One may not be able to spot Poonam Yadav in a team huddle at first attempt. It needs extra effort. Just pan and tilt down your neck and there you will see a talented leg-spinner standing about 4 feet and 11 inches, who, along with veteran spearhead Jhulan Goswami, had famously helped India finish runners-up in the 2017 ICC Women’s World Cup. “I resisted and told Jhulu di ‘if someone who is a bit taller stands next to me I would still be visible’. But who will see me next to her?” Poonam told ANI while narrating an anecdote when Jhulan came to stand next to her during the World Cup in England. After the mega tournament, the 27-year-old went onto become the leading T20I wicket-taker across men and women last year with 35 scalps under her belt. The journey, however, was not an easy one. The Yadav family settled in Agra as her father, an ex-army man, had different postings. The place gave her career a kick-start as she got the “right direction” when she saw “Hemlata Kala (former batswoman) and Preeti Dimri (former spinner) playing”.
Soon she realised the game had its own challenges too as there was no cricket in school, unlike hockey, kabaddi and kho kho. “I did not know where to play. So, I joined the stadium. They (Hemlata and Preeti) had said after them they want me from Agra to represent India. Boys have had their game but in girls, you need someone whom you can watch and learn. After observing them I made up my mind that the third girl from Agra to represent India will be me,” Poonam said. The leg-spinner knew her game and study could not go hand in hand. So, she told her father she cannot get first division and wanted to focus on cricket. “I was not good in studies. My father was worried about my studies. When he asked if I could not do well in cricket then what do I have as a second option. I just ensured him that I will study as well but give my 80 percent to cricket,” Poonam asserted.
Initially, she had started as a medium-pacer but the height factor forced her to shift towards leg-spinning. Despite being aware it can take two-three years or she may never learn the art of spinning, she earned a standby place in the Uttar Pradesh senior team. “Being a standby was a big thing for me because there was a lot of competition. I wanted to learn to bat as well because if bowling failed at least I will have batting. After a year, I gave trail for an all-rounder and went onto represent Uttar Pradesh under-19, senior’s team and later was named in Railways team.” Poonam, who led Uttar Pradesh under-19, got her India to call up in 2013. Her name in the playing XI, however, was included in only third T20I and third ODI matches against Bangladesh. She still managed to impress as she bagged three wickets each in both the matches.
“India calls up came as a shock. It is a dream for any girl to wear the blue jersey. My parents, especially mother was delighted as she had to go through a lot back home. People did not use to support girls. Like when I used to come late in the evening, neighbours used to question my mother. If I stepped out in fog they used to say – fog mein kya karti hai? (What does she do when there is fog?) I used to practice thrice a day!” “Even after playing for India, neighbours’ mindset did not quite change. It was only after the World Cup that scenario changed completely. People who used to criticise came forward in support. My parents and brother who used to be scared (as earlier girls were not safe) were all happy,” the leg-spinner said.
And like a true sportsperson, she is focussed to the core. “It is hard to get an opportunity (debut) but I had only one thing in my head — I have to perform so that people can remember me when I hang up my boots. I was dropped in two matches so I used to tell myself whenever I will get a chance I will grab it. I used to stay quiet and enjoy (when I sat out for two matches). I am thankful for my debut. I think it is because of that (three wickets in both ODI and T20I against Bangladesh) performance that I am playing today.”
The little magician who returned with 2/36 in her allocated 10 overs in the World Cup tasted immediate success after returning home. She, however, feels, “Success can take you up and bring you down in one go if you do not perform. You have to maintain that success. After the World Cup when we returned to Mumbai we saw public and media waiting to receive us. We never thought that would happen. We were happy that people recognised us. Then I went to Agra, where there was a road show for me.”
“Only a few people can maintain their success. If you perform well only then people would run after you. If you will not practice, I do not think anybody would be interested in getting a glimpse of you. As your success goes up, you have to increase the level of your hard work.” Poonam, who was a clerk with Railways, is an Office Superintendent in Agra now. After the 2013 debut, her father wanted her to get married. But she clearly told her father, “So many girls are playing and I am one of them who got an opportunity to represent India. ‘Do you want my story to read as I came, played and left?’ After that my mother said when I will say then only they will bring up this topic.”
Admitting that she has fear before every match, the leg-spinner said once she has delivered the first ball of her over she breathes a sigh of relief. During the 2017 tournament final against England, which India nearly lost by nine runs, the Lord’s was packed with supporters cheering on top of their voices. “I had no guts to see them (crowd) when I came to bowl. I knew only one thing whatever Mithali (Raj) di will ask I have to deliver. But when you walk you have to see up. It was difficult to handle the noise made by the supporters.”
Ranked at number two in the ICC T20I bowlers, Poonam acknowledged, “Ranking is important for me. When someone introduces, they will say she is rank number two. Everybody wants to go up in ranking but there is a fear of going down as well. I am practicing more for T20Is so that I can maintain my rank. If I can achieve better then it will be good for me and my team. Harry di (Harmanpreet Kaur) tells me to bowl without thinking too much as it is T20I and batters will try to hammer no matter what.”
India suffered an eight-wicket loss at the hands of England in the ICC Women’s World T20 semi-final last year, which later led to a war of words between veteran batter Mithali Raj and former coach Ramesh Powar. Poonam stressed, “We had not played a single match in dew. So that was the turning point for us because ball skid and our plans did not work. We had no idea how the ball will travel after dew. We learned after dew what should be done. The more you play the better you will learn. Before that, we won eight back to back matches. We are humans and humans make mistakes. There was not any lack of effort from anyone.”
BCCI recommended Poonam’s name along with men cricketers Ravindra Jadeja, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammad Shami for the prestigious Arjuna Award. Leaving the outcome to god, she said, “I do not know whether I will get it or not. I have performed and if I receive, it will be great. My family was happy with the recommendation news. If I get the award they will be happier. It is something to be proud of. Everybody dreams of getting it. But I do not know whether one or two will get because three more are there on the list.”
Having played for Supernovas, the champions at the Women’s T20 Challenge, in Jaipur, the leg-spinner said such league is a very good step for women’s cricket and it will help domestic players to show their game as well. “If young girls perform well maybe they will get an early chance in the Indian team. Last time we got only one match (in Mumbai) so there was less time to prove ourselves. This time we had four games. The credit goes to BCCI and selectors for promoting girls.”
“To increase the number of teams, girls need to perform better. All these matches went really close. It is a game, anybody can lose. We bonded with the overseas players and got a chance to learn from them a lot. This interaction will help us. But I do think the number of matches should increase to give more chance to young players.”
“With me, all four overseas players (Natalie Sciver, Lea Tahuhu, Sophie Devine and Chamari Atapattu) were great both on and off the field. They did not let us feel that we are playing under pressure. Sciver taught me how to throw the ball. I enjoyed with all four of them otherwise with the team, I am always focused. Devine is a prankster and jokes a lot. She called me ‘PY’. My teammates said she likes your name but I replied Indians like me but foreigners like me more.”
All the matches were hosted at the Sawai Mansingh stadium. “One venue is fine as of now because travelling will lead to tiredness. Young players need time as well and playing under light posed trouble as we play very matches less under lights.”
Reflecting on the growth and future of women’s cricket, Poonam said, “Number of tournaments has increased. I was busy throughout the last season. More the matches better are the results. I think matches at the small level are required as when we started we did not see any match at the school level.”
“In Agra, I do not think school level cricket was there. Cricket has not reached schools yet. There can be two-three girls but you need 15 to make a team and 11 main players who know how to play well. The game should be promoted at school level as there you will learn basics which will help to perform well at bigger levels.