“I was able to change the perception of other teams about Bangladesh,” says Anju Jain | The Pioneers

A former captain, the wicket-keeper bat has featured in 8 Tests and 65 ODIs for India. She holds the record for playing the most number of Women’s One Dayers by keeping wicket and by opening the batting as captain. From being dropped in 2002 to making a solid comeback, she is an inspiration to many upcoming and budding women cricketers. An Arjuna Award recipient in 2005, she has played a pivotal role in bringing Indian women’s cricket into the limelight. Currently wearing a hat of cricket coach, she has already coached Indian women’s cricket team and Bangladesh women’s cricket team. She has also served as the chairperson of the selection committee for the Indian national team.

We are talking about Anju Jain, 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.

 

Anju Jain - The Pioneers
Anju Jain – The Pioneers, a Female Cricket Exclusive

 

Excerpts from the interview.

1. Tell us about your early days in cricket

Since my childhood, I used to play cricket. It started with playing with my cousins in the gully. My father played for the Delhi Ranji team, so maybe cricket just came naturally to me. Back then, I had one of my cousins playing for Punjab Women’s cricket team. She had seen me play in the gully. She told my father that there is a women’s team in Delhi as well and asked him if he could enroll me in a nearby cricket academy. My father considered that and during one of the summer vacations, I was enrolled in National Stadium in Delhi. I had just cleared my ninth standard exam. Sunita Sharma ma’am was my first coach there. In my very first year itself, I was selected in the Delhi U-16 team. I also played for Delhi U-19, Delhi seniors, and North Zone. Everything happened just too quickly. I remember I also won the most promising wicket-keeper award that year. I started playing professional cricket in 1988 and in three years I was picked up for the India camp. However, due to a thumb injury, I was ruled out.

2. Was your family supportive of your cricket?

Yes, my family was very supportive. The only thing that my father told me was that if I fail in any exam, cricket was over for me. So with that in mind, I completed my studies without failing in any of the exams and graduated successfully (smiles).

3. Did you always want to become a wicket-keeper?

Honestly, if you ask me, I started as a batter. But then, my then coach Sunita ma’am wanted me to become a wicket-keeper since there was no wicket-keeper at that time in the Delhi junior team. So that is how I became a wicket-keeper. Also that my father was a wicket-keeper for Delhi, helped me a lot, I feel.

 

Anju Jain Female Cricket
Anju Jain. Pic Credits: ESPN Cricinfo.com

 

4. Whom did you look up to?

When I started playing cricket I looked up to my father, who was also a wicket-keeper. Gradually, I started seeking inspiration from Syed Kirmani and Kiran More. I tried to emulate their ways of doing things behind the stumps.

5. After five years of good performances in the domestic circuit, you finally made your India debut in 1993. How did that feel?

Since the day I started playing cricket professionally, I always dreamt of playing for India. And finally, when I was selected to play for the country, it was like a dream come true. The cherry on the cake was I made my debut in a World Cup. I played my first match against West Indies and to my joy I bagged the Player of the Match award in my debut game itself. Though I made a dream start to my international career, I got injured after a couple of matches and was ruled out for the rest of the tournament. At a very early stage of my career, I realized the importance of fitness. After that, I was determined to work harder on my fitness and I had made up my mind that I will not miss a single domestic/international match due to injury.

6. Two years later you made your Test debut for India. Did you expect it?

In 1995 I was picked up in the Test squad. I played my first Test match against New Zealand. Getting a chance to play Test cricket for your country is always special.

