She grew up in a small town called Shahdol in Madhya Pradesh, India. What were you doing when you were 4? Pooja Vastrakar, youngest of 7 siblings was weaving dreams of donning national colors. She lost her mother when she was just 10. Young Pooja was taken aback by this sudden loss but continued chasing her dreams. She met another blocker when life threw a ligament injury and she had to undergo ACL surgery and was out of cricket for nearly 8 months. In an interview with Female Cricket, Pooja talks about her wrist injury that turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
How she made her comeback after 8 month injury layover and how did she earn her nick name – Chota Hardik and Bablu? Read below to learn about Pooja Vastrakar who has been picked in India’s 15-member squad for the upcoming World T20 in the Caribbean.
Excerpts from the Interview:
Take us down the memory lane, your childhood, the initial days and how cricket happened?
I started playing cricket when I was very very young, I was 4. The colony I stayed in had lot of cricket enthusiasts. I was fascinated with the idea of batting, but since I was young, my colony friends never let me bat or bowl. So all I was left to do was field. I wouldn’t lie – I did not like the fielding. (laughs)
Was your family supportive? What made them follow cricket?
My family was a big a cricket-fan and I inherited the love for cricket from my dad. Although he never played cricket, he enjoyed watching it on TV. We had black and white TV set back then and just one channel on it – Doordarshan. I vividly remember how excited we used to be on the match days. Watching Sehwag bat fearlessly against the top ranked bowlers always made our day. Back then, women’s cricket wasn’t televised. We only had access to newspapers and that’s where I read about the greats like Mithali Raj, Anjum Chopra and Jhulan Goswami.
How many siblings do you have?
I have 4 sisters and 2 brothers, I am the youngest.
Take us through your growing up days? Did you stick only to cricket or tried other sports?
Dad’s earlier posting was in Bilaspur, then moved to Shahdol and that’s how we landed in Shahdol, that’s where I was born. Post his retirement, Shahdol became our permanent base.
All my siblings along with other children played cricket in our BSNL colony, we were 22 of us and played cricket everyday. We never restricted ourselves to cricket and tried several other games like kho-kho, kabaddi and lukka-chuppi (hide and seek). Playing different sports has definitely worked in my favor, made me more agile and active.
What role has your family played in your career? Tell us about the sacrifices your sister had to make?
My elder sisters got married very soon. One of them was a professional sprinter. She even played nationals (100m) at a very young age and had a bright future. We all drew a lot of inspiration from her. Her performances would feature in the daily newspaper and that made all of us very proud. I personally looked up at her.
I lost my mom when I was just 10. I had just started training at the academy and was taken aback by this sudden loss. My sister gave up her dream of pursuing career in athletics so that she could focus on us, our studies, our childhood. Dad used to work and with nobody at home, my sister couldn’t afford staying away (for tours) and therefore had to give up on her dreams. It was a selfless and a very brave decision. She took care of us like a mother.
You started playing at quite an early age. How did you manage both studies and cricket?
My father got me admitted in a primary school. It was quite near to my place. Remember those early school days when you are pushed to attend the classes, you go weeping, sit very disinterested and wait for your mom to come and pick you? That’s just me. Everyday I would sneak out of the school without the teacher noticing me. I remember making excuses : Mam, I want to use the toilet and would simply vanish. Teachers figured it out soon and complained it to my dad. My dad (like any other dad) scolded me a lot that day. I was very close to my mom, but exactly the opposite with my dad. (laugh). He warned me not to repeat this again. Soon began my serious school education. Studies picked up soon and I started to enjoy it. I was even nominated as the monitor of the class. (laughs)
But when serious cricket entered my life, managing things became quite a task. I had to choose one. So I decided, I will give more time to cricket. I was in 6th standard, aged 10. By this time, I was playing season-ball cricket.
At a very young age, you made up your mind of pursuing cricket as a career. What gave you that confidence?
I used to follow men’s cricket on TV and that’s when I realized that there must be a career in cricket. My sister was also an athlete and that’s when I got to know that a career would exist in women’s cricket. I always had a company of people older and smarter than me. They used to discuss serious cricket stuffs and that’s where I got most of questions answered. By this time, I knew what I wanted – to become a professional cricket player.
