She made her India debut at the age of 22, however, little did she know that it would be a roller coaster ride ahead. Featuring in the World Cup in her very first year, she was dropped immediately after the mega event, only to make a strong comeback after eight and a half years. With the figures of 6 for 10, she holds the record of being the oldest ever female cricketer to take a maiden five-wicket haul in an ODI (at the age of 33 years and 162 days) which is also the best bowling figure for an India woman in the 50-over format. After calling it quits, this Karnataka player entered into coaching and is known to have trained the national sides of China and Bangladesh.
We are talking about Mamatha Maben, 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 former India captain.
Excerpts from the interview
Take us through your early days in cricket.
Initially, I was not much interested in cricket. I used to watch my cousins play, but never really went out to play with them. Till 1983, I hardly took any interest in the sport, but after the Men’s World Cup, there was a sudden change in me, and the next thing that I wanted to do is become a cricketer. I started playing at home with a writing pad and a paper ball. My father, who clearly saw the love for the game in my eyes, made a cricket bat from a coconut branch. This is how it all started. Thankfully, the school in which I was studying, had cricket, but for boys. I began playing with the boys in the school.
After school, I used to play gully cricket near my home. One fine day, Joseph, a family friend, saw me playing cricket. He asked my sister about me. He was fascinated to see me play some good cricket, so he took me to a place where girls practiced cricket. That place was far away from my home. I went there during my ninth standard summer holidays but I had to take a break due to my tenth standard. After the board exams, I went to the same place, but, to my dismay, I found no girls there.
I thought to myself maybe I missed the bus. Then I went on to pursue my higher education in college. To my sheer joy, there was cricket in my college and during intercollegiate tournaments, I reunited with Shantha (Rangaswamy) and other girls. This was in the year 1986. Early next year, around February, I was selected in the junior state team and I went on to play the nationals. That very year, I made my way into the senior state team as well. Two years later, in 1989, I joined Southern Railways and played for them till 1994. Riding on my prolific performance for Southern Railways, I made it into the Indian Railways and played for three seasons.
Whom did you look up to?
I looked up to Ravi Shastri and Sunil Gavaskar. I was also inspired by Imran Khan and I liked the way he led his side.
You made your debut against West Indies during the 1993 World Cup. How was that feeling?
In 1991, I had made it to the India camp however I could not break into the Indian side. I was disappointed but that did not deter me. Rather it encouraged me to put in more effort which would help me make the cut. Also, the fact that there were no international matches between 1986 and 1991 delayed the process. Finally, in 1993, I made my way into the Indian side, and I could not expect a better debut than playing my first international game in a World Cup. We were playing in England. The wicket was a bit grassy and favored the bowlers. I came in to bat at number seven and I scored an unbeaten 16. The fact that we won the match was the cherry on the cake.
After the World Cup, you were dropped from the team. What did you do next?
Unfortunately, after the World Cup, I found myself dropped from the side. I joined Air India and was with the airlines till 2000. Representing Air India in domestic cricket, I seldom got any chances. I usually walked in to bat in the lower middle order, so I could just get a few balls to show my batting prowess. Finally, I quit Air India in 2000 and returned back to Karnataka, where I thought I would get more opportunities. Playing for Karnataka and then leading the south zone, I scored heavily, which helped me to make a comeback after almost eight and a half years. Out of the six games, I scored five 50s. During all these years, I kept on telling myself, that I have something still left in me. I kept on putting pressure on myself, because, I am such a kind of player who thrives on pressure.
You made your comeback for the England home series. How was that?
I made my comeback for the England home series in January 2002. It was a five-match series. I did not get a chance to bat in the first two games. In the third game, I came in to bat at number five and scored an unbeaten half-century (53 not out). I was happy that I could score in my comeback game. We went on to win the series 5-0.
In December 2003, you played a home series against New Zealand. How was the tournament?
New Zealand were the reigning world champions. They had won the World Cup in 2000. Playing the best team in the world wasn’t going to be easy. Though we were playing in our own backyard, we knew we had a tough opposition to face.
