When I attended my first ever cricket training camp in Pune, the coach asked me to hide my ponytail under my hat, so that people wouldn't see that a girl was practising among the boys. Clearly letting a girl train with boys was something to be ashamed of, and didn't want me to stand out (that worked well). If this was what attitudes were like in an education hub like Pune, just think how they must have been in Shahdol.
Haven't heard of Shahdol? Not surprising. It sits close to the fault line that split Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, surrounded by coal mines. It has a railway station with just three platforms, one mall, and just five major roads. Here, in 2010, a young girl decided to cut her hair short, so that she didn't stand out while playing cricket with the boys.
That didn't help. Pooja Vastrakar was born to stand out. Though 18 months ago, she could barely stand. Now she's opening the bowling for India.
Vastrakar (pronounced vus-tr-kaar) has been one of the bright spots for India in an examining home season. The light started shining with India in their darkest space, 113 for 7 in the first ODI against Australia at Vadodara. Batting at No.9 in just her second ever innings, Vastrakar hit a chancy 51. The two lives she got did not diminish the skill and audacity of her shots, and I say shots, not slogs. Two inside-out lofted drives, one off Megan Schutt who went for just 3.7 runs per over in that game, were all proper cricketing shots, not tail-ender slogs.
Vastrakar scored carelessly, which is not to say that she was reckless, but rather that the desperation of the situation did not touch her. She followed that up with 30 off 44 in the next game, which was a statement to her team as much as the opposition: "I deserve to be batting higher than No.9," she seemed to be saying.
But her bowling was absent in the series; she showed little of the swing and control from her debut series in South Africa. It was almost as if she was more of a batter than a bowler.
And she was. "I always wanted to bat first," Vastrakar said in Vadodara. It's what she had done, growing up playing cricket with the boys in the BSNL colony in Shahdol, where she was raised. "At that time I was too small, so I was just fielding for them."
Soon she started getting more opportunities, and made the most of them. "Ek do overs hi milte hain, aur main woh ek do overs mein hi kuch na kuch kamaal kar deti thi (I would get only a couple of overs, but in those I would do something special)," she said.
Vastrakar graduated to playing with the boys at the Gandhi Stadium, close to the Gulmohar Cricket Academy where Ashutosh Shrivastava was coach. "Choti thi, phir bhi bade bade hit mar rahi thi (She was small, but she was still hitting the ball very far)." He remembers calling her over.
Would you like to play?
You will have to play with the boys.
Sir, khelungi (I will play).
Ok, kal se aa jao (You start tomorrow).
Nahi sir, aaj se hi chalu karte hai (No sir, let's start from today)
Vastrakar was barely 10 years old at the time. Soon she appeared for trials for her state women's team. "They asked the batters to stand on one side and bowlers on the other. I stood on batters' side," says Vastrakaar.
Except she couldn't bat. Just days earlier, she had jammed a finger in a door. So she had a go with the ball instead, and was cast a bowler. And that was how she first played for India.
Timing is everything in cricket. Vastrakar made her debut at age 18, on India's tour of South Africa. She had grown up watching Jhulan Goswami, and occasionally rubbed shoulders with her on the domestic circuit. "Inko hi leke chalna hai, inke jaise banna hai (I want to follow her, and be just like her)," she said of India's stalwart.
Vastrakar was on her first international tour when Goswami got her 200th ODI wicket. The next game onwards though, Goswami was out with a heel injury, and Vastrakar replaced her. She impressed with her out-swingers, going at just six runs an over in five T20Is, despite bowling mostly in the Powerplay. She also picked up four wickets.
Despite the promising start, however, Vastrakar is far from the finished product with the ball, and is learning things the hard way. After six ODIs, she is still searching for her first wicket in the format. In most of the T20Is she has played, she has been used as a new ball bowler, and was either snubbed or drubbed at the death. She has swing, a yorker and a bouncer, but is still developing the skill of building an over. "She has worked very hard on her fitness," says Shrivastava. "But her death bowling needs to improve. She will improve match to match."
