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Cricket news - Teen-spirited Rodrigues's relentless pursuit for the better
"No mother thinks her child can pull it off!"
Jemimah Rodrigues has heard all about life of a franchise-cricket player from her best friend, and a three-year veteran on the circuit, Smriti Mandhana. How beneficial the leagues could potentially be for her game, and how vital the time off the field would be in developing life skills, what with players having to do most of their daily chores amongst themselves.
"Nah, I can't cook. I can only make chai (tea)," she says, and adds, "Yeah, I'll probably be doing the dishes. A lot."
The expectations have been set at bare minimum. Off the field, and on it too. This is Rodrigues first stint in a foreign T20 league. The 18-year-old batting prodigy became the third Indian to sign a Women's Cricket Super League contract when Yorkshire Diamonds rejigged their foreign players' bench ahead of what would be the last season of the competition.
Incidentally, this is Rodrigues's first trip to the UK. But beyond the cliched notes on the typical English conditions and movement, Mandhana hasn't pre-programmed herself a lot. "That what she says - you go there and experience for yourself rather than me telling you how it is like there," Rodrigues recalls her conversation with the Indian opener once she signed the dotted line.
"I am trying not to keep too many expectations, honestly. Because I realised the more expectations I have, the more pressure I put myself under. So, I just want to keep things simple this time. I learnt this in Women's IPL that keeping things simple worked out really well for me. So that's what I will do. And more than anything else, just enjoy the cricket, enjoy the opportunity I have got. Yes, obviously I want to do well and there will be certain expectations - there can never be no expectations - but I am trying to keep it as realistic as possible. And just go out there and keep doing what I have been doing, because that's what has brought me here. So, I don't want to change anything over there."
It's a lesson she's learnt the hard way. Rodrigues life had taken a complete U-turn, for the better, during India's tour of Sri Lanka in September 2018. Barely a couple of months before that, though, she spent the entire Women's Asia Cup warming the bench. The never officially validated theory suggested that her poor batting form in the nets prompted the move despite it being a stage where there's obvious and ample opportunity to test the youth and bench strength. Returning to action at the Senior Women's T20 Challenger - which was to serve as an audition round for the Sri Lanka and consequently the T20 WC - her report card read 10, 0,0 and 1 in four innings. Definitely didn't do much to help her confidence.
Rodrigues makes no attempt to hide that it probably was the toughest phase she's had to experience yet with self-doubts starting to creep in as early as half a year into her international career. "I was thinking 'Am I even good enough to be at this level yet?'. I didn't want to do it intentionally, but those thoughts would clog my mind. I was in a low state at that time. Maybe because I've never sat out so much [at domestic level] before, and I was going through a bad phase.
"When I came back home [from Asia Cup], mumma could make out. This kind of a person sitting quietly in one corner. I wasn't talking much, even to my cousins - the people who I normally talk to a lot. I just couldn't. And when mumma asked what happened, I just started crying. 'I don't know what is happening, mumma. I am just trying to be happy and be that person I am'."
A couple of days later Rodrigues's father and coach, Ivan, too noticed at practice that something was off. "Dadda could also make out, so he asked what happened and again I broke down! I was in a completely different zone, I don't know how to explain that. Dadda then told me that. "if God has brought you so far, he's not going to ditch you here. He's going to finish what he has started for you'. After that chat, I started to feel a little better. It took time for me to come out of it, but gradually I came out of that negative zone.
"So, at the Challengers, I was like 'no, I have to prove to everybody that I can play [at the highest level] and I can do this'. And with that [mindset], I lost my focus on what I actually needed to do.
"I didn't start playing cricket to prove anything to anybody. I took up the sport because I enjoyed playing cricket." That's the only advice, she says, she'd like to give Jemimah Rodrigues of one year ago - "just play cricket for the reason you started playing it for in the first place. Forget about these expectations."
Luckily for her, and India, Rodrigues got the backing from the then team management and found herself on that plane to Chennai where the conditioning camp for the Sri Lanka-bound squad was held. It was during that two-hour flight that she confided in Mandhana, who instantly offered to watch her videos and help. The issue was identified to be with her grip, that had shifted slightly, and promptly rectified.
