Her cricketing journey is nothing less than a roller coaster ride. Making her India debut at the age of 19 and then being left out of the team in a couple of years, she made her comeback into the coveted Women in Blue team after 10 long years. With close to 25 years of experience in her kitty, this spinning wizard turned swashbuckling bat from Hyderabad has featured in seven ODIs and four T20Is for India.
Female Cricket got in touch Mamtha Kanojia, to know more about the veteran cricketer’s illustrious cricketing journey.
Excerpts from the interview
Tell us about your early days in cricket
Growing up in a joint family with a bunch of brothers, cricket was the game that I took up naturally. It all started with gully cricket when I used to accompany my brothers to play the game. My father was not too happy to see me playing with all the boys. Moreover, the place where I lived had a slum nearby, which added to my father’s worries. Understanding my love for the game, my father, enrolled me in a cricket coaching academy. I was in the sixth standard then. So, you can say, I began playing formal cricket from the age of 11. We also shifted to a new place, which was closer to my cricket coaching academy. Every day, my parents and I used to wake up at 3 am, since I had an early morning cricket practice session. Sampath Kumar sir was my first coach. There, I practiced alongside Mithali (Raj). On Sundays, both of us used to be on the ground for the full day (smiles). After Sampath sir, I had NS Ganesh sir as my coach. I remember, once, Ganesh sir gave me shoes, when I had none to wear for the match. I owe a lot to both my coaches, who helped me in my initial cricketing days.
When you were just starting out, you got a chance to play for the Rest of India against the Indian Railways. How did that happen?
(Smiles) That came as a big surprise. I had no idea that I would get a chance to play against Indian Railways, which is considered to be the best domestic team in women’s cricket, courtesy the presence of Indian players in the side. Honestly, I was not a part of the team. On the day of the match, I got a call and I was asked to be a part of the playing XI. I had no clue about this. As required, I went to the ground and played the game. I was the youngest player in the side. I bowled 10 overs of off-spin, and to my surprise, my statistics read eight maiden overs, 10 runs, and five wickets. I bagged the best bowler of the match award as well. My joy knew no bounds. Today, as I look back, I feel, that match was the turning point of my cricketing career.
After that, you made your way straight into the senior Hyderabad state team. How did you feel?
I was excited to be a part of the senior state team. All my hard work was slowly starting to bear fruits. Though I didn’t play much for Hyderabad back then, I was happy for the fact, that I had made a cut into the senior state team.
You also played for Indian Railways. How was that experience?
Immediately after my 10th standard exam, I joined the Indian Railways. Rubbing shoulders with some of the legends of the game felt amazing. Though I was one of the youngest in the team, the senior players put me at ease. We bonded well together. I got to learn a lot from the senior players like Anju (Jain) di, Anjum (Chopra) di, and Purnima (Rau) di.
You were a part of the Air India set up for quite some time. Tell us about those days.
Air India happened because of Purnima di. It was a matter of great pride for me to play for Air India for five years. Two girls from every state of the country came together to form a team. It was a wonderful experience playing alongside the best of the players. Back then, we always had Air India and Indian Railways locking horns against each other in the finals of any domestic competition. I vividly recall one of the matches that we played. It used to be a three-day affair for the finals. Honestly, I was not much interested in batting. It was bowling that I loved to the core. But during that match, Purnima di sent me one down, and I had no idea how should I be going about with the things. That match I scored 52 runs. Since then, I started focusing more on my batting. If it was not for Purnima di, I would have never explored my batting talent.
Can you tell us about a memorable game from your Hyderabad diaries?
Yes, I remember one of the matches, when I was playing for Hyderabad. We were playing against the Indian Railways. At that time, the Indian Railways had the likes of Nooshin al Khadeer, Neetu David, Mithali Raj, Amita Sharma, and Hemlata Kala in the side. Compared to that, we had a relatively inexperienced Hyderabad team. That match went all the way down the wire and we somehow managed to snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat in the last over. Batting with the number 11 batter, I saw my team through. I scored an unbeaten 50 in that match. That innings will always be special as it came against the strongest opposition and in a winning cause. After that match, I received a bouquet from Diana Edulji. I was extremely elated.
