There are two players in the Indian team who will be able to relate to each other more than anyone else. Not because they are both opening batters. Not even because they both speak the same mother tongue. But because -over the last two years- their careers have followed an uncannily similar path. They are Punam Raut and Mona Meshram.
Meshram hails from Nagpur, from a family with a pedigree in sports, although not cricket. Volleyball was the sport of choice for the Meshram’s, but their daughter chose a more earthbound game. She impressed at an early age, winning the BCCI’s best junior cricketer award in 2011. Strong performances in the Challenger trophy earned her an India call up the next year. She made her debut on foreign soil, against Ireland in England.
Raut, born in the bustle of Mumbai and raised on its maidans, is an old hand on the domestic circuit. Since she was a teenager, her natural ability with the bat caught the eye, and she was blooded as a 20 year old in 2009, picked in a World Cup where she played just one game.
While Raut -now 27- had a steady start to her international career, Meshram did not. She was dropped after six innings produced a top score of only 22, the start of a long spell out of the Indian team.
Raut’s stay in the Indian team was more protracted. She had some promising performances, always coming up with the odd good innings, but never really made the opening slot her own. She was dropped for one tour in 2012, only to be recalled for the next one. Her career shows more than one period where a substantial score is followed by a string of single digits, or starts that promised much but delivered little. She averaged 24, but her strike rate played more of a role in her axing from the Indian team in 2016; it barely crossed 50.
Meanwhile, for Meshram, things had gone from bad to worse after she was dropped in 2013. She was selected in the Indian Railways team, where the competition for spaces is fiercer than in a Mumbai local at peak hour. As a result, she played only a handful of games in the next two seasons, which sent her confidence plummeting.
Dilip T, a coach who spotted Meshram’s talent in a national camp, has mentored her since 2013. “The day came when she started to lose self belief in her game”, he said. “She had serious doubts as to whether she belongs or not.”
For both players, time out of the national squad was a period of introspection as much as exertion. To revive their international careers, they would have to do things differently.
With Raut, the battle was technical as well as tactical. She would have to score at a faster rate to reclaim her place in the limited overs side. That meant changes in technique, under her childhood coach, Sanjay Gaitonde.
“We worked on her basics, her grip, her stance, everything”, he told Firstpost. “Now her basics are so strong that she can play in any conditions. Plus she has her experience.”
Gaitonde and Raut back-calculated the time they had before the season began, and planned the changes accordingly. “We calculated when to change her grip, how much time she will take to adjust to it, and how many net sessions and practice matches she needs before the important games”, he said.
For Meshram, the battle was more mental. “I saw that she had skill level to match the top players”, said Dilip. So they worked on rebuilding her confidence through preparation. “She would hit 200 to 300 balls every session, batting even in the heat of Nagpur at 1 pm”, he said. He also encouraged her to make some lifestyle changes, which involved a better diet, more sleep, and less time spent with her phone.
Meshram’s hard work bore fruit in the 2015-16 season, where in the Inter Zonal first class tournament, she had scores of 96, 0, 193 and 201. Those runs finally earned her a national recall against the visiting West Indies side in 2016, three years after her last game for India. She got just the one game though, and scored only 2. So her place in the team was far from secure; her recall came in crisis of disintegrating just as it was taking shape.
So she did what any player must: score more runs. In the domestic season that followed, she averaged 56 in the one-dayers and 66 in T20s, scoring five half centuries in 11 games across both tournaments. She would have been disheartened to be left out for the ICC World Cup qualifiers in January 2017, where only 14 members were picked in the squad.
Meanwhile, Raut had not been idle. While Meshram was making her case for a recall, Raut was giving her strong competition. She notched up a century in the 2016-17 season’s one-dayers, and averaged over 68 in the T20s. More importantly, her T2o runs came at a strike rate of 121.
But Raut too missed out on selection to a well settled Indian team though, amplifying the symmetry in her and Meshram’s fortunes. She pressed her case further though; in the first class inter-zonals, she amassed 346 runs in four games with two hundreds, averaging 86.50 at the end of it.
This is where their luck changed. An injury to Smriti Mandhana meant Meshram was called up as her replacement for the ICC Qualifiers. This time, she made full use of the opportunity, with three half centuries. Two of those came against South Africa, by far the strongest bowling side in the tournament.
Fortune smiled on Raut too, as she was recalled to the team to replace Thirushkamini for the Quadrangular tournament in South Africa; besides the mountain of runs she had accumulated, Raut’s superior fitness and fielding skills probably tipped the scales in her favour. She celebrated by scoring an unbeaten 46 on return to Indian blues, followed by her maiden ODI hundred two games later. The century was one half of a record partnership of 320 runs with fellow opener Deepti Sharma. And she scored it the same day the Indian team for the World Cup was announced.
In the wilderness a year ago, both Raut and Meshram find themselves in England, on the biggest of stage. Any doubts or fears will faze them less now, not just because they have overcome being dropped, but because they have someone to talk to, someone who understands exactly what the other is going through.
Snehal Pradhan is a former India cricketer and now a freelance journalist. She hosts the tutorial series, ‘Cricket How To’ on Youtube, and tweets @SnehalPradhan