For that series, I was the captain. Just before the start of the tournament, I held an informal meeting with all the players. I asked the team, “What do you think will be the outcome of the five-match ODI series?” Some said, 5-0, some thought 4-1, while some felt 3-2, all in New Zealand’s favor. On that, I averred, “5-0 in India’s favor.” That was the starting point of our discussion during the meeting. We played some quality cricket against strong opposition and ended up winning the series 4-1.
We had almost pocketed the last match, as the White Ferns wanted four runs of the last ball. Our fielder went for the catch, but couldn’t make it, and the ball raced away to the boundary.
In 2004 during the Asia Cup, you created a record with your stellar bowling performance. Tell us about that.
We won the Asia Cup beating Sri Lanka. During one of the matches, I bowled myself and picked up 6-10 in just 6.2 overs. That was the match when all our bowlers were getting thrashed, so I decided to bring myself on. I bowled some tight line and length and the Sri Lankans found it difficult to score off me. I ended up creating a record with my match-winning bowling figures. I became the oldest ever woman cricketer to take a maiden five-wicket haul in an ODI (at the age of 33 years and 162 days) which is also the best bowling figure for an Indian woman in the 50-over format.
You played your last series against Australia in December 2004 in India. Was retirement on cards?
Honestly, retirement was not predetermined. I was not finding form before the series. I went on to play with no big scores as such. As a captain, I felt, I was not leading by example, and I thought maybe handing over the reins to somebody else would be a better idea. For me, India always comes first, so I decided to bid adieu to the game that I loved utmost.
After hanging up your boots from playing cricket, you entered coaching. How has the experience been so far?
As a part of my coaching assignments, I went to China and Bangladesh to train their national sides. The two experiences were as different as chalk and cheese. In China, the initial challenges were communication and food. It took quite some time for me to adapt. Also, the fact that the players did not have much exposure to cricket made it difficult. I was made the coach just three months before the T20 Asia Cup to be held in Malaysia. There were only three to four players who had international exposure, while the rest of them were picked up from other sports. At the outset, the girls only played horizontal batted shots.
They knew to attack but their defense was weak. I suspended the nets for the first one and a half months. During that time, I taught them front foot defense and drives and back foot defense and drives. I emphasized the importance of going to the fight with not just a sword but also with a shield.
The girls were good learners and soon they started finding feet. It was an altogether different kind of experience. On the other hand, Bangladesh was a more smooth experience. It is a Test-playing nation. The girls there have grown up watching cricket. For them, it was more of tactical coaching rather than technical training. I feel it is a goldmine. There are many good players and they certainly have the potential to make it big at the highest level.
What are some suggestions that you would like to give to Indian women’s cricket?
Indian women’s cricket has come a long way and I am happy to see its growth and development. In order to improve cricket further, I have a couple of suggestions. First, having a sports psychologist could do wonders for the team. I believe that we have the best of skill sets, however, an area where we lack a bit is the mental aspect. Now that we have specialized batting, bowling, and fielding coaches, it will be good if we have a dedicated sports psychologist.
Second, playing more and more matches will help the team. I remember after the 2017 World Cup final, which we marginally lost, we hardly had any international matches in the immediate future. Also playing in small cities will help to garner large crowds, which will allow the girls to soak in the pressure generated by the packed stadiums.
You have also delivered TED talks. Tell us about that.
My talks have been on positivity. I think negativity comes uninvited whereas positivity, you have to nurture. Spirituality is the key and helps in a positive mindset. I have a lot of faith in Christ. Reading positive verses in the Bible and memorizing scriptures help me build a positive framework. Through my talks, I share many such things. Fortunately, in life, I have reached such a point, that I remain unscathed by any kind of negativity around me.
What is your future plan?
At present, I am with the Karnataka team. We had a good last season and I was looking forward to knockouts, however, due to the pandemic, the season ended abruptly. We have a good team in making, though there are a few loose ends to tie, we are gelling well as a unit. My future plan is to make Karnataka the best domestic team in India.
What is your advice to the young and budding women cricketers?
Cricket has now become a serious career option for girls. If you really want to make it big in the sport, work hard, and never look for shortcuts. Always remember one thing, play for the love and passion for the game and not for money and fame. Last but not the least, follow your dream wholeheartedly.
Watch the Full Episode of Mamatha Mebn on The Pioneers – Click here