Late in 2015, Neha Tanwar (pronounced Tuvv-ur) made a triumphant comeback into the Delhi women’s senior cricket team for the 2015-16 season.
I use the word ‘triumphant’ subjectively here. A year earlier in October 2104, Tanwar had given birth to a baby boy they named Shlok. But cricket, which she played for India in a brief international career, had driven her back to the field. She had shoved past the stereotyping in Indian society, where a mother’s job is to take care of her child after birth. She had soldiered through a battle with own weight: she had put on more than 20 kilos of weight during her pregnancy, and through good old-fashioned hardwork, shed 18 of them by the time she appeared for state team trials, in a journey that is documented here.
But that was where the fairytale ended. Her form with the bat that year would not even have gotten a mention in the footnotes of a season review; 17 runs from four innings in the one-day format, and three runs in as many innings in the T20s. She had triumphed against bigger demons; society and her own body, but could not master the bowlers she was competing against.
In 2016-17, Neha Tanwar had a triumphant season for the Delhi women’s senior cricket team.
I say ‘triumphant’ objectively here. She scored 201 runs in five innings at an average of 67, and finished in the top five run-getters in the one-day competition, despite playing fewer games than three of the top five. In the T20s, she averaged 24, at a strike rate of more than 86 from six innings.
All this, after barely making it into the state team, and not being considered good enough for the starting XI in the first two games.
Tanwar’s preparation for the 2016-17 season was hampered by a new Railway sports policy; it curtailed the ‘time-off’ granted to sportsmen who don’t figure in the top three of the Inter-Railway Championship. It meant she had to attend the office of her employer, Northern Railway, for the entire day, instead of half the day. She had a one-and-a-half year-old at home, plus the responsibilities of helping to run the house; this meant Tanwar’s training had come almost to a standstill.
“Lagi padi thi (I was under a lot of stress). I would hurriedly eat my lunch at 12 pm, then a teammate and I would travel the four or five kilometres to Karnail Singh Stadium and hit the gym for an hour,” she told Firstpost in an interview. The gym was not supposed to be used in the afternoons, but she convinced the caretaker to open it for them, so they could get some bare minimum training in.
But then some employees were caught misusing the air conditioning in the gym to beat the Delhi heat, and it was shut down entirely. “They didn’t open it for anyone,” she said. “We met some senior officers and requested them, but they didn’t agree.”
Tanwar tried to make some time at home for some basic core and stretching exercises, but she also wanted to give time to her son and was expected to do her share of the housework. “I used to get up at 5 am, make breakfast and lunch for my family, get my son ready for school, then get ready myself and go to office,” she said. Her office environment provided as much support to sports as a bop bag, and she would often told off for being late, or be docked half a casual leave for it.
“I was worried, wondering how to manage everything. I tried so much, but there was no path ahead,” she said. Then, as the trials for the state team drew closer, Tanwar developed a particularly virulent flu, that left her with post-viral arthralgia. “The trials were for three days, but I didn’t go for the first day. There was so much body pain, I didn’t know what I would be able to do.” She dragged herself to the ground the next two days though, and took painkillers to play two matches, with every joint in her body burning up despite the November cold. She scored “some 20, 30 runs” in one of the games, but having had such a lean season before that, was genuinely concerned that she would not be picked.
Eventually, Tanwar found herself on the plane for the first round of matches. But once there, she was left out of the starting XI for the first two games. “Until now I had never sat out of the Delhi side,” she recounted. “It felt so bad, I cried.”
She was included in the side after Delhi lost their second game, and she seized the opportunity. “Batting is all about confidence. Skills don’t go anywhere. We just need to develop confidence and fitness,” she said. But she had neither fitness nor confidence; she was still suffering from joint pain, and had not had enough time in the nets. Yet she had scores of 6*, 74, 60*, 18, and 43, batting at No 3.
“I was angry that I had been dropped, and that anger made me want to score, to show that I am not a player who sits out.”
That anger reappeared though, as she was snubbed for the Challenger Trophy, despite being among the top five run-getters in the country. More tears came, and she thought bitterly about those two matches she had been benched for. Realising there was nothing to be done, she was determined to carry her form into the rest of the season.
A continuous theme in Tanwar’s second innings was the task of balancing her work, family, cricket, and her child. This continued into her preparations for the 2016-17 season.
While her work situation was relaxed by the restoration of time-off, her family felt they weren’t getting enough of her time. Her mother-in-law, who had been extremely supportive, caring for her grandson while Tanwar was at work or training, was apprehensive because there was another baby on the way: Tanwar’s brother-in-law and his wife were expecting a child. “I cut down a bit of practice time. Instead of training four hours, I did two hours. I rotated gym, fitness, and practice a day each.”
Eventually she had a conversation with her husband Rituraj about her situation. She discussed the many things she wanted to achieve, but was overwhelmed. “He said, you do what you can, leave the house problems to me, I’ll take care of that.” Rituraj took on much of Tanwar’s domestic responsibilities, including caring for their son, buying groceries, and the like. “Phir meri himmat badh gayi (I was encouraged again).” Tanwar took a month-and-a-half’s leave from work, and hired a fitness trainer and used the hours she would have been in office to train. “I did strength training that I thought I’d never be able to do. Now I’m feeling stronger, my muscles recover better.”
Tanwar’s intervention in her own game was timely. On 21 November, she was named in the India ‘A’ team for the one-day series against Bangladesh ‘A’ next month, capping a journey that has brought her farther than she hoped, while opening the door to greater things. “My family was happier than I was,” she said of the call-up. “I have worked hard, but my husband and family have also compromised so much. It felt good that I was getting the response of the runs of last season. At one point I thought all that was wasted. But hard work is never wasted, it is used somewhere or the other.”
The tag supermom is one that few female athletes earn, but it is a dangerous one. It proscribes to the subject a sacrosanct strength, an unrealistic never-say-die attitude, and leaves little room for human weakness. But Tanwar is decidedly human.
“Main nahi kehti hoon ki main bohot mahaan hoon (I don’t claim to be great). I was completely frustrated with life. I used to think, ‘that’s it, I’m not going to go (to training) from tomorrow. As it is last year I didn’t make any runs. What’s the use?’ I felt I’ll never be able to do it, I mentally accepted that I won’t be able to do it,” she said. “I lost, not once but ten times, I lost in life.”
Every time though, when she spied a bat, looked at her kit, watched a match on TV, or saw kids playing cricket, she would feel like playing again. “From inside I would hear a voice, ‘Neha, you have come till here, tereko khelna hai (you have to play). I used to try to stop myself, but then that voice would come, saying you’ve come this far, there is something in you. Start doing a little bit. Try doing a bit.”
That voice has woken her up on cold mornings, kept her running in hot evenings, and helped her defy the convention of what an Indian woman does after marriage and childbirth. Along with the ultimate juggling act, she has now earned the right to wear the BCCI logo on her chest again, and she hopes to earn the India tag without the ‘A’ beside it. “Abhi kuch nahi hua hai (nothing big has happened yet), (playing for) India is still far away,” she said.
Tanwar may or may not play for India again. But the norms of what the next generation can and cannot do are changing because of her and the likes of her.