7. For the 2000 World Cup, you were appointed as the captain of the team. How was the experience of leading India?

My prolific domestic performance which included five consecutive half-centuries in one tournament and three consecutive centuries in the other was awarded India captainship, I feel. But at the same time, back then, I used to be introvert. I hardly talked. It is very unlikely for a wicket-keeper to be a quiet person (smiles). So captainship never crossed my mind. Also, the fact that there were already 2-3 captains in the side dwindled down my possibility of becoming the skipper. However, when I was appointed as the captain, it was a moment of great joy and pride for me to lead India. We were touring New Zealand for the World Cup. Honestly, right from the moment, we stepped there, there were challenges. Mithali was down sick. Then our all-rounder Kavita was injured. So a squad of 15 was reduced to 13 suddenly. However, taking these challenges in my stride, I led from the front and for the very first we reached third place in a World Cup tournament.

8. In the next World Cup in 2005, India reached up to the finals. How was that feeling?

2005 World Cup was a defining moment in women’s cricket. We reached the finals for the very first time. Our effort and preparation over the last two years before the tournament paid off. Back then, Shubhangi Kulkarni, who was the secretary of WCAI, devised a proper plan for us. She had the vision and wanted us to reach up to the finals. As per her plan, our preparations started in 2003. We had fitness camps and we played the maximum number of matches possible in those two years. A core group of 20-25 players was selected and all the efforts were directed towards this core group. Typically for any tournament, we used to arrive at the destination just a couple of days before the start of the competition.

However, the 2005 World Cup in South Africa was different. We landed 10 days before and I feel that helped us to acclimatize to the conditions and get into the groove. After our success in that World Cup, I think women’s cricket started garnering attention from people.

9. You played your last game for India in 2005. How tough was it to hang up your boots?

 

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Indian Women's Cricket Team. Pic Credits: ICC
Indian Women’s Cricket Team. Pic Credits: ICC

 

It was a tough decision for me to go away from the game that I loved the most. Actually in 2002, when I was dropped from the side, the thought of retirement crossed my mind.

I discussed it with my father about the same. But he just said to me, “I don’t want you to retire at the lowest point of your career but at the highest point. Retire at your peak.”

Seeking inspiration from his words, I made my way back into the side after a few months, and finally in 2005, when I was at the peak, I decided to bid adieu to the game. It was an emotional moment for me.

10. After you retired, you were appointed as the chairperson of the selection committee for the Indian team. How was that experience?

I was the chairperson of the selection committee between 2006 and 2008. Honestly, I did not enjoy watching the game from the sidelines. I wanted to be in the middle of all the action. That is when I decided to enter into coaching. Just after my retirement, some of the former players suggested that I should try coaching but at that time I thought I wouldn’t enjoy coaching. But I think working as a chairperson of the selection committee opened my eyes.

11. Tell us about your coaching journey. How many teams have you coached so far?

After completing my Level A coaching, I worked with the Odisha team for 3-4 months. That was my first coaching assignment. After that, I was a part of the coaching team for India U-19 camp in Dharamshala. Then I moved to Tripura. In 2011, I was the head coach of the Indian women’s cricket team for two years. After that stint, I shifted to Assam. There I was the coach for three years. Then Vidarbha happened, followed by Bangladesh, and currently, I am with the Baroda team.

12. Were there any challenges when you were coaching the northeastern states like Assam, Tripura, etc.?

Every assignment that you take up as a coach comes with its own set of challenges. Talking about the northeastern states, yes, there were a few challenges. The biggest of them was the language. During the initial days, communication used to be a problem. But gradually, it became fine. The girls there have strong skill sets. However, there is limited exposure in terms of opportunities that they get to flow. Also from the infrastructure facilities standpoint, there is still a lot of scope for improvement. Slowly things are changing and hopefully, things will be on par with the metro cities soon.

13. How was your experience coaching the Bangladesh team?

 

Bangladesh Women's Cricket team
Bangladesh Women’s Cricket team. Pic Credits: ACCMedia1/Twitter

 

It was challenging at both personal and professional levels. As a player and coach, I had first represented India, and suddenly when you are in the opposition camp, it is quite different.

It gets weird when you hear the national anthem of India and realize that you are actually a part of the opposite side.

