From playing volleyball at school nationals and football for Delhi University, this swashbuckling all-rounder raised many eyebrows when she carved a name for herself in cricket. Making her debut for India at the age of 18, she went on to play for the country for 12 long years. With many match-winning performances in her kitty, she was the go-to player, be with the bat or with the ball. A cherry on top is that she holds the record of the highest 10th wicket partnership in ODI cricket.
We are talking about Amita Sharma, 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 all-rounder.
Tell us about your early days in cricket.
Right from my childhood, I was actively involved in sports. I played volleyball, softball, and baseball for my school. I have played volleyball at school national level for six years. Apart from these games, I was good at football. I represented Delhi University. Though I was playing cricket back then, I never played with much seriousness. Volleyball was my game. However, after my 10th standard, things changed with respect to my sporting interest, as my volleyball coach shifted base from Delhi to Bangalore. Suddenly I had no coach and my future journey towards making it big in volleyball looked bleak. I continued to practice volleyball on the ground, where other sports were also being played. One fine day it so happened that I found a lost watch on the ground. I handed over the watch to the concerned person, who told me that it was Sunita Sharma madam’s (cricket coach) watch.
I walked up to her to give the watch. There I saw some girls playing cricket so I instantaneously asked her, “Do we have a girls’ cricket team?” She answered affirmatively. I said, “I will come for practice.” Though I did not go for practice the next day, I went to her after completing my 10th standard board exam. At that time, she used to coach at a government center. Also, she took no fees from girls and gave preference with respect to bowling and batting.
Were your parents supportive?
Yes, my parents were very supportive. They encouraged me to play sports. However, after my 10th standard, when I decided to bid adieu to volleyball and take up cricket, they were slightly hesitant. They said, you have played one game for 5-6 years (volleyball) and now you want to take up other sport. Will you be able to do well?” Their concern was genuine and I had to put up a good effort to convince them. My brother and sister too joined hands with me in convincing our parents.
You started as an off-spinner, but then you became a top-class medium pace bowler. What led to the shift?
I started off as an off-spinner. But it was during one of the matches that I was playing against the boys, Sunita Sharma ma’am spotted my medium pace talent. It was a match in which only medium pace bowling was allowed. No spinners were permitted to bowl. Since I loved bowling, I decided to try my hand at pace. I marked my run-up. The batsman, who was a boy, saw that a girl was bowling to him, so he removed his helmet, thinking that he is going to face slow bowling.
To my surprise and his utter disbelief, the very first ball that I bowled to him, took off after pitching and hit him straight on his nose. Sunita ma’am saw that ball and after the match, she told me that I have the potential to become a good medium pace bowler. Since then my journey as a medium-pacer started.
In 2000, you actually played with the Indian team that was going to New Zealand for the World Cup. How was that experience?
(Smiles) The Indian team had a stop-over in Delhi before they flew off to New Zealand for the World Cup. They were scheduled to play a few practice games against boys before their departure. Sunita ma’am asked me to be a part of the boy’s team that was going to play against India. I had no clue that I was going to play against the Indian team. From the match, I remember one incident. Anjum (Chopra) di and Anju (Jain) di were batting. Anju di hit a ball at me.
She called out to Anjum di for a run and said, “Chal, chal aa jaa, ladki hai.” To her shock, I picked up the ball and hit the stumps to get her run out. At that time, I never imagined five years later, I will be travelling with these players for a World Cup in South Africa.
Within a year, you were playing for Delhi senior team. Did you expect this?
I was happy to get selected for the senior state team. Though I had played serious cricket for a year, while growing up, I had played a lot of gully cricket and other sports at a competitive level. Maybe those things helped me to make the cut in the state team so soon. I recall one of the matches that we were playing against Indian Railways in 2001. Before the match, everybody in my team told me that I have to pick up Mithali’s wicket. At that time, I had no idea that Mithali was the vice-captain of India. Opening the bowling, I got her out on the first ball. Only after getting her wicket, I realized that it was a prized scalp. At the domestic level, I had some very good performances, which led me straight into the India camp.
You made your India debut in 2002. How did you feel?
I was very excited to play for India. It was for the first time I was flying abroad. Till that time, nobody in my family had traveled to a foreign country.
Quite opposite to usually how the debuts are, I was at ease. I wasn’t nervous at all. Maybe it was my outgoing nature that helped me at the big stage. I still remember senior players used to joke, seeing me roam around the dressing room fearlessly and talking to them comfortably. They used to say it was as if I have been playing for India for a long time.
India played its first-ever World Cup finals in 2005. How was the preparation for the mega event?
Our preparation for the World Cup started in 2002. We had a lot of fitness camps. We went through rigorous training programs. I lost a lot of weight during that time (smiles). All the players became as fit as a fiddle. Eventually, those things helped us in our World Cup campaign. We played almost with the same playing XI in all the matches. Fortunately, we had not many injury issues, thanks to the effort we all had put in over the three year period. I picked up 14 wickets in the competition and was the second leading wicket-taker. We always said one thing as a team, “We have to play the finals.”
You have played three World Cups for India; 2005, 2009, and 2013. If you had to pick one of your favorites, which would it be?
That’s a tough one. Honestly, all three World Cups are very close to my heart. The 2005 World Cup, in which I played as a pure bowler, was the best of the lot, as we made it to the finals. I picked up 14 wickets in the tournament. Then in 2009, I played as an all-rounder and I was also the vice-captain of the side. Again I had a wonderful run in that competition. After the World Cup, I along with Priyanka Roy and Mithali were picked up in the World XI. The last one which I played in 2013 on home soil was a good one, but the only regret is that the result didn’t go our way.
