Smitha Harikrishna made her India debut at the age of 22 when she went on to tour New Zealand, the series, which to date remains to be one of the best that the Women in Blue have ever played on foreign soil. A flamboyant right-hand bat and a fiery right-arm medium pacer, this girl from Karnataka featured in 22 ODIs for India, including two World Cups. After bidding adieu to the game she loved playing, she went to UAE to work towards the development of women’s cricket in the gulf.
We are talking about Smitha Harikrishna, who graced the Female Cricket feature The Pioneers. During the episode, Female Cricket’s Vishal Yadav engaged in a heartfelt tête-à-tête with the swashbuckling all-rounder.
Take us through your early days in cricket.
Right from my childhood, I was completely into sports. I was into athletics and I played table tennis as well. The school in which I studied had produced many Indian table tennis players. My mother was also keen on making me a good TT player. However, being an individual sport, it was very difficult to get a chance to play, especially, when there were big players around.
Unfortunately, I got very few chances and I had to wait for long hours to get an opportunity. Meanwhile, I used to see my brother and his friends playing cricket. Since I was always into sports, I didn’t mind playing with them. So my cricketing journey began with playing gully cricket. During one of the summer vacations, when I had gone to visit my relatives in Madras (now Chennai) my mother who was in Bangalore, asked me to return home immediately, after she read an advertisement in the newspaper which invited girls for cricket coaching.
I was thrilled to know about that. I returned home and the very next day I went to the ground but to my shock, I could see only boys playing. There was not even a single girl. I was disappointed. Seeing her daughter sad, my mother, decided to find a practice place for me. Both of us set out in search of a ground where girls practiced cricket. To our joy, we found one. Till that day I had never seen girls play cricket. That was in the year 1989. Shantha Rangaswamy had organized that cricket camp at the Falcons Cricket Club.
When did you make it into the Karnataka state team?
In my very first year, I made my way into the Karnataka sub-junior (U-15) team. I was the captain of the side. I also played for the U-19 team. I vividly remember my first south zone tournament. It was in Kerala. I was excited to travel by train and I was looking forward to living by myself. I was amazed to see so many girls from different states playing cricket. I also got a chance to play a lot of matches, thanks to Shantha Rangaswamy. It was because of her that the Karnataka team was invited to play the invitational matches. I was picked up in the senior state team to play these matches. I used to bat at number three or four and either open the bowling or bowl first change.
Whom did you look up to?
I looked up to Kapil Dev and maybe that is one of the reasons I started bowling at a medium pace. I loved the way he played the game. And yes, the 1983 World Cup inspired me a lot. Apart from him, I was inspired by Shantha Rangaswamy. I grew up under her. We never had a coaching culture as such, it was from senior players like her, we learned about the game. For instance, Pramila Bhat played an instrumental role in shaping my career. She led by example and has been a guiding force in my journey. Be it fitness or skills, she helped me to become a better player.
Can you share any memorable match from your domestic days?
I recall one of the matches that we played in Kanpur. It was an invitational tournament and we were playing against a side that was filled with Indian players. In that match, we lost our top order cheaply, and I came in to bat at a critical juncture. Shantha was at the other end. Watching her play, I gained confidence. Be it any situation, Shantha used to remain unscathed. I learned a lot from her during that match as well. Finally, we stitched a solid match-winning partnership and saw our team through. Shantha was the player of the match, but the kind of individual that she has always been, she shared her award with me and Chandrika, who bowled well.
You made your India debut in 1995. How was that feeling?
I was very excited when I heard my name being announced by the selectors. Riding on some prolific domestic performances, I was hopeful of securing an India berth. That year I opened the batting against Railways and Madhya Pradesh and had some good scores. My bowling was always effective and I was happy that I could contribute with the bat as well. I was shortlisted in the top 17 but was not sure whether I would make it to the final 15. In that year, we had six players making their debut and I was one among them.
The Indian team was in a transition phase and the management thought of giving a chance to the young players. We went to New Zealand to play the Centenary series, in which India, Australia, and New Zealand locked horns against each other. Before flying, everybody had written us off, as the seniors in our team were rested and they were replaced by all the young guns. To everybody’s surprise, we had a successful series as we managed to beat the best of the teams on foreign soil. We won the finals against New Zealand and proved our critics wrong.