When was the last you met your colony friends?
Recently, when I was home during my injury. I had twist in my ankle and was recovering from it when I met my childhood hero – Vikrant Singh. He was my cricket-idol during colony cricket days. We were fascinated by his batting skills and looked up to him for those beautiful shots. It is indeed overwhelming to see my colony friends greet and welcome me with so much of love and respect. Brother Vikrant is equally proud of her sister and whenever we meet he says : Choti aapne toh kamal kar diya. Humne bachpan me kitna cricket khela hain saath main. Hume aap pe garv hain.
What age did you make your domestic debut?
At the age of 13, I got selected as bowler for the MP state cricket team.
How did Pooja move from gully cricket to professional cricket?
We broke several window glasses and the ball which went inside never returned back. Back then, we used to collect 2-2 Rs from everybody so that we could buy a tennis ball. Every now and then asking for money became very difficult. We figured out a way. Idea was to find a better place where we can play more freely without any fear of breaking the glass and losing tennis balls. Somebody in my friend circle then suggested that we move to the stadium.
One morning, we went for a walk near the stadium, purposely to check our new playing venue. The ground was huge and there were boys already in the stadium practicing cricket. There were many boys playing in the nets and we couldn’t muster courage to speak to them. We went the next morning. Boys were involved in fitness training and the nets were empty. We saw this as an opportunity and went straight in the nets to try some cricket. I was batting and asked one of my friend to bowl.
It was an open ground and I was super excited to bat. I swung the bat hard, trying hard not to get out. We continued to play and got super engrossed in our game that we didn’t realize we were outsiders and not from the academy. Their training session got over and a boy, tall, walked towards us. I got frightened and was expecting him to shout at us for playing without any permission. But he surprised us. My little batting impressed him and he asked us our whereabouts. I expressed my interest towards cricket and asked if I could practice there. He then called the coach and he gave me the permission. I was elated. Coach sir asked me to come in the evening. I said, “Why from the evening, I want to start it right away.”
Coach Ashutosh Srivastava was a BCCI level 1 Coach. I had no idea about it. I only knew that this was the only academy in the entire Shahdol and was happy that I was a part of it somehow.
How has the cricket scene in Shahdol evolved over the years?
At 13, when I made my domestic debut for MP, I was the only girl from Shahdol. At present in the Seniors we have 1 player, in U16 we have 2, In U19 we have 3 players. Majority of the girls were from Indore and Bhopal back then. It is heartening to see more and more girls coming from my hometown, Shahdol.
So you started your career as a batsman. How did bowling happen?
Coach Rekha Punekar Ma’am was the one who spotted my bowling talent. When I began my domestic career, I nominated myself as a batsman.
One day, while I was closing the door, I banged it on my left hand fingers and injured it brutally. I couldn’t wear the batting gloves due to the open wound. I would still attend the practice sessions in the evening. One day, I don’t know what struck Rekha mam’s mind and she handed me the ball and asked to bowl. I was a regular bowler in my school team due to lack of bowlers in the team. So I was used to the action and line-length. The ball pitched well and got me some out-swing with a decent pace on it. Rekha mam was quite impressed and thus began my bowling career.
I became a regular opening bowler for my state cricket team, but what I didn’t like was being sent last to bat. I was treated as a tail-ender.
Tell us about your favorite cricket memory so far?
When I started at 13, MP state team was packed with some extra-ordinary talents. Making it to the state team used to be a big deal. We were wondering whether we would get a chance or not. I kept my cool in the practice game hoping this was my only chance to make an impact. I took 3 wickets and scored 44 runs that day. I shall never forget this day. I was very happy and will always remember this moment.
You met with an injury playing a domestic match?
At 15, while attempting for a catch I twisted my ankle. It was a sever ligament injury and I was advised to undergo a ACL surgery. That’s when I missed Asia Cup. West Indies were touring India and I was one of the India probables. But this sudden injury meant no cricket for me for next 6-8 months. I was depressed but never lost the hopes.
