If Women's IPL gets even half the attention as Men’s IPL, it will change the face of the game: Yastika Bhatia [Interview]

If Women's IPL gets even half the attention as Men’s IPL, it will change the face of the game: Yastika Bhatia [Interview]
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The Indian women’s cricket team has achieved numerous milestones in the past year. After failing to make it to the semi-finals of the Women’s ODI World Cup 2022, the Indian team went on to defeat Sri Lanka in a T20I and ODI bilateral series, and followed it up with a Commonwealth Games Silver medal, which took place at Edgbaston in Birmingham earlier this year.

India lost the CWG 2022 finals to Australia, but the Women in Blue went on to break boundaries and barriers thereafter. They toured England for a white-ball series and claimed a historic 3-0 win over England and etched their names in history books. The team then won the Women’s Asia Cup 2022 for a record seventh time, making 2022 even more fruitful.

The year 2022, so far, has been memorable for every member of the team, and India’s wicketkeeper-batter Yastika Bhatia shared her experience of being a part of these historic events, in an exclusive interview with CricTracker.

Here are the excerpts from the interview:

1. Take us through your cricketing journey- Why cricket? What was the motivation behind taking up the sport?

I was a very energetic and hyperactive kid. I used to enjoy staying outside more than indoors. And I was into sports, like Karate, Swimming, and Badminton, before I took up cricket. My badminton coach got transferred from Manjalpur (Baroda) to some other place which was on the other end of Vadodara. So it was difficult for me to train myself in Badminton anywhere nearby, so I had to give up on it.

My father then came in touch with one of our neighbours, Pinal Shah. He was a Ranji player. He informed my father that women too play cricket, and asked him ‘Where should I send my girls for training?’. He advised us to go to a club named Youth Service Centre in Polo Ground. And that’s how one day, our father took us to the ground. We wore white clothes, and he told us he is taking us to a good place, and we reached the YSC ground. Before reaching the venue, we had no idea where he was taking us. All we knew was that he had asked us to wear white clothes, which we did, and we were going out somewhere to play a sport. I was completely unaware of women’s cricket. That’s how my sister and I started playing cricket.

And once we started training, I was asked to wait because I was a kid, just six years old, and my sister was nine. So, they took my sister in and asked me to wait for three years, till the time I turned nine. I used to see my sister play, and I used to dream that one day I’ll make it there as well. Seeing her play every day, I had dreams where I saw myself playing the game, hitting the big shots. So, it became even more exciting for me. But luckily, after one year, they admitted me to the club but I got admission to the Baroda Cricket Association (BCA) after a gap of three years. Seeing my sister play was a driving force for me. You know, it’s like, ‘Jab koi cheez hume nahi milti, to use paane ki icchha aur bhi badhti jaati hai.’ (The desire to have something shoots up when you are unable to get it.) That is what happened to me when I started playing cricket.

2. You started as a bowler, then transformed into a wicketkeeper-batter. Was that phase difficult? Do you ever wish you could have been a bowler?

The transition was very smooth because I was very young. I had been bowling for about a year, but I was only eight or nine years old when the shift happened. The selectors said they needed a wicketkeeper for the U19 team. They first thought of moving my sister to the wicketkeeper’s role, but my sister had been a bowler for almost five years and it would have been very difficult. So they thought instead of changing her entire routine, let’s train Yastika for the role because it would be easy to train her compared to Didi (sister).

As I said, I’m very energetic and used to get very excited whenever I learned new things. So, I said yes to it immediately. And the very next day, my father got me the entire kit- pads, gloves, helmet everything. And As soon as he got me the kit, I shifted to the wicketkeeper’s role, and I loved the role. I would have been equally enthusiastic if I had been a bowler. Because I love playing the game, be it in whatever role, it doesn’t matter. I just want to keep playing.

I started enjoying wicketkeeping because I liked wearing those gloves, and catching the ball coming at full speed was fun. It’s not like I was a perfectionist, I was dropping the ball as well, but I was liking it. And I did not know about any wicketkeepers because I was very young and everything was very new to me. I did not know whom to look up to, I was enjoying the game. And when I turned 10, I got selected for the U19 team because they were not having a reserve keeper.

