Dayalan Hemalatha is soft-spoken, polite and very shy. She is not your typical example of Generation Z. Often found hiding in the background, she is easy to miss in a group. On the field, however, with bat in hand, she demands attention and has a definite presence. The right-hand batswoman from Tamil Nadu is calm, composed, confident and plays an exquisite cover drive - arguably the best on the domestic circuit. These qualities were the hallmark of her first innings in international cricket.
September 18, 2018: Hemalatha walked out to bat in the second ODI against Sri Lanka in Galle with the score at 142 for 5 in 38.5 overs. India needed to accelerate. It would have been easy for her to panic, try to go hard too early and throw away her wicket in the process. Instead, she milked the spinners, picked the gaps with ease and kept the scoreboard ticking. When she settled down, she unleashed a wide range of powerful strokes. Not once did she show any sign of nerves. Even after a string of three dot balls in the 48th over, she took a deep breath, settled into her stance again, and smashed Chamari Atapattu, the Sri Lankan skipper, over her head for a six. As the Indian dugout rose in unison to applaud the stroke, Hemalatha simply nodded at her batting partner and tightened her gloves. 'All in a day's work,' her expression seemed to say. Her 31-ball 35 suggested that she belonged at the international level.
Two years ago, as Mithali Raj's team stumbled through the 2016 ICC Women's World Twenty20 at home, Hemalatha was watching intently on television. "I remember sitting with my family watching the last World Cup on TV," she says. "While we were viewing one of India's matches, my mother turned to me and said, 'You should play in the next World Cup'. I was only playing (for) Tamil Nadu and Senior South Zone at that time. But told her that I would work hard and try to achieve it."
Fast forward to 2018, and the 24-year old is all set to fulfil her mother's desire.
Hemalatha's route to the Indian team was a tad unconventional. For one, she took up the game rather late, and ironically, it was her mother who tried to dissuade her from pursuing that path.
"I used to play street cricket in my neighbourhood when I was younger, but it was only after I joined college (M.O.P. Vaishnav) that I found out about women's cricket," says the all-rounder. "I was 18 when I started to receive formal training, and my mother wasn't very keen on my choice. She wanted me to concentrate on studies, so that I could secure a job, but my father convinced her to let me play."
Hemalatha has rapidly risen through the ranks — from making her debut for Tamil Nadu in 2011, to breaking into the senior South Zone team in 2013-14, playing her first Challenger Trophy in 2016, representing India A in 2017, to finally becoming India's 125th ODI player this September. All through the climb she has learned important lessons, ones that have taught her to manage her emotions, and understand game situations better. These lessons have helped mould her into the calm player she is today.
"When I made my debut (for Tamil Nadu), it was under Thirush akka's (MD Thirushkamini) captaincy. I learned everything I know from her how to prepare for a match, how to approach different situations while batting and how to read the game," explains Hemalatha. "Now, whether I am attending (national) training camps, playing matches, or even sitting out (as a reserve), I continue to learn as much as I can from all the players. In Sri Lanka, I got to watch Mithu (Mithali) di, Jhulan (Goswami) di and Harry (Harmanpreet Kaur) di from close quarters, their pre-match preparation, reading of the game and how they adapt to different conditions. I want to keep learning and developing my game."
Lessons from senior players aside, it was the all-rounder's stint for India A — when she played against Australia, Bangladesh and England — that taught her the most.
"Initially I was quite nervous to play against other countries," Hemalatha says. "Even though I have played a fair bit of domestic cricket, playing an international match comes with different pressures. I was nervous the first time I played (for India A) against Australia…I might even say there was a sense of fear. I was worried about how I would do, but I think I eventually learned to control my emotions and stay calm…. Now, once I get to the ground I tell myself, 'Watch the ball and play according to the ball'. I have never been one to think too much about things. I just consider the situation and try and figure out what is required. Once I understand that, I give my all."
Hemalatha scored 37 in a one-day match against Australia, and followed it up with a 32-ball 41 against England in a T20 encounter earlier this year. Slowly but surely, the fear she had experienced earlier was turning to confidence, something that will hold her in good stead heading into her first World Cup.
Still young in her international career — having played only 3 ODIs, and yet to make her T20I debut — Hemalatha will face her first major challenge in the Windies. Normally someone who opens the batting for her state, she has shown the ability to adapt to any situation she is thrown into, giving the Indian team the flexibility they require. She judges length quickly, is comfortable against both pace and spin, can play all the shots in the book, and has the power to clear the ropes. With the ball, she is an effective off-spinner, her high-arm release and strong fingers allows her to generate sharp turn and bounce on most surfaces.
Whether she is in the playing XI or running drinks, this thinking all-rounder will continue to learn. Harmanpreet and Co will be hoping that when she does get a chance, Hemalatha will be able to put those lessons to use.
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