What was the remuneration back then?
We were paid Rs.1200 per domestic match for U19 game.
I had collected around Rs.15000 from the U19 matches. From this hard earned money, I bought myself an English Willow bat worth Rs.4500. I never asked my dad for money to buy me shoes, cricket kits and other items. I always wanted to buy them from my own money. I also got a pair of studs for me worth Rs.1200. Back then, I had no sponsors and these equipment meant a lot.
I didn’t mind borrowing cricket bats and gears from friends, wearing torn shoes, but relying on my dad for new gears was never an option.
After your surgery, there were questions raised on your comeback. How did you tackle that phase?
My friends used to pass negative comments. Pooja will never come back. I thought to myself : Ek din yeh galat honge aur yeh khud sharminda honge. I used to enjoy these so-called gossips. (laughs)
It must have been a tough phase. What kept you going?
I started watching lot of motivational videos on Youtube. I am someone who likes to learn and read about new-new things. I wanted to know what is ACL exactly and how to recover from an ACL injury. I watched a couple of videos around this topic.
I desperately wanted to get there and bowl with the same speed. I knew that hard work can beat anything. After 3-4 months of my injury, I started watching ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament) recovery videos on Youtube and started exercising on timely basis. It helped a lot.
I played U19 after injury, then was selected to play for India A against touring Bangladesh A team in 2017. Then happened Challenger Series in January 2018 and SA series in February 2018.
What was the feeling like knowing that you have made it to the national team?
Ohh Yess, it was a memorable day. But more than being happy about the selection, I was concerned about my consistency that would help me stay long and perform in the team.
How was the international experience playing your debut against South Africa?
I remember, my hands were shivering out of nervousness. The first ODI I was part of was very stressful. It actually felt like an international match. Later, I performed well in T20s which sort of boosted my confidence.
What was the reaction from your siblings? Were they happy, proud?
They don’t show it very often, but I know they are very happy for me. My sisters, specially are very vocal and supports me in whatever I do. When I was selected to play for India and was touring South Africa, my sister had proudly updated her Whatsapp status. It read: Hamari choti aaj bohot badi ho gayi. It meant a lot.
Your dad must be a proud-man today.
My dad never played cricket, in fact never held a bat, but now helps me in packing my kits. He is a proud father and I can see that in his eyes. We talk a lot about cricket together. The other day, he took the season ball in his hand and said : Yaar yeh itni kadak hoti hain ball!
How was it playing with one of your fast bowling idols – Jhulan Goswami?
It was a bliss. Even if she is standing in the fine leg, she would come all the way to cheer up the bowler. She is a bag full of motivation.
You now hold a world-record of hitting a half-century batting at no 9 in a women’s ODI game. How did that happen?
In Vadodara, I came to bat at number 9 against Australia Women. I did get to bat in South Africa, but I couldn’t score runs there. I was disheartened. When I came back home after the series, I worked a lot on my batting. That day, all I wanted to do was bat with free mind.
Punam Yadav was at the other end and she said, aaj tujhe khelni padegi (You have to play today). I wanted to compensate for the loss. I remembered my failure in South Africa and that motivated me to do better.
How did your family react to BCCI’s announcement of Grade C reward?
My family was quite happy with this announcement. But personally, I wasn’t that satisfied. Badi bhook hain meri – Grade A kyu nahi, Grade C kyu – I thought to myself.
What’s the story behind your nickname – Chota Hardik?
Veda gave me this nickname because I am an all-rounder like Hardik Pandya. They started calling me Hardik bhaiya, hardik bhaiya. (laughs)
Which nickname do you like the most? Chota Hardik or Bablu?
I am fine with the anything. Sab pasand hain, logon ka pyaar hain bus. (laughs)
Who do you like the most in team?
It is quite easy for me to get along with other team-mates. But one person whose company I enjoy the most is – Taniya Bhatia. We share a lot of things with each other.
Team Female cricket wishes Pooja Vastrakar and the entire Indian Cricket Team for the upcoming T20 World Cup.