5) has more, while Harmanpreet and Jaya have two each. Of Indians, only Jaya (138*) and Mithali (114*) have scored more than Thirushkamini’s 113*.

Do these records matter? “I don’t look at these as records. As an Indian cricketer my responsibility is to make India proud. As an international cricketer, that should be my priority.”

She replaced an injured Mithali in the final. It was not merely a default selection. She had played the warm-up match against South Africa, where Shabnim Ismail, Marizanne Kapp, and Dane van Niekerk had India Women reeling at 7 for 2. She retired hurt on 15 and came back at 136 for 9; she ended up top-scoring with an unbeaten 30.

In the final, however, she got a mere 10, stepping out and chasing a wide one, in pursuit of 245. Harmanpreet masterminded a nervy chase, though Thirushkamini did not suffer from any anxiety in the pavilion: “I never thought we won’t win the final. Nobody had thought about losing for even a second.”

Perhaps that attitude is what defines The Eves more than anything.

Bat for a session. Take a break. Focus. Concentrate. Repeat. The Thirushkamini mantra. Photo Courtesy: Thirushkamini Facebook Account
Bat for a session. Take a break. Focus. Concentrate. Repeat. The Thirushkamini mantra. Photo Courtesy: Thirushkamini’s Facebook Account

The Gen-X champion

“Media coverage is getting up. The television channels did an excellent job during the World T20s that happened simultaneously [for men and women, in 2016]. ICC telecast the World Cup qualifiers live. I think the World Cup in England is going to be big. That may be a massive transformation, taking women’s cricket to the next level.”

While that may be true, it remains a fact that media chose to ignore when West Indies Women (defending champion of the World T20) toured India in late 2016. Things have improved, certainly to Thirushkamini’s liking, but there is certainly some way to go.

Thankfully, Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, the gap between cricketers and fans have reduced significantly. Smart-phones have taken care of that, and Thirushkamini is one of the active ones: “Social media has helped me a lot. The response has been remarkable. The fans have been excellent. The way they appreciate you has been very encouraging.”

It has been a little over three years since Oxford Dictionary had announced ‘selfie’ as the word of the year, and The Eves have taken to social media as much as anyone in international sports fraternity: “All of us click a lot of selfies: Mithali-di, Harman, Veda, me…. all of us.”

What is it like, to be the bridge between two batches? The Indian Women side had looked significantly different when Thirushkamini had made her debut. Of that team, only Mithali and Jhulan survive.

“Yeah, but my age,” she pointed out with a smile.

Then I realised. She is a senior to Harmanpreet (the best mimic in the side), Ekta Bisht (the one who laughs all the time), and Vanitha VR (with whom she has played a solitary international match), her closest friends in the side; and yet, she is of the same age as the two of the three, and younger than the third.

She already boasts of a decade of international cricket behind her; and yet, she is a mere 26, looking forward to the age when batters begin to mature.

What lies in the future for Thirushkamini? “I am looking at the World Cup this moment. That is going to be big. I am not looking at anything beyond that. Every game is going to be a big challenge.”

Session by session, remember? Session by session.