Your illustrious career spans across 12 years. If we divide it into two, we can say that first half you were more of a bowling all-rounder, and the second half you were transformed into a batting all-rounder. Can you tell us about this transition?
Till 2008, I was a pure bowler. Then in the latter part of my career, I became a batting all-rounder. Honestly, I didn’t enjoy knocking much. Sudha Shah ma’am, who was the coach of India team then, encouraged me to concentrate on my batting. It is because of her I feel my batting improved considerably. In domestic cricket, I opened the batting for Indian Railways in T20s and I scored heavily. For India as well, I played some crucial knocks. For instance, in 2011 when we were playing the final match of a five-match ODI series against West Indies that was tied at 2-2, batting at number eight, I top scored with 47 runs to see the team through.
Not many people know that you have a record of the highest 10th wicket partnership. Can you tell us about that?
We were playing against England. It was cold out there and the match was getting tougher and tougher. We lost wickets in quick succession. When Harman came in to bat, we both tried to consolidate the innings, but soon she fell and I was left to bat with the tail-enders. Before this match, I had some good domestic performances with the bat, so I was confident of putting up a good show. However, I was losing partners at regular intervals. Finally for the last wicket, when Gouhar Sultana came in to bat I had a word with her and both of us weathered the storm. To our surprise, we recorded the highest 10th wicket partnership as we stitched 58 runs together. I think when you have nothing to lose you play with full freedom and in the process, you get amazing results.
You played your last Test match in 2014. Since then, India has not played a single Test match. Do you think Test cricket should be reintroduced?
I think Test cricket is important for the all-round development of a player. It is a good format, and if we have ODIs and T20s, then why not have Test cricket as well. Let me share a story with you from the 2014 England Test.
We were in a commanding position till two and a half days. By the end of the third day, we were playing for a draw. The fourth day morning, we were playing to save the match, and finally the match ended in a draw. The moral of the story is things chance quickly in Test cricket and the pendulum of fortune swings from one end to the other in no time. That is why I feel Test cricket is an interesting format.
You played your last international match against Sri Lanka in 2014. Was retirement in your mind before the game?
Honestly, it was not planned. I was playing as a middle-order bat in that match. I was batting with Mithali and I scored some 17 odd runs. Against the run of play, I hit a sweep, and the ball went straight up towards mid-wicket. My heart was in my mouth for as long as the ball was in the air. I thought perhaps this is my last chance and I will not get any further chances. That final shot that I played triggered me to call it quits.
How was life after retirement?
After retiring from international cricket, I played one domestic season. Based on my performance, I was picked up in the 2014 T20 World Cup probables; however, I did not make the cut. After calling it quits, I started thinking about myself. Till the time I played cricket, it was only and only cricket that used to be in my mind.
Once I hung up my boots from cricket, I got married. I have a son who is four years old now. In an unexpected turn of events, I was back to playing cricket in 2017.
My son was just a year old then. There were some inter-department matches (Railways) and my department asked me to be a part of the team. I never thought it would be so difficult to make a comeback. I had to lose a lot of weight to be fit to play again. I vividly remember my first day at the nets in 2017.
I was clean bowled. In seconds, I traveled back 17 years and felt as if I was just starting out to play. I sought redemption in 2018. I played in the same tournament. Opening the batting I scored a century in one match and batted for 30 overs. It was unbelievable for me and I felt very proud of myself.
After hanging up your boots from cricket, you got married. You also have a son who is four years old. Does he know about his talented mother?
(Smiles) I don’t think so. He has just started playing cricket with a plastic bat and I bowl to him. Just recently, he told me, “Mamma you bowl well” (chuckles). The other day when I was just going through my old newspaper cuttings, he came up to me and said, “Mamma, that’s you, right?” I haven’t told him yet about myself, because I feel he is too young to understand. On similar lines, my niece on seeing my photos, once asked me “Is Mithali Raj your friend? Is Jhulan Goswami your friend?” She is 10 years old so maybe has seen women’s cricket and knows some of the players.
What do you miss after you retired from playing?
I miss traveling, bowling, and batting. Batting still I can try but I can’t imagine myself marking my run-up and running into bowl.
What are your future plans?
I have completed level 1 coaching. In the future, I would like to clear level 2. As a coach, I already have two years of experience. But I feel having the perfect blend of experience and knowledge will help me to become a good coach. I would also like to have two to three girls whom I coach to play for India.
Lastly, can you share some of your funny memories from your playing days?
(Smiles) There are many. Ok, let me start with Mithali. She used to play this prank on every newcomer in the team. What she used to do is call from her hotel room, acting as a receptionist, and tell the player that she has a call from her home or the coach is calling her. Mithali has played this prank on me as well. I thought it was for real, and I went downstairs after hanging up, only to find out there was no call for me. It was only after a couple of series I understood that it was Mithali who was doing this (chuckles).
Another incident that I can recall was when we were playing against Australia. Harman had just come in to bat and I was batting at the other end. Perry was bowling. I went up to Harman and told her that she can give me a single and I will do the rest. Harman was still in her early days playing for India. She readily agreed to do what was told to her. Do you know what did she do the next ball? She hit Perry for a six. I again went up to her and said, “That was a very nice single” (smiles). In that match, we scored around 70 runs in six and a half overs.
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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.