That’s why they asked me to turn into a wicketkeeper, and my batting had been good since the beginning. They had informed me in advance, that we are taking you to the tournament but you won’t be playing any match. But it would be good for us in the upcoming years if we had a backup wicketkeeper. Because the girl who was wicketkeeping at that time was around 17 or 18 and had just a little time left with the U19 team.

I have never felt like going back to bowling because I love wicketkeeping. Also, another thing is that once you showcase a good performance while wicketkeeping, and also with the bat, then you can affirm your place in the squad and no one can take you down. The wicketkeeper’s role is the best one in any team. And keeping the gloves helps a lot with the batting too!

If I’m wicketkeeping, it helps me improve my concentration and my knowledge about the wicket. I can help the bowler, and it also helps in leadership roles. That is why I never feel that I should have been a bowler. I feel glad that I became a wicketkeeper. The perks of being a wicketkeeper apart from the experience and exposure were that I used to be the frontrunner during selections.

3. Who was your cricketing idol growing up?

Smriti Mandhana, without a doubt. Because we used to play together in West Zone and I have followed her game since the beginning. I never really understood much about other international cricketers by watching them on TV. But those playing in front of us, even the cricketers of Baroda, we used to feel “Yes, we want to become like them”. I watched Smriti Didi playing once and had the thought that she’s a left-handed batter, she plays so well, and she’s representing India too.

And when I was around 13, she started playing for India. So since then, I used to follow her, and only after watching her play I started following women’s international games. I started following Virat Kohli as well, and now I even look up to Suryakumar Yadav. His style of playing, his attitude while playing, the ‘Dadagiri’ attitude, I love that. I feel I need to have that attitude while walking into the field.

4. Tell us something about your bonding with Jemimah Rodrigues.

Jemi and my debut happened around the same period in the Under-19 level. And then we attended the ZCA camp together. Initially, we did not talk that much because she was like a tiny, small kid in the camp and even did not used to indulge much with others. Then the year after that again at the ZCA camp, we started talking and opened up to each other because we used to bat together while opening the batting order.

So, while batting together, we used to talk a lot, we used to enjoy each others’ game and also encouraged each other while also suggesting technicalities in our gameplay, like what can you do to improve this bit of your batting and things like that. That’s when our friendship grew. She used to play guitar, and we used to learn to play the instrument from her.

She’s a great person. She encourages you a lot. Whenever I’m with her, I feel so positive and happy around her. That’s why I love her company. She gave a long speech when I made my international debut. I was so surprised, because, before that, no one had given a speech. I was surprised, and shocked, to see Jemi giving a speech, that too such a long one! I was so happy at that moment. I felt very special at that time. I was like ‘Ab rulayegi kya?’ (You’ll make me cry now or what?)

5. In less than a year after making your international debut, you made the cut for the ODI World Cup. It was your first major tournament, how was the experience like?

I felt very good. Not everyone gets the opportunity to play in the World Cup for India, and playing six matches there and scoring two half-centuries, I felt very proud. The best part was playing the World Cup alongside Mithali Di (Mithali Raj) and Jhullu Di (Jhulan Goswami). It was a totally different feeling, full of pride. I wish we had done better and played more matches ahead, it would have felt really good (entering the semis).

It was like a level-up for me. That tournament took my game to the next level. I understood the feeling of playing in front of such  big crowds, under so much pressure, with so many people from India watching. And I was really enjoying that feeling. I had fun playing the matches that I played. Even our support staff backed me a lot. I felt so good that they were so positive about me.

Just six months into my international career, I was playing in the World Cup and they kept backing and motivating me saying ‘You can do it’. There were some learning points as well. After the innings or after the game, there shouldn’t be any ‘What if’. Like, what if we had done this, or what if we had tried that? That should not hover over our minds after any game.

Also, we had Mugdha mam with us, our psychologist. I used to have one-on-one sessions with her before every match. She made me understand a lot of things and motivated me. And mainly, she understood my mental state and guided me according to that. If I used to get too hyped up, which I usually do, she used to identify that and calm me down. She also used to give me tips, what new can I do with my batting, and things like that which I follow to date. So, having a psychologist on the team helps a lot.

6. First Mithali Raj, now Jhulan Goswami. Two legends of the game announced their retirement this year. You all might surely miss them. How have they been an inspiration to the players on the team?