Yeh ladka hai ya ladki? Is that a boy or a girl? The question can be asked in different tones. It can be harmlessly curious, as it was from Vastrakar's coach the first time he saw her. It can be tactlessly inappropriate, like comments that I've heard in male-dominated press boxes while watching women's cricket. But most times, it is derisively compartmental, usually coming from those who are yet to shed set notions of femininity, and accept gender as a spectrum.
It's also the question that comes to mind if you watch Vastrakar train from afar: The close cropped hair, lithe frame, and quick arm speed while sending down out-swingers. Close up, her dark skin hides the softer contours in her face, and her low voice can throw you off. But in this case, that question can be taken as a compliment. Vastrakar moves fast, bowls fast, and hits the ball hard. She is visibly one of the fitter, stronger players in the team. And she's just 18; her strength will only increase from here.
Most importantly, however, she wears no signs of the knee injury she suffered only a year and a half ago. "While fielding, my knee twisted, and I had to have surgery for my ACL," Vastrakar recalls. The timing was cruel. The anterior-cruciate ligament tear came in October 2016, and the West Indies toured India in November. Vastrakar was tipped to make the cut in that series.
A knee injury can be career threatening for a fast bowler. Even her coach had his doubts as to whether she would make it back. "I thought she might not be able to bowl as well," Shrivastava said. "But when I would talk to her, she would always be positive."
Being positive was Vastrakar's default setting during that time. "Disappointment was there, but I didn't think too much about it," she says. "Negative me leke apan apna present kyu kharab kare, positive way me leke age badhe (why worry about the negatives and ruin the present; best that we take it positively and move on)."
Watching motivational videos of 'Olympic athletes and Sandeep Maheshwari' helped, but maybe it has more to do with who she is. Being the youngest of seven siblings helped shelter her from the untimely death of her mother in 2010. It happened shortly after she started attending nets with Shrivastava, but she never let on; he only found out years later, from a reporter who interviewed her.
Vastrakar's elder sister Usha was a promising sprinter herself, but gave up the sport to support the family's finances; a role model from whom she could learn sacrifice and determination. The turning point in her comeback came in the 2018 Challenger Trophy just ahead of the tour to South Africa. On pitches that were a fast bowler's graveyard, Vastrakar remained wicket-less, but it was a moment of athleticism that helped her cause. In the final, a flat, hard throw from the deep square leg boundary found a well-set Punam Raut short of her crease. The dismissal precipitated a batting collapse, helped her team win the title, and put Vastrakar on the plane.
Rahul Dravid, when asked about how some players are fast tracked from the India Under-19s straight to the senior team, made an observation, saying, "If you're a batsman or a spinner, it's tough. But you can count on the fingers of one hand how many fast bowling all-rounders there are in India. Sometime it can happen with certain roles, that people do get fast tracked."
It is still early days, but Vastrakar has shown the talent to be that player for India. The team seems to believe it too, judging by the nicknames she's earned: Bubloo and Chota Hardik, referring to Hardik Pandya. But India need to be careful with how they use her. In Shikha Pandey, they already have a road map of 'how not to manage an all-round talent'.
Vastrakar needs to be given every possible opportunity, like batting up the order (She could even open in T20Is), and be given a rope much longer than her hair used to be.
"Shahdol is a tribal area," says Shrivastava of his hometown. "Some guardians don't allow girls to play with boys. The girls that do play here play volleyball, basketball and athletics. But in cricket, we never saw something like this," he says, referring to his most famous ward, who now has a Grade 'C' BCCI contract.
Athletes leave legacies towards the end of their careers, but Vastrakar's is already starting to take shape. When she started playing at the age of 10, she was the only girl training among the boys. Now, Shrivastava says there are more than 30 girls in his nets. Shahdol used to play its cricket under Rewa division, now it has its own divisional team, and is a Madhya Pradesh Cricket Association sub-centre. This little town, known for its coal, has yielded something shinier, and with the promise of more to come.
Vastrakar may still have not taken her first ODI wicket, but she's very much on the board.