The cities of Mumbai and Delhi may have been the traditional breeding grounds for cricketing talent in India, but that trend is changing. And the shift is more visible in India's women's team than it is in the men's team.
As many as six players in the women’s team come from places that lie somewhere between town and small city. The team’s oldest player, Jhulan Goswami has made Chakdaha in West Bengal famous, and the newest member, reserve wicketkeeper Nuzhat Parween comes from Singrauli in Madhya Pradesh. Similarly, left-arm spinner Rajeshwari Gayakwad has introduced the world to Bijapur, a small city on the border of Maharashtra and Karnataka.
A 16-year-old Rajeshwari and her younger sister Rameshwari were among the first to make their way to Bijapur’s Ambedkar ground when they heard that a cricket camp was being organised there in 2007. The sisters and their three other siblings had previously dabbled in most sports, courtesy of their sports-loving father, Shivanand Gayakwad. Rajeshwari, in particular, excelled in javelin throw, before ever throwing a cricket ball. Her athletic background, and the fact that she is left-handed, helped her stand out among the nearly 280 girls who showed up for trials.
With only a couple of months of practice under her belt, Gayakwad found herself representing Karnataka at both U-19 and senior levels. She played her first year as a medium pace bowler, but changed to spin at the suggestion of her coaches soon after and still held her place in the state team. When her sister broke into the Karnataka side as well, in 2009, the pair moved to Bengaluru to be closer to the action.
“We stayed close to the KSCA (Karnataka State Cricket Association), so we could get better practice,” said Rameshwari. She said that of the 270-odd girls who turned up in 2007, only a handful still trained regularly, with most having given up the game because of the high investment cricket demands, or the pressure from their families to study, get married, or both. “But we wanted to play for the country, and we had support from our families, so we didn’t quit”, she added.
Rajeshwari’s desire was fulfilled in January 2014, as she made her ODI and T20 debuts against the visiting Sri Lankan team. A classical left-arm spinner, she uses the twin combinations of flight-and-dip and turn-and-bounce effectively, and is the perfect choice when her team needs to take pace off the ball and slow the game down. Now 26, Gayakwad has played all three formats for India, and has 27 ODI appearances to her name. She is also a mini celebrity in her home town. After her first international series, there was a day-long felicitation rally ride through the city, celebrating what her sister said was the first international sportsperson from Bijapur.
Gayakwad was a part of the team that secured two famous Test wins, one away in England, and one at home against South Africa. While she did not figure in the eleven against England, she played a leading role in the latter game, scalping four first innings wickets on an unyielding pitch. That game, her only Test so far, ended with India winning by an innings and 34 runs.
She has been a consistent performer in ODIs too, having taken at least one wicket in her last nine consecutive games. Her 40 wickets in 27 games have come at just 3.2 runs an over, and only thrice in her career has she gone at over five runs an over in ODIs. Although she doesn’t have a five-wicket haul to her name yet, she does have four four-fors.
Now on the cusp of her first World Cup, she has come a long way from the 16-year-old whose father would drop her to training every day. Along with the responsibilities within the Indian team, she has also taken up bigger responsibilities off the field.
“The year after tai (elder sister) played for India, our father passed away,” Rameshwari told Firstpost. Their mother is a housewife, and it fell to Rajeshwari and her older brother to play the role of breadwinners for the family. Fortunately, she found work that allowed her to continue pursuing cricket. She joined Western Railway on the sports quota, and is now based in Mumbai.
With skipper Mithali Raj having backed India’s decision to go to England with four frontline spinners and just three fast bowlers, Rajeshwari and Co will be under some pressure. But it is also an opportunity; at the end of this World Cup, a lot more people might know where Bijapur is.