With more in her armoury, Shikha Pandey aims to build on the success of 2019-20

Shikha Pandey celebrates after picking up a wicket. © ICC

2019 was a year of redemption for Shikha Pandey – the year she would re-establish herself as one of India’s premier pacers, the heir to her idol, Jhulan Goswami. It began with India’s tour to New Zealand at the start of the year, continued into the side’s home series against England the following month and reached a crescendo in the Women’s T20 Challenge in Jaipur, when she spearheaded the Velocity attack alongside Bangladesh international Jahanara Alam.

While Pandey took only two wickets in the side’s run to the final, she showed great control and clarity of thought when bowling under pressure. With the new ball, she was accurate, generated movement and challenged both the inside and outside edges of the bat. In the middle and death overs, she showcased a calm that had previously been missing at the highest level. Her ability to consistently hit the yorker allowed Mithali Raj, the Velocity skipper, to control the game even towards the end of the innings.

Her tournament stats read, 11 overs, 39 dots, 48 runs and the wickets of Smriti Mandhana and Priya Punia.

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The over that stood out was one she bowled in the final – the 19th of the innings – with Supernovas needing only 10 runs to win in 12 balls, and a belligerent Harmanpreet Kaur still at the crease. She conceded only three, leaving leggie Amelia Kerr to defend seven. It was an over that underlined how far Pandey had come since being dropped from the T20I side in October 2018. She had done the hard yards and returned with more – skill and mental fortitude – in her armoury.

Through the remainder of the year, she became one of Harmanpreet Kaur’s most trusted bowlers, joining Poonam Yadav as one of the more consistent members of the attack. She handled the pressure of (often) being the lone pacer in the XI, offering movement, control and showing game awareness that kept the opposition on their toes. Shafali Verma’s swashbuckling batting aside, it was Pandey’s ability to ‘close out’ games, that helped India through to their maiden T20 World Cup final.

Unfortunately, unable to build on her success in the wake of the tournament, as the world shut down, Pandey took a well-deserved break from the game. She fed her various interests outside the game itself, learning to play a couple of instruments, picking up plenty of card tricks, writing some poetry, reading to her heart’s content, and creating her own flip books.

However, after taking a few weeks off following her return from Australia, Pandey, a self-confessed cricket geek, spent the next seven months settling into a routine that included two practice sessions in a day. Like the rest of the Indian players, she acquired gym equipment and set up a makeshift facility at home, went running or cycling on alternate days and batted or bowled either in the driveway of her apartment or at the ground when the weather allowed.

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“Training has been difficult for the past seven months considering how terribly we were hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, but I made sure I kept myself mentally and physically fit,” she told Women’s CricZone ahead of her departure to Dubai.

“I consider myself blessed in a lot many ways. I set up a gym at home and was using the GCA (Goa Cricket Association) facilities in isolation whenever I could. As professional athletes we are used to being on the field day in and day out, but [these are] difficult times, so still had to find a way through.”

© Getty Images

Shikha Pandey’s ability to close out the innings has made her one of India’s most trusted bowlers. © Getty Images

Now that the long wait is over, the 31-year-old is thrilled to simply have the opportunity to play some cricket again. The success of the previous 18 months left her hungry for more, and the time away from the competitive circuit means she is now champing her teeth.

“I am really excited to be back on the field playing and doing what I love most. So, I’m looking forward to the practice sessions we have before we play the first game against Supernovas and trying to shed off the rustiness as soon as possible.”

Tuesday (October 26) this week was when the teams assembled for their first practice session in Dubai. Following the session, the eloquent allrounder put out a post on social media describing the feeling of returning to a team training session.

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True to her title of ‘Shikhipedia, the cricket geek’, the allrounder has been keeping an eye on the men’s IPL – observing how each player has gone about their plans, what has worked for the seamers, and what hasn’t. One thing she has zeroed in on, is the benefit of having a good yorker. Thus, it should come as no surprise that she spent much of the lockdown attempting to perfect her yorkers – the tennis ball made an appearance as well. (Jasprit Bumrah and T. Natarajan would approve).

“I’ve been working really hard to get my yorkers right, because that is one thing that doesn’t depend on what surfaces you are playing on,” she laughs.

“The matches in Sharjah have certainly been high-scoring, but that’s the challenge as a bowler. If you are able to execute your plans well, and control the areas the batter is hitting, you can still control the game. It’s a challenge, definitely, but one I am looking forward to.”

“It’s been a long break between [competitive] games and I’m really looking forward to running in and bowling to a batter. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of bowling with a new ball. It’s something I’ve definitely missed. Hopefully, I can find my rhythm quickly,” she beams.

If her (improved) skill with words is anything to go by, one would do well to expect Pandey to have the batters dancing to her tune – even in unhelpful conditions in Sharjah.

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