They have been a massive inspiration. I can’t describe it. I am short of words, I don’t know how to give justice to what they’ve done for us. Words are not enough to describe it. Jhullu Di and Mithali Di, whenever they used to see me having a puzzled face, they used to approach me and say ‘Come let’s grab a coffee and talk.’ Such a gesture, by anyone, creates a huge impact on a person.

They have always stood by me, they have supported me like a pillar. Jhullu Di got a brilliant farewell, we were all very emotional, and throughout the ODI series, we were like ‘We want to win this for Jhullu Di, somehow we have to do it for her.’ That was the only thing going on in our minds. Having served the nation for more than two decades, they have transformed the face of Indian cricket.

7. Mithali Raj calls you Prime Minister, what’s the reason behind that?

That is because I speak the most during our team meetings. Whenever there are team meetings, and someone asks if anyone wants to ask something or things like that, I’m always the one to speak up and add my point. And Mithali Di used to say ‘You have to speak in every meeting, and we just have to sit here and listen to you? Seems like you’re the Prime Minister and we are your ministers!’ That’s why she jokingly calls me Prime Minister.

8. You’ve played under two captains- Mithali Raj and Harmanpreet Kaur. How has the experience been under the two skippers?

The ultimate goal of both the captains was the same, to take the team to a win, but their styles were different, the approach of taking the team to a win is different. The objective and aim of them both are the same, be it Mithali Di or Harry Di (Harmanpreet). Both of them lead from the front, and both of them motivate and back the players a lot, but Mithali Di is a lot calmer.

Rather than differences, I find more similarities between the two. There’s a slight difference in their thinking because Harry Di is young and we can relate more to her and her advice. We are able to grasp things faster. Harry Di is very much involved in the game, she’s always hyped. She’s very enthusiastic and energetic, which hypes us even more.

9. A lot of cricket has happened of late, and the Women’s IPL getting a nod has been a cherry on top. How excited are you about it?

I’m very excited about Women’s IPL. Again, I fall short of words to describe my excitement for the tournament. We have been waiting for this for such a long time. We kept thinking about when would an IPL happen for us, and when would we get the chance to play franchise cricket in our own country. We can’t even imagine the transformation that the Women’s IPL will bring to women’s cricket in India.

Once the WIPL begins, you’ll see the difference within just two or three years. New players and new faces will come up, everyone would get the required exposure, the gap between domestic and international cricket will reduce, and mainly the income of these girls will be stabilized. The one move will bring plenty of advantages.

The viewership of women’s cricket will increase. And if WIPL gets even half the attention as the IPL, it will change the face of the game. I’m very excited about that and looking forward to a franchise buying me, and also looking forward to seeing myself performing for the team. There’s just too much excitement.

10. If the existing franchises bid for a women’s team, which team do you wish to play for? Is there a favourite?

See, where there’s Hardik bhaiya (Pandya), that will be my favourite team. As of now, my favourite men’s team is Gujarat Titans. But, I have followed Mumbai Indians since childhood, so I would prefer to play for MI. Hardik Bhaiya was also with Mumbai Indians first, so since a long time I had a dream of playing for Mumbai Indians. I imagine myself in the MI jersey. In the recent IPL edition, I supported Gujarat Titans. But my first preference would be Mumbai.

11. BCCI’s move to equalling the match fee for male and female cricketers is a historic decision. How do you think this move will help the up-and-coming cricketers?

It’s a great move. The players, who are currently representing India, have a stable income due to the match fees and they have a secured future. You can say that if you play for 10 years for India, you’ll have enough money for your future. That will motivate the domestic players and encourage them to play for their country.

The young players, who dream to play for India, will receive support from their parents. They’ll know that it has a future. There have been cases where talented cricketers left the sport due to financial issues. They can now indulge more in the sport, they can choose it as a career. Because we all know cricket is a very expensive sport.

Take my example, when I started cricket, at least for the first eight years, the expenses were higher than the income. That is, we were incurring a loss. But, that is being compensated now. It is true that not everyone can afford this. This happened to me, it’s not necessary this happens to everyone else too but there are chances.

So, if we have equal pay, then there’s the IPL, then if the money for domestic also increases, then the financial angle would be sorted, and more girls would be encouraged to take up the sport. Because not everyone has a long vision.

