However, contrary to popular opinion - and against sane judgement it seemed - India chose to pick two frontline off-spinners, and one part-timer in their XI for the one-off Test against England at the County Ground in Bristol. Against a line-up full of right-handers, all of whom love to play the sweep shot, India packed their attack with all but one bowler who moves the ball in to the batters. That one was Pooja Vastrakar – a young seamer on Test debut who has little confidence in her body after suffering a string of unfortunate injuries. It didn’t make sense. Everyone was flummoxed.
Yet, on the opening day of the Test on Wednesday (June 16), when proceedings seemed to be meandering along and England were well in control of the game, it was those off-spinners who, quite literally, turned the momentum in India’s favour. Late in the day, the pair of Deepti Sharma and Sneh Rana combined to take four wickets for just 39 runs to leave the hosts at 269 for 6 at the close of play.
There are some athletes in this world who you can never bring yourself to dislike. No matter who they beat, what they win (or lose), or how they play, whether you admit it or not, you secretly celebrate their success – sometimes grudgingly – and even feel their heartbreak.
Within Indian women’s cricket, Sneh Rana is one of those players. Maybe it’s her smile, or the way she greets you with a little nod of her head. Maybe it’s joy with which she celebrates her teammates successes, or her compassion for those around. Maybe it’s got nothing to do with her game, or maybe it’s all of the above. But whatever it is, Rana is the kind of player you cheer for whenever she takes the field.
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Handed the ball in the 14th over of her comeback game for the national side, the off-spinner finished a dream day with figures of 3 for 77 in 29 hardworking overs, picking up the wickets of Tammy Beaumont, Amy Jones and Georgia Elwiss. Every dismissal was celebrated boisterously – her right hand extended upward, index finger pointing to the sky, a little hop, skip and a jump before she was enveloped by her equally excited teammates.
Returning to the squad on the back of strong domestic performances over the last couple of seasons, Rana’s knee injury that ruled her out of competitive cricket in 2016-17 felt a long time ago. For those watching, it was vindication not just of her talent and dedication to her craft, but also of the results she had produced at the domestic and ‘A’ levels. It was the acknowledgement that all athletes crave – that their performances at the domestic level count. Therefore, when she took the ball on Wednesday, there was an entire army of players at the lower rungs willing her on.
“A lot of players think that it’s too hard or too difficult to make a comeback to international cricket – especially in women’s cricket. But I hope that my return inspires a few players and shows that you should never give up. Anything is possible,” she said at the end of day’s play.
For the 27-year-old though, her return to international cricket after a five-year hiatus would have been bittersweet.
“Actually, I lost my father two months back. A little before the team was announced, I lost him.”
“It was difficult, a very emotional moment as well, because he wanted to see me play for India again – to see me back in that jersey – but unfortunately he couldn’t. But it’s okay, it’s part of life. From now, everything I do, and all that I achieve, will be dedicated to him.”
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Although she started a little nervously, bowling slightly flat and back of a length, allowing England to pick her off on the back foot quite comfortably, Rana found a better rhythm in her second spell, drawing the England batters forward on a more consistent basis.
The more she bowled through the day, the better she looked. And when Rana is getting the ball to drift away from the batters, you know she is bowling somewhere close to her best.
In her 25th over of the day, with two wickets already under her belt and her confidence sky-rocketing, the off-spinner dismissed Elwiss in trademark fashion. Coming over the stumps, she tossed one up, enticing the England allrounder to drive expansively. Elwiss, who was deceived by the drift away, only managed to edge the ball to Sharma at first slip. It was a typical Rana wicket. One we’d become accustomed to at domestic level. That she pulled it out at the top level was another reason for her army to cheer.
“They (the coaching staff) just told me to focus on my strengths and bowl accordingly. I just followed my basics and didn’t try anything extra. I just kept bowling to my strengths and it all worked out,” she said matter-of-factly.
Off-spinners are not supposed to be special. You aren’t supposed to play three of them against a team full of right-handers. Worse, right-handers who sweep. It’s just not done.
But India did. And they succeeded. Against the odds. But they succeeded. And they have two debutantes to thank for it. That's not special at all.