Arundhati lives her dream with mother’s support

Arundhati Reddy in action. ©SLC

When Abhinav Bindra was studying Business Studies at the U.S. Olympic Training Centre, the smartest guy in his class was a wrestler. So leave your stereotypes about fast bowlers being dumb at the door; Arundhati Reddy once scored 97 out of 100 in her Board science exam.

10 years ago, Reddy was giving her mother sleepless nights. When Bhagya Reddy backed her 11-year old daughter’s interest in cricket, it loosened the jaws of the neighborhood. You’re taking a risk, they said. Tomorrow if she fails, what career will she have, they asked. These thoughts tormented Bhagya, a single mother. “In my own mind, I would suffer like anything. But I would never show it in front of my daughter,” she said.

There are countless stories of fathers living their sporting dreams through their sons. This is not one of them, it is more. Bhagya Reddy had played volleyball for her university but could go no further. “Back then, families were big,” and with that, she says a lot without saying much. But her daughter would have things her way.

Reddy would be ferried around their native Hyderabad by her mother, who would drop her to training and then head to the school where she taught social science and English. “For two years she even traveled by bus. She would come standing in the heavy rush,” remembers Bhagya. By the time Reddy was eligible to drive, Bhagya could afford to buy her a two-wheeler. “If not for my mother maybe I wouldn’t have been playing,” says Reddy.

Two things drive athletes, that which is behind them, and that which is ahead. Growing up in the Hyderabad nets, Mithali Raj had been one of Reddy’s role models. And as an aspiring fast bowler, so was Jhulan Goswami.

Some athletes have a magnetic power in their performance. A glimpse, even just a glance in their direction, can kindle a forest-fire of ambition. Watching them is like listening to your favourite artist’s latest song, and finding that it was written just for you. Every word resonates, every high note causes a tremor. That was what it was like for Reddy to watch Goswami in action for the first time.

“It was in a practice game in Bangalore, before the series against South Africa (in 2014). I was so mad about her that when I saw her bowl, I went in a corner and started crying.” She laughs about it now, slightly embarrassed. Reddy was 17 then; four years later, she would be picked by the coach as one who could replace Goswami in the long run.

But inspiration demands execution. At the start of 2018, Reddy did not even feature in the Challenger Trophy squads that were picked ahead of the tour of South Africa. Her Under-19 years had come and gone, but she had not yet risen to national reckoning. “I was not consistent. I used to bowl well in one game, not in the next game,” she says of the phase.

Three things changed that: First was the decision to join South Central Railway in 2017, which offered job stability but career uncertainty. For Hyderabad, Reddy was a certainty in the Senior XI. For Indian Railways, she would have to earn a spot with performances in the Under-23 age group, at the risk of missing Senior cricket entirely. “I did well in the practice games when some of them (Railways players) had India ‘A’ games.” Reddy earned a full season with Indian Railways.

Secondly, around the same time she signed for Railways, she started working with former Hyderabad cricketer Alfred Absolem. Absolem put one goal before her: to be the best bowler in the world, and pushed her accordingly. With an emphasis on fitness and a few technical refinements, he tried to get Reddy bowling as fast as she could.

Thirdly: With financial and physical factors being worked out, Reddy started paying attention to the brick and mortar of the mind. “I sat down and thought about where I’m going wrong. For me it was more mental,” she admitted. “I think what changed is me getting into Indian Railways. There, you only get a few matches in playing XI. Only if you’re mentally strong enough, you’ll deliver.” She also benefited from the osmosis in a dressing room surrounded by scores of international caps.

All this had pushed her to the cusp of a breakout performance, and her form finally tipped. In the Under-23 Inter-Zonal tournament in March, she picked up 9 wickets in four matches, just one shy of the highest wicket taker. Some useful runs in the middle order also highlighted her potential as an all-round prospect. After a T20 Challenger Trophy where she was in the same team as Goswami, she was picked for the T20Is against Sri Lanka as the veteran’s replacement.

In the entire series, she was the only Indian fast bowler to play all five games. Rated for her ability to rush the batters as well as use her variations, she will now need to develop a thick skin. International cricket is not a friendly place for a bowler who is expected to bowl in the powerplay, and Reddy looks set to be a part of the WT20, where she will meet the world’s best.

When Reddy signed the dotted line on her Railway job, it vindicated her mother’s decision. “I can’t tell you how much (of a) relief it was,” she gushed. Bhagya Reddy’s daughter will always have the means to pursue a career in sports. Reddy has had a dream year, but one dream remains. “I want to bowl the new ball for India with Jhulan Goswami.”