12. You’ve been a part of the Baroda domestic team for a long, and you still continue to represent them. Having played international cricket for over a year now, how do you think WIPL will be helpful for female cricketers on the domestic front?

Those who perform well in the domestic setup will be likely to receive an IPL call-up. You’ll be training for almost a month before getting on with the tournament. So, training, playing the actual matches, everything will happen in presence of international cricketers. The girls will be in a different environment. Their game will improve.

And then, when they go back to their state, they’ll tell the other players about their experience, and the learnings from the tournament. So, alongside you, a few more players’ games will improve. For those who did not get an opportunity to play, it will be a motivational factor for them as well. Also, if you do well at the IPL, you can easily transform to the international stage.

We faced difficulty when we shifted to international after playing domestic. But India A tours made the process easy for us. The India A tours gave us exposure, and also an idea about the international level games. If that hadn’t happened, we would have been able to make a mark so soon. We would also have taken time. Now, the IPL will help in making the transformation easier.

The IPL is just a platform. And the best thing for the Indian team would be that there will be healthy competition. The players who will be picked based on the IPL will put up tough competition for those who are already a part of the team. Not a single spot in the team would be taken for granted. Because those already in the team will work harder to retain their place in the team. As a result, the team’s performance will increase and improve.

13. India added another feather to their cap by bagging the CWG 2022 Silver. You guys must be disappointed not getting the gold, but what were the learnings from the tournament, if any?

One thing I learned and understood was, whenever you get an opportunity, grab it to the fullest because you won’t get the chance again. I have to make full use of the opportunities that I get. The second thing is preparation and hard work. It has to be 100%. Because the smallest of mistakes can have a direct impact on your performance.

In the final game against Australia, there was a lot of pressure. Maybe if we had taken a few more right decisions under pressure, then the result could have been in our favor. So that is what, you have to be calm and take the right decisions under pressure. Even with Tahlia McGrath playing the finals after testing positive for Covid-19, it did not have a negative impact.

As such it was well within the rules, which said that a covid positive player can participate. We knew about the rule but never anticipated that it would actually happen during the finals. But we did not focus on that at all. Harry di had also told us that it’s all part of the game and well within the rules. So there’s nothing to overthink.

14. India clinched a historic ODI series win recently against England, and you were part of the series throughout. Take us through the whole experience, from the first game to the moment when you all lifted the trophy.

Okay, so I’ll take you a little into the past, even before we travelled to England. I was preparing at the National Cricket Academy (NCA) in Bengaluru for the England series, alongside Harleen (Deol) and Jhullu di. From that time only, there was something that kept us hyped. There was something positive, I don’t know how to say it, but all three of us were feeling very motivated and confident.

When we reached England, the team’s atmosphere was a little different. Everyone was very quiet and calm because we all knew it was Jhulu Di’s final series. But we three were so positive and confident that the entire team got the vibe. Harleen, everyone knows, is of a very positive and jolly nature. Plus she’s a Punjabi, so she keeps everyone’s mood happy.

And everyone’s always motivated whenever we are around Jhullu Di. We enjoyed the entire tournament. The final game was very emotional for us. We had won the series already, but we had to win the final game too, for her. Our only aim was to give her a proper farewell, be it whatever. She should feel special. I was also motivated to work harder so as to make her feel special and proud of herself.

We got great support from the crowd. They kept us pumped up and backed us. It just added up to the atmosphere. The overall environment was great.

15. Deepti Sharma’s brilliance helped you guys win the final ODI at Lord’s. Many cricketers praised the move and are now aware of the fact. How was the team’s environment after the win?

No one had expected such an end to the series. Neither me nor anyone on the team. For a moment, we were all shocked. We were like, ‘Wait, what just happened?’. Every player had their own take and reaction to that moment, but I was shocked. But, it’s a part of the game and well within the laws. Deepti did nothing wrong!

It was our moment; we were enjoying it because we had clinched the series 3-0. Jhullu Di was really happy. She was like ‘3-0 JEET GAYE! WAAH WAAH WAAH!’ And her reaction to the win made us even happier. Also, there was nothing wrong with the run-out. Those who criticized Deepti, what would they have opined if Charlie (Dean) had stolen a run? She did nothing wrong and she does not deserve any criticism. We felt really good, and we kept enjoying ourselves.

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