Priya Punia. ©Priya Punia

Surender Punia has an exciting job with the Survey of India. The only issue is he gets transferred to different cities every few years. New quarters, new maid at home, new neighbours, new colleagues at office and new school for kids. This is a routine for most self-respecting central government employees in India, and families build their life around the inevitable.

Surender is obsessed with cricket, but he could not fulfill his dream of playing at a professional level. He was determined to make his daughter and son sportspersons. While working in Delhi, he initially got Priya Punia to play badminton but soon enrolled her at the famous West Delhi Cricket Academy in Paschim Vihar under Rajkumar Sharma, who has given Virat Kohli to the world.

Rajkumar remembers a “hardworking and sincere girl who always wanted to reach the top level.” He taught her “about building innings and leaving deliveries outside the off stump against the new ball.” Priya developed enough to represent India A against the visiting New Zealanders in a 50-over tour match in Bangalore in June 2015 before she was 19. She had earned that call-up on the back of a strong 2014-15 domestic season, which had included a 266-ball 95 for North Zone against West Zone in a two-day match in Kolkata. The potential now needed to be nurtured.

India A lost, but Priya’s 59-ball 42 from No.3 in a chase of 257 was the second-best score across both the teams. Someone who played with Priya in that match remembers her to be “shy and awfully quiet, but played with such confidence and assurance. Superb cover drives.”

Just when Priya was looking to step up, Surender got transferred and the family moved to Jaipur. Surender, however, was not giving up after having seen her daughter wear the blue jersey.

He used his savings to buy a plot in Jaipur and converted it into a small cricket ground. Priya estimates the distance from the turf pitch at the centre of the ground till the boundary to be approximately 40 yards. “Since my father has a government job, there are obviously financial issues,” Priya tells Women’s CricZone. “But whatever papa can do, he does. He has also been my personal coach ever since we moved out of Delhi.”

The family’s support and Priya’s hard work finally paid off on Friday (December 21) when she was named in the Twenty20 International squad for the tour of New Zealand in February next year.

The double-headers, with the T20Is between the men’s team of both the countries being the other fixture, will give the Punia family a chance to see their girl on television, representing India. What a proud moment that will be.

Those who follow women’s cricket in India have been aware about Priya’s ability since that New Zealand game, but she failed to capitalise on the head start.

It was only in January this year at the 2017-18 50-over Challenger Trophy in Indore, which was on television, that the wider audience saw her once again. She made 51 as an opener for India Red in the tournament’s first match, but was so slow that the knock exposed her inability to rotate the strike against the new ball. Her drawbacks may have got hidden in another competition, but not in the one where Jemimah Rodrigues blazed her way into the national team with a mighty impressive show for India Green. There was only one spot for a batter in a line-up studded with some of India’s best, and Rodrigues rightfully grabbed it.

Priya analysed her game, had a chat with Mithali, and realised that she needed to be more agile and become a diverse batter. She worked on her fitness and boundary clearing abilities in the offseason and the results were visible at the ongoing inter-state 50-over competition. A timely reminder from Reema Malhotra, the Delhi captain, boosted her confidence.

“Before the start of the season I told Priya that our 50-over matches are in Alur, where they usually provide batting tracks, and you should capitalise on it,” recollects Malhotra who had predicted Priya to be in the Indian team almost two years back. “She got her bat to do the talking with two centuries.”

Delhi missed out on a knockout berth by a whisker, but Priya’s two big centuries – 125 against Gujarat at a strike-rate of 81.70 and 143 against Tamil Nadu at a strike-rate of 92.86 – got noticed. She is currently one of the four batters with 400 or more runs in the competition.

“At the last (50-over) Challenger Trophy I had played slow, and realised that I needed to improve my strike-rate,” Priya, who grew up idolising Rahul Dravid before shifting loyalty to her club mate Kohli, says. “I have worked hard on my power hitting. Till last season I was playing more grounded shots, but now I play the lofted shots also.”

Her three sixes in eight innings is nowhere close to being the best in the competition, but Priya is ranked fourth among batters with most fours in the competition. Many of her 49 fours were lofted shots.

Malhotra says that Priya’s biggest strength is that she is “technically very sound to counter all challenges” and has “improved significantly as a fielder which was unexpected in such a short notice.”

As the road gets tougher, Priya believes her father’s advice will hold her in good stead. “Play your natural game without pressure. He is always happy when I play freely. Play your shots then you will automatically get runs.”

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