It was one of the best series for Indian women’s cricket and I feel it was certainly a turning point. Our bonding and camaraderie were reflected in our performance. Every match we had a different match-winner and there is no doubt that it was a complete team effort.
Take us through the 1997 Women’s Cricket World Cup.
India was hosting the 1997 World Cup. We were confident as we were playing in our own backyard. Prior to the World Cup, we had some fabulous wins in New Zealand against the hosts and Australia as well as a successful home series against England. However, something was amiss during the World Cup. We played most of our matches in north India, where, in December, it used to be rainy and foggy. Almost all our matches were curtailed and we really didn’t get much game time. It was as if nothing went in our favor. Despite the odds, we reached the semi-finals but we failed to cross the line, as we were outdone by Australia. That loss against the Aussies and the tied game against New Zealand still haunt me.
How was the experience of playing the World Cup in New Zealand in 2000?
After a disappointing World Cup in 1997, we were looking to have a better one in New Zealand, a venue where we had done brilliantly in the recent past. Actually, I had decided to take a break from cricket and I was not expecting to play the mega event. I wanted to pursue higher education, which would help me get a job. But maybe destiny had some other plans.
My teammates somehow managed to persuade me for playing the tournament. I thought to myself maybe I can have the one last shot at the World Cup. Just before we headed out to New Zealand, we had a six-month-long camp in Chandigarh. It was an intense one. I was not sure whether I would make it to the squad, but fortunately, I was picked up.
Our team was full of confidence as we knew at the back of our minds that we had a good outing in 1995. I vividly remember the practice match that we played against Board President’s XI. On that day, it was extremely windy and biting cold.
The match went all the way down the wire as the hosts had to get just two runs off the last over. While Anju Jain, our skipper, was looking for the bowler who could bowl the final over, I went up to her and said that I would like to bowl the ultimate over. It turned out to be one of the best overs that I had ever bowled as I gave away just one run and scalped three wickets. We managed to tie the match. That match lifted our spirits.
However, we had some players falling sick. For instance, Mithali was down with typhoid, which meant that she was ruled out of the competition. With no Mithali around, our top order required to undergo changes. I was asked to open the batting on two occasions. We managed to reach the semi-finals but were crashed out of the tournament when we were defeated by the hosts.
When did you decide to call it quits?
After the World Cup, as a part of the Air India team, I went to England to play a series. For the first time in my cricketing career, I fell sick. I couldn’t play the matches there and spent most of the time in the dressing room. That was the time I started thinking about my future, which, honestly, didn’t look too bright. I was 27 by then and I had no job. I always wanted a secure future so I decided to enroll myself for an MBA, which would guarantee me employment.
After hanging up your boots from playing cricket, you got a chance to work with UAE cricket. How did you get that opportunity?
After completing my MBA, I got the opportunity to work with HP. In the company, we used to have inter-department cricket matches. Every team had to have two females. I was the obvious choice for my department as my colleagues knew that I had played for India. During one such match, we had an umpire named Prasanna. He is now the technical head with Cricket South Africa. He had seen me play and out of the blue one fine day, he gave me a call and asked me whether I would like to work towards the development of women’s cricket in UAE. I thought that it was a great opportunity.
I visited Dubai for a period of three weeks. Every day I went to different schools to scout for talent. My mornings were spent in talking to parents and their daughters, who were interested in playing cricket. Then in the evenings, we had net practice. Towards the end of my stint, we had a small cricket tournament organized for these girls and you won’t believe we had many last ball finishes. It was amazing to see that the hard work had paid off. Overall, it was a very good experience for me.
Any plans of coming back to cricket?
Honestly, I haven’t given a thought to it. As of now, it looks difficult, as I have two young kids at home. But yes, somewhere down the line I would like to make a comeback and give back to the game that has given me a lot. I have completed my Level 1 and Level 2 coaching exams. So maybe coaching or administration I can think of in the future.