Riding on some good domestic performances, you made your India debut in 2003 in New Zealand. How did you feel?
I was just 19 years old when I made my debut for India. I was one of the youngest players in the side. I was very excited to play for India. However, I did not get many opportunities during that tour. However, I learned a lot from sitting outside. Also, sharing the dressing room with some of the great players was an altogether different experience.
Who are your role models?
I have always looked up to Purnima Rao, Mithali Raj, Anju Jain, Anjum Chopra, Nooshin al Khadeer, Neetu David, and Hemlata Kala.
After playing for a couple of years, you were left out. What kept you going to make a comeback after 10 long years?
After making my India debut, I played international cricket for a couple of years. However, after that, I was dropped. That did not deter me. I kept going and I was confident of making a comeback. I put in more effort and worked hard on my skills and fitness. During that time, my parents were very supportive, and I thank them, for playing a pivotal role in my comeback. One thing that had changed during the course of time was that I got a finger injury, which meant that I could not bowl off-spin. So, if ever I had to return to playing for India, it would be as a pure batter.
Cognizant of that, I started with three to four hours of knocking every day. I used to practice with boys. Finally, all my efforts paid off when I scored over 500 runs in a domestic tournament. I also had a century, which I think helped me to make a comeback into the Indian side.
Apart from this, during the 2010 ZCA camp, Sudha Shah ma’am and Usman Ghani sir helped me a lot. Also, Kavita Pandya, who was a fitness trainer during one of my India camps, has had a role to play in keeping me fit to play the sport for a long time. Throughout my cricketing journey, I have maintained a diary, which helps to reflect and not repeat the same mistakes again.
In 2012 against West Indies, you opened the batting. How did that happen?
Typically I used to bat lower down the order, say at number seven or eight. In that particular series against West Indies, we were losing early wickets. Against that backdrop, I went up to Anjum di and asked her whether I can open the batting in the next match. To my joy, she readily agreed. In the third ODI, I went to open the batting and scored 30 odd runs. I also stitched a 51 run partnership with Anjum di, which was like a cherry on the cake. What motivated me to open the batting was simply to do something for team India.
Since your last international outing, you have returned to domestic cricket. How has that been?
After playing my last game for India, I came back to domestic cricket. I was with Assam for three years, when Anju di was the coach. She has been a constant support and wherever she goes she calls me. Assam happened that way. I went there as a guest player when Anju di called me. I enjoyed playing with Assam. I must say that the girls there are talented and hardworking. They are a very sincere and dedicated bunch. I shared a good camaraderie with them. There, I had Abdul Bari Wahab sir, who played an instrumental role in shaping my game. After Assam, I came back to Hyderabad. Here we have Harsha (Narayan) didi as the coach. She has been very helpful and helped me to be a better batter. I am currently captaining the T20 team. Throughout my journey, I have received good support from the state cricket association.
Now that you have played cricket for almost 25 years, what are your future plans?
I would like to continue playing cricket for as long as possible. People around me say that I can very well pull it up till I am 40 (smiles). Fortunately, I have had no major injuries so far, which makes me hopeful of playing the game for some more time at least. Once I decide to hang up my boots from playing cricket, I would like to take up coaching. My first preference will always be Hyderabad, but I am open to coaching any other state. My aim is to get two to three players under me to play for India.
Finally, what is your message to the young and budding women cricketers?
I would just like to say, be strong and bold. You may face several ups and downs, but always keep going and never give up. Work hard and be disciplined with respect to your diet, fitness, and practice. Also, be ready to make sacrifices if required. Lastly, always remember to be a good human being first, and then a good cricketer.
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.