At an age, when players usually give up hope of playing for their country, she made her India debut when she was 30 years old. Playing domestic cricket for 14 years, she finally made it to the national side, thus realizing her dream of playing for the country. An aggressive bat and an accurate opening bowler, she featured in four ODIs and 13 T20Is for India.
We are talking about Soniya Dabir, 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 Maharashtra player.
Excerpts from the interview:
1. Tell us about your early days in cricket.
Cricket was not the first sport that I took up. It was badminton. I started playing badminton from the third standard and continued playing the sport until my ninth standard. After that, I had jaundice and I had to give up badminton till the time I recovered. Then I was in the tenth standard and all the sporting activities came to a halt. During the summer break after the boards, I decided to go back to sports. This time the question was which sport I should pick up. One fine day when I was busy reading newspapers I came across an advertisement in the paper which was about cricket coaching for girls. I found it interesting. I told my parents about the same and soon I visited the Nehru stadium in Pune for cricket coaching. It was not like I started playing cricket after the tenth, I had played cricket before, in my gully. In the very first year of my camp, I was picked up for Maharashtra senior team and Maharashtra U-19 team. I think it was because of my fielding that I made the cut. I loved fielding and I had no fear of the cricket ball.
2. Can you share with us some of your memorable moments from your domestic cricket career?
During my first U-19 tournament for Maharashtra, we were traveling to Guwahati to play against West Bengal. It was the first time in my life that I was traveling unreserved. We traveled for three days by train. Today when I look back, I feel it was fun. Playing against West Bengal that had the likes of Jhulan Goswami and Rumeli Dhar, we had a tough match on hands. Chasing the target set by West Bengal, we lost wickets in quick succession. I came in to bat in a crunch situation. During that time, I stitched a 100 run partnership with my partner. Though we lost the match by a couple of runs, that innings will stay with me forever. Facing Jhulan and Rumeli, who were quick and accurate back then as well, was nothing less than a Herculean task.
3. After playing for Maharashtra, you were picked up by Air India. How did that happen?
I played for Maharashtra U-19 and senior team for four to five years. During that time, we played an invitation tournament, in which Railways, Air India, etc. also participated. I had a good tournament. Purnima Rau of Air India asked me whether I would like to play for them. At that time I thought I had still some time left to hone my skills in order to be eligible to play for a quality side like Air India. I did not take up her offer then. Then, in 2000-01, when we were playing the zonal tournament, again I had some good performances to my name. Purnima Rau, who kept a track of my performances, finally picked me up for Air India in 2002.
4. How was your experience with Air India?
I spent four years with Air India before the BCCI took over women’s cricket. Honestly, those were some of the best days of my life. We used to have our camps in Mumbai. We as a group worked hard and enjoyed each others’ company. The camaraderie between the players was fantastic. Senior players like Anju Jain, Anjum Chopra, and Purnima Rau were very supportive. I feel fortunate to have got the opportunity to rub shoulders with these legends and share a dressing room with them.
5. Any funny incident that you would like to share with us from your cricketing days?
Yes, there was one (smiles). We (Air India) were playing against Mumbai at Boisar. I was batting alongside Devieka Palshikar. During the innings, I hit a boundary straight back the bowler’s (Sonali Chandok) head. In ideal circumstances, it was a clear cut boundary. However, what happened was that the ball got stuck in one of the holes, which prevented it from clearing the boundary rope. Devika and I thought that it was a four and we did not bother running.
When the fielder got the ball out of the hole and threw it back that is when we realized that it was not a boundary (smiles). We were in the middle of the pitch and when we saw the ball coming into play, both of us ran to our respective ends. There was no run scored off that shot. Players of both teams had a good laugh. And to top it all, the match resumed only after a couple of minutes, when the players were back to their positions.
6. You made your India debut after playing domestic cricket for 14 years. Did you expect an India call at the age of 30?
I was selected to play for India in 2010. I always dreamt of playing for India but something or the other procrastinated the realization of my dream. Being a part of Maharashtra, which is one of the strongest domestic sides in women’s cricket, it is actually difficult to stand out. I had some good performances with both bat and ball, but probably not great ones, which could elevate my cricketing career. Finally, when I was 30, I got the India call. It was like a dream come true. I was ecstatic. I made my debut against England on February 24. I came to know that I am in the playing XI just a night prior to the game. I was nervous that entire night and I couldn’t sleep properly.
7. You are one of the few veterans who have played more T20Is than ODIs. Did you enjoy T20 cricket?
I think my game was more suited for the T20 style of cricket. I could bowl well with the new ball and also with the bat I was more of an attacking player. I have a record of the fastest 50 in domestic T20 cricket.
With respect to my T20I career, the match that we played against Pakistan during the 2014 T20 World Cup will remain a sweet memory with me forever.
Just before that game, I had food poisoning and I was hospitalized. Nobody in the team thought that I could play. However, I was determined to play the match as there was a feeling in my mind that probably if I don’t feature in the game against Pakistan, making a comeback into the playing XI would be difficult.
To my joy, opening the bowling against Pakistan I picked up three wickets and bagged the Player of the Match award. It was my last T20I for India and indeed the perfect end to my international career.
8. Once you hung up your boots from international cricket, you took up cricket coaching. Tell us about that.
Cricket coaching started before 2014. I used to coach girls at PYC (Pune). I did that for some time then I took a break in 2016 when my daughter was born. I was back as a cricket coach in 2017, when Hemant Kinikar sir, who was in PYC, asked me if I could coach in his academy.
9. What are your goals as a coach?
My goal is that at least 2-3 players who I am coaching, make it to the state teams. Apart from that, I would like to complete BCCI level 2 coaching certification. In addition, I would want to coach my state cricket team in the future. I also endeavor to do something like what Rahul Dravid is doing; grooming and coaching the junior players.
10. If you get a chance to coach India women’s U-19 team, what are the three things that you would do upfront?
First, I would have mental toughness sessions for the girls, because I feel that the girls have the required skill which is why they have made it to the top but probably what they lack is mental toughness. Such sessions will help them to become all-around players. Second, I would encourage more of cricket specific fitness. Though there is a focus on fitness, I feel that if the fitness sessions are more cricket-centric it will do a world of good. Third, I would emphasize more on fielding.
I feel fielding is completely in your hands, unlike batting, where you can be subject to wrong decisions, or bowling where you might have someone dropping your catch. In batting and bowling, your analysis, to some extent is determined by somebody else. However, in fielding it is completely in your control.
11. Now that you are a veteran cricketer as well as a cricket coach, according to you, what is stopping India to win finals?
I think our girls have the right skill set as well as the potential to win an ICC championship. However, what I feel is at present they lack mental toughness, which is a result of lack of exposure. Our girls are not used to playing in front of big crowds.
Handling pressure and holding nerves cannot be taught, you learn by experience. Our girls need that kind of experience. Having a women’s IPL will do a lot of good for our women’s cricket. Gaining exposure and rubbing shoulders with international players will help the Indian players.
12. You have had an illustrious career. Who would you like to credit for your success?
I have been fortunate to meet and be trained by some of the best coaches and leaders. There are so many who I would like to thank for their contributions to my journey. My coach late Mr. Pawan Kulkarni has been a great guiding light. I was also fortunate to have trained under Indian legend Nilima Jogalekar and Purnima Rau has been a mentor to me. I am forever indebted to these teachers who taught me everything.
13. Finally, what is your advice to the young and budding women cricketers?
First and foremost, enjoy the game. If you don’t enjoy what you do you will never succeed. Also, don’t just work hard, but, work smart. You must focus on the process and not worry about the results. Always stay in the present, and the future will take care of itself.