Another one for the highlights reel: Lil J’s Big Comeback

Jemimah Rodrigues plays a shot © Getty Images

It is not easy to be a top cricketer with an active social media presence. Often, what athletes do in their own time and share on their personal social media handles is used against them when things don’t go well on the field. It gets worse if they show their sense of humour or a lively personality when their performances are not up to the mark; case in point, New Zealand men’s allrounder Jimmy Neesham. Within women’s cricket, India’s Jemimah Rodrigues has copped her fair share of flak as well. 

The Indian top-order batter broke on to the international scene in early 2018. However, her inconsistency over the last year and a half, coupled with the rise of Shafali Verma as an opener, meant that she has struggled to cement a spot on the side. 

Aside from her cricketing talent, Rodrigues is known for her social media antics. She comes across as an affable, intelligent, jovial young woman enjoying her life. It is the reason fans flock to her by the hundreds. But often, it is those same fans that seem prepared to tear her down for those same reasons when she falters on the field for India. 

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The first half of 2021 was not very kind to Rodrigues. The 21-year-old had a forgettable series against South Africa at home in March, had to sit out the Test match in England, and faced more disappointment with a couple of failures in the ODIs. Those poor returns meant that once again, she did not play in the T20Is. 

Going into The Hundred, she had a point to prove. Rodrigues admitted that she could not sleep the night before her first match. She started the tournament with an unbeaten 94 and finished as the second leading run-scorer; seven matches, 249 runs at a strike rate of 150.9. 

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On the back of those returns, almost everyone expected her to walk into the ODI XI against Australia. However, her West Zone teammate Yastika Bhatia was preferred over Rodrigues in the ODIs and the pink-ball Test, and the right-hander had to wait for her turn while saving some crucial runs on the field as a substitute. Ahead of the T20I leg of the multi-format series, India skipper Harmanpreet Kaur spoke highly of Rodrigues’ performances in The Hundred, adding that the team management expected her to replicate that form for India. 

If the pressure of returning to India colours wasn’t enough, the expectations of the captain and team management, especially with the series at stake, would have only added to it. But Rodrigues repaid the faith. 

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Rodrigues walked in to bat in the third over, at the fall of Smriti Mandhana’s wicket, when India were going at almost ten runs per over. Even before facing her first delivery, she watched Verma get out just after smoking a six.

After the chaos, when she finally took strike, Tayla Vlaeminck was steaming in, with the speed gun clocking mid 120KMPHs.

The first delivery was an outswinger, left alone. Vlaeminck squared up Rodrigues on the next delivery that almost took the outside edge. The non-striker end clearly seemed like a better place to be. She nudged one to the third-man region and handed the strike to her skipper.

When Sophie Molineux came on in the next over, Rodrigues cut the spinner behind point for a boundary before rotating the strike once again. This time, she watched Kaur fall to Molineux before Yastika survived a close call. The pair of 20-year-olds then took a couple of overs to settle in. However, when Ashleigh Gardner gifted her a short and wide delivery, Rodrigues made the most of it. 

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Hannah Darlington was welcomed with a thump over mid-off – a shot that was followed by another boundary, this time inside-out over cover. No matter who came in to bowl, the free-flowing Rodrigues made sure to take them to the cleaners.

Her boundaries were nothing like the three sixes bludgeoned by Verma earlier. They were more about precision, picking the right bowler and placing them in the gap, one delivery at a time. Rodrigues was on her way to a T20I fifty before rain interrupted. She finished with an unbeaten 36-ball 49.

Making a comeback to the team with the series at stake, against one of the strongest opponents, Rodrigues was anchoring India to a big total. The tourists’ innings came to an end at 131 for four in 15.2 overs. The match was eventually abandoned, but Rodrigues had made a mark.

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When asked if she had a sleepless night like the one before her Hundred debut, the India batter said that she ”slept like a baby “. “I think yesterday I slept better than I have slept ever before, don’t know why,” Rodrigues beamed.

“I was very nervous coming into this game. I called up my mom and dad and let it all out. Both of them have supported me a lot throughout this (tough) time, constantly speaking to me from yesterday. Arundhati (Reddy) knew I was a little nervous. She didn’t say anything, but she was there. Just letting it out and them encouraging me helped me a lot,” she said in the post-match press conference on Thursday (October 7).

“I was happy to be back out there after so long. I waited a long time for this. Sitting out and watching everyone play, sometimes you wonder ‘when will my time come’. Today when the chance came, I was just enjoying it.”

ALSO READ: Jemimah Rodrigues makes the right noises on her debut in The Hundred

While her teammates were out in the middle making Australia chase leather through the ODIs and one-off Test, Rodrigues was hard at work in the nets, trying to hone her game and find a way back into the XI. She admitted to working with batting coach SS Das and the throwdown specialists for long hours, while adding that the role definition provided by head coach Ramesh Powar helped her mindset. “They told me my role is an anchor role, to get singles-doubles, find the odd boundaries and play with a good strike rate. We have Kranti bhaiyya and Ashok bhaiyya (throwdown specialists) who help out, and they make it very challenging for us.”

“We play like six balls and keep a target. If I win, they will give me 50 dollars or buy me dinner. If they win, I have to buy them dinner. So, we have this fun competition. They are the kind of people who won’t give away easy runs. We have to fight it out in the nets before fighting it out in the match.”

While fans and people on the outside only get to see what athletes share on their social media, often the work done behind the scenes goes under the radar. In the end, it is those unseen hours of work that help them improve. What is shared with the world is usually only a highlights reel.

Modern-day athletes might be used to the glare of social media – the fame, name and abuse that comes with it. That, however, does not make it any easier to deal with. The self-anointed ‘Lil’ J’ has though found a way to ride the waves, and after much time swimming against the tide, she has come roaring back.

… She’s sent an early warning – “there are loads of runs coming.”

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