Rodrigues managed to turn it around swiftly with Player of the T20I Series worthy show in Colombo, and has never looked back since. She nailed the No. 3 spot in the line-up at the T20 WC and has since established herself as one of the pillars around which India's batting has revolved in the last 12 months. If she'd gotten a Grade C central contract within a month of international debut, she earned herself an upgrade to B category this March. And then in Jaipur in May, when the world was watching, Rodrigues showed how much her game has grown as she single-handedly carried Supernovas' batting to eventually bag another one of the Player of the Tournament trophies.
She's fortunate she doesn't have to look took far for inspiration, or for advice. A phone call away - or probably on speed dial - is Mandhana, whose advice back then knocked some sense into the teenager who was trying desperately hard to prove a point. "She's told me that you don't have to become another Harmanpreet Kaur or another Smriti Mandhana; you have to be Jemimah Rodrigues. And it made a lot of sense to me at that time. Because at that time I was going like, 'okay, if they're hitting, I should also hit'. She told me that you don't really have to try and be like somebody, you have to be the best version of you."
Then, just outside the periphery of her friend circle within the team is head coach WV Raman, who hasn't kept the trolling only to Twitter. "Just before the knock of 77 [vs Velocity; her top-score in T20s], Raman sir was like, 'unless the Maharashtra state government is giving you an award to play with a strike rate of 200 or above, then you please go out and play like that, I have no problem. [But, otherwise] you don't have to go bang bang every game! If you just look to get good impact on the bat, with the kind of batting you have, you'll not realise but you'll maintain a good strike rate'. That got me thinking." The result was there for everyone to see the very same evening.
And then there's the famous man from Bandra, who Rodrigues has more things in common with than just being from the same locale. Both teenaged prodigies from Mumbai rose quickly through the ranks, had their first taste of English summer with Yorkshire, have had to deal with mountain of expectations from an early age, and, incidentally, also share this bizarrely strange love for heavy bats for someone with that slender built.
"Sachin [Tendulkar] sir narrated this story to me of the time he had just returned after being named the Player of the Tournament in Australia. He scored a lot of runs with the bat he played with and after coming back he showed it to a bat-maker in Bombay and the guy just casually inquired why he would use such really heavy bats. And next day in nets, sir said, he couldn't put bat to ball! Not even one ball was hitting his bat. Before the bat could come down, the ball would leave. He said 'because of that fellow over there, it was stuck in my head that my bat is very heavy, and just imagine that I had just got a Player of the Tournament, in Australia, with the same bat, and now I am struggling over here'.
"Sir's advice was simple, if that suits you then you don't have to change because someone else is saying or others are switching to lighter bats. At the end of the day, it's you who is batting over there, so go in with whatever you are comfortable with."
Rodrigues can narrate the minutest details of that evening at the Tendulkar residence, just before her international debut in 2018. It's possible she's played the conversation in her head over and over again. "He said 'you being nervous [ahead of debut] is a positive sign, because that means you care about this'. That put me so much at ease, because normally people were going like, 'no you shouldn't feel nervous'. So him saying what he said made me feel so comfortable and put me at ease instantly.
"Everyone around me heard South Africa and went like 'oh the movement, oh the bounce, this and that'. Arre, I'm a small child yaar, a 17-year-old about to make my debut. But sir told me how he really enjoyed it there because the bounce meant the ball will come nicely off the surface. He said 'if you just time the ball well it will run for boundaries'. That really changed my perspective... That chat was like a blessing for me."
And as Rodrigues again embarks on "something new and exciting and unknown", she is keeping an open mind. She isn't too fixated about what role is handed to her at the Diamonds, for it's her first chance to rub shoulders and share dressing rooms with some of the best in the business for more than just a week. The urge to be a part of T20 leagues got stronger after the 2018 T20 WC in the Caribbean, she admits. "I just wanted to play good cricket, that's it. Having the next World Cup in mind [in February 2020], I just wanted to be playing against quality teams in the lead up."
Besides cricket, Rodrigues is looking forward to sharing the dressing room with Alyssa Healy, who she thinks is of the same make and will get along famously with, and trying some waffles. "I've been told they're really good there," she chuckles. The guitar is packed too, alongside her kit bag, because "it goes everywhere the kit goes". Now to make that much-awaited UK stamp on the passport worth the wait.
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