Sacrifice is a word bandied about a lot in sports. It’s a word I know well. I missed my best friend’s wedding because I was on the road for a tournament. I watched my family leave for more than one summer vacation as I stayed back home to train. But the sacrifices I have made seem miniscule compared to those made by Indian all-rounder Shikha Pandey.
Pandey sacrificed a comfortable corporate job that was waiting for her after college, so she could take a year off and give cricket everything. She sacrificed a dream technical posting close to the front lines, and switched to an admin job, so that she could play cricket. It was sacrifices like these that took her on an incredible journey.
From student, to Air Force officer to India’s opening bowler.
Pandey is a rare breed in Indian sports, in three ways. First, she is not a child prodigy; she only started playing leather-ball cricket in the first year of graduation. Second, because she is an engineer. In a culture where education is primary and sport is an afterthought, Pandey has successfully juggled both. Third, because she is a Flight Lieutenant with the Indian Air Force, and the first player from the Services to represent India.
Born in Karimnagar, Telangana (then Andhra Pradesh), Pandey was raised in Goa, where her father, Subas Pandey, taught Hindi at Kendriya Vidyalaya. Cricket was something that struck her fancy as a child. “She owned a bat, ball and stumps, so was the first person invited by the local boys to play gully cricket”, her father remembers.
Befitting the daughter of an educator, she was no slouch in the classroom either. Always an avid student, engineering was a natural choice for her, as it was for her older sister. Between classes of Physics and Maths, her passion for cricket never wavered. As she cruised past exams in the 10th and 12th grades, she also graduated from plastic ball cricket in the gullies, to tennis-ball cricket. She only encountered the leather ball in her second year of college, and took to it like a parent meeting an estranged child, trying hard to make up for lost time.
Her quick inswingers and top-order batting quickly became invaluable to the Goa Cricket Association (GCA) teams, and in a couple of years, she climbed the ladder all the way up to India probables. By then she had received a job offer with a software company through college placements, but she decided to turn it down, take a year to focus on cricket, and push for a berth in the Indian team. The year we're talking about here is 2010.
Despite good domestic performances, that was not to be. She was ignored for a tour of England, where India went in with just three fast bowlers. “She was very dejected, and wanted to take a break for another year and try again. But I encouraged her to think about being financially independent as well.” So Pandey took the decision to apply to join the Air force, something she wanted to do since taking up engineering.
Pandey cracked the notoriously difficult Air Force entrance exams in 2011, and was inducted as a cadet in training to become an Air Traffic Control Officer (ATCO) for fighter planes. But her selection meant that her cricketing ambitions were in abeyance for a year, as she submitted herself to the Air Force’s rigorous officer training. Far from having access to a cricket ground, she did not even have access to a mobile phone for 12 months, and communicated with her loved ones the old fashioned way: by post. But after successfully graduating from the course, Flying Officer Shikha Pandey renewed her dreams to play for India.
With the support of sympathetic officers at her station and the Air Force Sports Control Board, Pandey managed to take enough time off to train for play the domestic season every year since 2012, despite not being employed through the sports quota. This meant some tension in the workplace, as being an ATCO is not a job profile to be trifled with. Managing to navigate it all, Pandey persisted with her dream of representing the country. Strong domestic performances finally earned her a call up to the Indian T20 team, where she made her debut just before the 2014 WT20.
Another setback awaited her though. Pandey was inexplicably dropped for a tour of England later that year, despite a brilliant haul of six wickets in one of the selection matches leading up to the tour. It was a major disappointment for her, where she questioned the worth of all the sacrifices she had made, against a system that make a mockery of performance.
“She was very dejected”, said Subas. “Around that time I told her, ‘Samay se pehle aur nasib me nahi hai to nahi milega’(nothing comes unless it’s in your destiny and it’s the appropriate time).”
Her father’s words proved prescient, as in July 2014, with the team already in England, Pandey received a call that she would join the Indian team, as cover for one of the players who had taken ill. After a scramble to secure leave and a visa, she reached Wormsley just four days before India’s Test at that venue, and was greeted by a green wicket. India, who had originally gone in with just three fast bowlers on the tour, played four.
The reward was worth the turmoil though, as Pandey was at the crease when the winning runs in a tense but historic chase of 183 were hit. Her contributions: a composed 28 not out in the company of Mithali Raj.
Now, Pandey has established herself as Jhulan Goswami’s opening partner with the ball, and has been vital to India’s recent record-equaling run in ODIs. In the 16 consecutive ODIs that India won, Pandey’s 26 wickets were the highest by any bowler. She also has two ODI fifties to her name, and her big hitting ability provides depth to the Indian batting.
She goes into the World Cup underused as a batter though; in the 11 ODIs India played in 2017, Pandey has batted in only four of them. Still, if I had to pick one player to watch out for from the Indian team this World Cup, it would be Pandey.
Pandey is the first player from Goa, male or female, to play for India, and has been felicitated twice by the Chief of the Indian Air Force. But for Shikha, the biggest appreciation will probably lie in something her father told me. With Shikha’s older sister Vibha working in a leading technology company, Subas knows what to say if ever anyone asks him about not having a son.
“Hamari do betiyaan kissi se kam hai kya?” (Are my daughters inferior to anyone?).