I joined as a coach of Bangladesh just a few days before the Asia Cup of 2018. In my initial days as the coach, Devika and Anuja, who had joined before me helped me out. I also got good support from senior players and captains. During the Asia Cup, we lost the first match to Sri Lanka very badly. After that match, we had discussions, and then shuffled the batting order and altered the bowling combinations. The girls were open to change and responded well.

Our results were getting better. If you ask me what has been the biggest achievement for me as a coach of Bangladesh, I would say, I was able to change the perception of other teams about Bangladesh. Now no longer any side takes them lightly.

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14. According to you what has been the turning point in Indian women’s cricket?

I think the 2005 World Cup during which we reached the World Cup finals for the very first time. I think that achievement may have triggered the merger of WCAI and BCCI. Once BCCI took over women’s cricket, there were better infrastructure facilities and more opportunities for the girls which helped them to elevate their games. Another turning point has definitely been the 2017 World Cup when India again reached the finals. There is no doubt that the popularity of women’s cricket has increased.

15. What is your view on having a women’s IPL?

 

Women's IPL Teams
Women’s IPL Teams. Pic Credits: IPL

 

I think just like the men’s IPL, women’s IPL will help the domestic women cricketers to come forward and showcase their talent. It will also help to bridge the gap between domestic and international cricket. The easy transformation from domestic to international level could be possible.

16. What do you think about having mixed-gender matches?

For fun sake or for exhibition matches it is fine. But I feel it is better to keep them separate. We get boys to bowl to women cricketers in nets, so for practice, it is fine. However, from a match point of view, I don’t think it is a good idea.

17. Recently, there were talks about bringing innovations in the game, for instance, reducing ball size, pitch size, etc. What is your take on this?

I am not too keen on reducing ball size pr pitch size. I would rather encourage Test cricket, which is the ultimate thing in the sport. It is important for the overall development of a cricketer. It builds temperament and stamina.

Innovations around the longest format of the game and ensuring that it survives should be considered. Test cricket can be made more result-oriented.

For instance, fixing the number of overs per innings can help to get results at the end of the match.

18. What have been your key learnings from cricket?

When I started playing, I was an introvert. I hardly spoke. I think cricket has made me more extroverted and confident. It has also taught me the importance of being a good human being. I have made some life-long friendships in cricket. Apart from these, the game has made me more disciplined and stronger as a person.

19. According to you what is the ideal age for girls to start playing cricket?

 

Female Cricket Academy
Female Cricket Academy, Mumbai

 

Earlier girls used to start late, mostly after their schooling. But nowadays with the increased competition, it is better to start at an early age. If you start young, you can see different phases of the game. All said and done there is no hard and fast rule with respect to the ideal age of starting cricket.

20. Apart from Railways, do you think corporate should consider providing employment opportunities to women cricketers?

Yes, of course, just like some of the big companies provide employment opportunities to men cricketers, they can consider offering the same to women as well. Having corporate cricket tournaments for women will do a world of good for women’s cricket in India. Many girls will think of taking up cricket as a profession.

Quick Questions

1. With which player have you enjoyed batting the most?
Hemlata Kala, she was aggressive and batting with her was easy. I have played a lot of matches with her. Our partnerships used to be lively and there were no dull moments

2. Which is the one superstition that you had as a batter?
I used to wear my left leg guard first

3. Which is the one superstition that you have as a coach?
I stand for the entire duration of the game. If I am standing I feel more involved and focused.

4. Which is the one present-day bowler that you would like to face?
Ellyse Perry

5. What are your thoughts on Shafali Verma?
I like the fact that she follows her heart. She is a good talent. Her aggressiveness and stroke play is great.

6. What are the differences that you see in the 2005 team and the current side?
I think the current side has more exposure, more opportunities, more information about the opposition, and better infrastructure facilities. Also with the advent of T20, their ability to handle pressure is way better.

You can watch the complete episode on Female Cricket’s YouTube Channel. Click here.

The article is transcribed by Juili Ballal.

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