The much-awaited India-England Test kick starts on June 16 at Bristol. Prior to this, the two sides met in 2014 to play the longest format. Ahead of the highly anticipated game, Female Cricket got in touch with two star performers of the 2014 Test, that is the pace bowling duo of Niranjana Nagarajan and Shubhlakshmi Sharma.
Excerpts from the interview:
Tell us about the day when you came to know about your selection in the Test squad.
Niranjana Nagarajan: The squad selection happened sometime in the month of May. We were split into India A, B, and C for matches to be played in Bangalore. It was known that the Test squad would be picked from those matches. Based on my performance in those matches, I made the cut into the Test squad. It was always my dream to play Test cricket. It was a surreal feeling.
Shubhlakshmi Sharma: Yes, as Niranjana said, we were in Bangalore for the matches and after the matches, the squad was announced. When I heard my name, my joy knew no bounds. It was as if I was making my debut for India again. I remember people around me used to say that as a cricketer if you play Test, you are one of the best cricketers in the country. I feel lucky to have played Test for India, given the fact that the longest format is not much played, unlike the ODIs and T20Is.
How were the preparations going on for the one-off Test?
Niranjana Nagarajan: We had a 10-day camp. During that, we practiced with good red balls, had match simulations, and through that learnt the disciplines of playing Test cricket. Red ball does more compared to a white ball, so it was important for us to learn the art of bowling consistently with the red ball.
Shubhlakshmi Sharma: We also played two practice games in England, one within ourselves and one with an English side. It served as good training for us before the Test. As bowlers, we were trained to bowl for long sessions. We bowled with a new ball, a semi-new ball, and an old ball. Through practice, we understood the way each type of ball behaves and what we need to do on the basis of the condition of the ball. We did a lot of spot bowling to enhance our bowling discipline. Also, we were given a lot of time in the nets for batting. There was slip fielding practice, close-in fielding practice as well.
Before you set out for England, did you get any media coverage?
Niranjana Nagarajan: Honestly I am not quite sure. I don’t think as players we gave any interviews. May be our captain Mithali Raj and the management team were reached out by the media. However, with respect to the BCCI, we received a lot of support from them and always had their back with us.
Since it was a debut Test for eight players, was there any cap-giving ceremony?
Niranjana Nagarajan: Those days we did not have any ceremony as such. Our kit used to be there in our rooms. Despite not having any ceremonies, the value of the cap remains the same. I remember before the match, during one of the team meetings, Mithali talked to the group, settled us down and pepped us up for the challenging contest.
On day one, India won the toss and elected to bowl first. Were you nervous to bowl on the very first morning of your debut Test?
Niranjana Nagarajan: I would be lying if I said I was not nervous. There were some jitters, when I bowled the second over of the match, after Jhulan bowled the first over. Mithali just asked me to hit the deck hard and she said that the ball will do the rest. I followed her instructions and managed to do well.
Shubhlakshmi Sharma: There was some nervousness for sure, but the fact that Niranjana had bowled so well, helped me take the pressure off myself. After she struck with four wickets before lunch, I came into bowl and picked up two crucial wickets of Sarah Taylor and Natalie Sciver.
How did you feel after taking those four out of five wickets before lunch on day one?
Niranjana Nagarajan: My main focus was to bowl at stumps because that is when you will have the maximum chance of picking up wickets. I kept it simple and just stuck to the process. In my very fifth ball, I scalped a wicket. Though we had rain interruption after that, I was determined to make the most of the opportunity. I had found rhythm quite early in the match and I was not at all willing to give it away.
What were the suggestions given by Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami while you were bowling?
Shubhlakshmi Sharma: Jhulan was standing at slips when I was bowling. After every ball, she walked up to me and offered me suggestions, which were very helpful. She was supportive throughout the match. In the second innings, when I was bowling outside off stump and the batter was leaving it alone, Mithali Raj just told me to bowl at the stumps. It worked wonders as I managed to pick up a couple in that innings as well.
Did you all expect to bowl out England for 92 in the first innings?
Shubhlakshmi Sharma: Honestly we didn’t expect it. We just went out on the field with one thing in mind, give your 100% and believe in yourself. With eight debutants nobody expected us to pull that up.
You started off well but suddenly India was struggling at 64-6. What was happening in the dressing room?
Niranjana Nagarajan: We were having a good time as we had done our job with the ball. However after a good opening partnership between Smriti and Thirush, the following batters faltered and we were struggling at 64-6. I went in to bat with Jhulan at the other end. We spoke with each other regularly during our partnership and played out the day.
Shubhlakshmi Sharma: I was practicing dead defence in the dressing room because that was something I was expected to do when I would go out to bat. It was tough for me as it is completely against my natural flow of game.
Was there any sledging during the match?
Niranjana Nagarajan: I guess there was something between Thirush Kamini and Natalie Sciver. Thrish usually bats with the helmet off and I think that didn’t go down too well with Sciver. The English seamer threw some bouncers at Thrish and had something to say. I don’t know exactly what was being said in the middle, you must ask Thrish about it (smiles).
Coincidentally day three of the Test was India’s independence day. How did you celebrate the day?
Shubhlakshmi Sharma: We hoisted the flag and sang our national anthem. It was an incredible feeling. Hoisting the national flag in a foreign country gave us goose-bumps. The atmosphere was lively. I guess that inspired the girls to put their 100% on the ground. We were determined to win and were ready to go the distance to achieve our dream.
Niranjana, tell us about this superstition of yours when you stood at the window near the washroom till India won the match.
Niranjana Nagarajan: I am generally quite superstitious when it comes to any exam or cricket but not too much. India was doing well when I was standing at the window near the washroom. I decided to stay there till the winning runs were scored. I also requested my teammates and our management team to be wherever they were. Thankfully all of them agreed. I think the fact that we desperately wanted to win, we were ready to do anything.
Describe the winning moments.
Niranjana Nagarajan: It was one of the best feelings that I have ever experienced. The entire team ran with full speed to the middle, hugged each other and took photographs. I wanted a stump that was used in the match as a memento, since I had picked up four wickets in the game. I am happy that I was given one.
According to both of you, what is special about Test cricket?
Shubhlakshmi Sharma: I think the fact that you get time to bounce back in Test cricket makes it very special. For instance, if you did not have a good first spell with the ball, there is always a chance to redeem yourself and get back to form. This doesn’t happen in ODIs and T20Is.
Niranjana Nagarajan: As the name suggests, it is a test of your skills, patience and temperament. You are tested as a player. You have to bowl long spells and you have to bat for long hours. Honestly, after that Test, I became a mentally stronger player.
This article is a transcript of the interview
I am a former cricketer having represented Mumbai University at All India University level. I was a part of MCA probables for the U-19 and U-23 age group. I have been an avid cricket writer for the last five years. Currently I am pursuing my Ph.D from IIT Bombay.