'Power' has been the buzzword of the 2017 edition of the ICC Women’s World Cup. The league stage of this tournament alone has seen more sixes hit (97) than there were in women’s ODIs in the entire year (79). A number of hits have not just cleared the shortened boundaries, but the fences as well, landing among the stands and fans.
Six different Indian players have hit a total of 12 sixes in this tournament so far, almost equaling the number of sixes they hit in all previous World Cups (14). But they are still some way off from the leaders in the department, South Africa, who have 18 sixes this tournament from the bats of just two players.
Dinner table discussions about why Indian players seem to lack power invariably wind their way back to the dinner table. ‘You need to eat meat to be stronger’, is a common belief. For proof, they point to the Pullela Gopichand Academy, breeding ground of champions, which reportedly encourages all wards to eat chicken, regardless of previous food habits. And suggestions that Pakistan produces more fast bowlers because they eat beef will be found at every congregation of couch-potato experts.
But in the Indian team, a few power-packed players are proving you can go green and still go big.
Smriti Mandhana took England and Twitter by storm when she smashed a 72-ball 90 in India’s opening game. She directed the ball towards the boundary rope on 11 occasions in that knock, while clearing the fence on two The second six was an insouciant lofted back foot drive that welcomed Anya Shrubsole back into the attack. Mandhana followed that knock up with a century against the West Indies, also featuring two hits over the rope. And she did all this without ever having eaten a shred of meat.
“As a kid I never saw anyone eating non-veg at home, so I never thought of having”, said Mandhana, who belongs to the traditionally vegetarian Marwadi community. Like most Indian veggies, Mandhana is now a lacto-ovo-vegetarian(eats dairy and eggs, but no meat), as opposed to a ‘pure’ vegetarian. She started eating eggs on the advice of her coaches and teammates, but that is as far as she will go. “Since I have never eaten or seen anyone eating meat, I don’t like the smell of it also.” At 20, she has a World Cup hundred and a WBBL contract, so she seems to be doing fine without it.
Another eggetarian in the squad is Deepti Sharma. Deepti is one of the fittest and most athletic members of this Indian team, as attested to by her diving effort to remove the dangerous Sophie Devine against New Zealand on Saturday. She also has arguably the best throwing arm in the side; she already has two run-outs through direct-hits to her name, to go with her 177 runs and nine wickets in the tournament. “I always ate egg, but not meat”, she told Firstpost. “I never felt that I need to eat non-veg to get power in the body.”
Trying to find elite vegetarian athletes is much like trying to find good vegetarian food options in the West; they are out there if you know where to look. Timothy Shieff turned vegan in 2012, and in the 2014 edition of American Ninja Warrior, led Team Europe to victory against the USA and Japan. Legendary Sprinter Carl Lewis turned vegan halfway through his career, and set a 100m world record at the age of 30 a year after that. Within cricket, barrel-chested Australian fast bowler Peter Siddle has championed the vegan lifestyle for some time now.
Closer home, India’s bowling triumvirate of the 1990s, Anil Kumble, Javagal Srinath, and Venkatesh Prasad, are all vegetarians. So is Jaydev Unadkat, the top bowler in the 2017 edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL), and Ishant Sharma, whose credentials in the aforementioned league we would rather not discuss here. In the female circuit, one of the world’s fastest bowlers, South Africa’s Marizanne Kapp, is a vegetarian. Kapp is known for being one of the fittest athletes in the world, generating an incredible amount of pace off a very short run up, and has perhaps the best throwing arm in the business.
The Indian team has a clique of players who shun meat, but most do it for religious or cultural reasons. Eating meat is anathema to fast bowler Shikha Pandey too, but for different reasons. “I cannot think about killing an animal for food”, she said matter-of-factly. Pandey’s parents too follow a similar food habit, but she said it would not have been an issue if she had taken up meat-eating at an early age. But she had rock solid reasons to stay veggie by then, and it hasn’t prevented her from bowling close to 110 kmph, which is the speed at which Jhulan Goswami and Katherine Brunt bowl.
It’s not just vegetarianism though, but a strict watch on their diets that give the players the right nutrition. Since coming back from a knee injury, Mandhana has almost completely cut out sugar and given up tea. Pandey recently went a step further, choosing a gluten-free diet in addition to a meat-free one. “I had this bloated feeling while playing , and I actually didn’t know why it was happening. The team physio suggested I go off gluten.” It meant a big change; Pandey lives in Goa but comes from North-Indian stock, where a meal in generally incomplete without rotis. But she is feeling the effects on the field; she no longer has that bloated sensation, and has lost more than four kilos of excess weight. “If it can help me feel like a fitter and better me, it’s worth it.”
Pandey and Mandhana attributed the power in their game to a combination of better conditioning, gym sessions, and a balanced nutrition plan. Meat, they say, is not a necessity for success in international cricket. Hard work, on the other hand, is.