On 17th March, 2021, 22-year-old all-rounder Prathyusha Challuru walked out to bat for the Indian women's cricket team against South Africa at Lucknow. Most debutants would dream of batting alongside their idols in their very first outing, and for Prathyusha, that dream was to soon turn into reality.
Prathyusha gathered her thoughts and soaked in the atmosphere to face her first ball in international cricket, with her idol and Indian captain Mithali Raj at the other end.
The youngster almost got run out on her first ball, but as she scampered across for her first run, the sigh of relief was quite evident. Having finally earned an international debut after years of hard work in the domestic circuit for Karnataka, Prathyusha didn't get much of a chance to impress with the bat.
However, with the ball, she prized the important scalp of Anneke Bosch, with Raj pouching a simple catch. For the Karnataka youngster, the debut was all the more special, with Raj playing a massive supporting role throughout the match, including handing her the India cap.
In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, Prathyusha reflects on her ODI debut, her early introduction to cricket and what's in store for Indian women's cricket in the years to come.
"I’m lucky because very few people get to bat with her (Mithali Raj) when they make their debut. When I walked in, she asked me to give her a single because it was the death overs. First time I was walking out to bat for India, and seeing her at the other end, it was a great moment for me that she was comforting me."
As tradition goes, Prathyusha was informed of the management's decision to hand her a debut the evening before the match, and the all-rounder recollects the 'sleepness night' that followed.
"To be frank, I didn’t sleep the whole night. I was very excited, nervous and a lot of emotions swept in. Most of the players have seen me play domestic cricket, India A, so they were all happy for me. I called my mum first, and she was like “I knew it”! The bowling hadn’t gone well for India, especially the spin department, so she was expecting the debut."
"It takes a lot of mental strength to come this far"
Prathyusha resides with her family in the cricket-loving city of Bengaluru, and she's been an imperative part of the Herons Cricket Club. As a sports aficianado from a very young age, it was only natural that the sport came knocking at her door.
While it was initially sitting alongside her father and watching the game on TV that hooked her onto the sport, an introduction to the concept of women's cricket in 2010 further sparked an interest in her to take up the sport a lot more seriously.
Prathyusha's first stint with a coaching centre came at the Falcons Sports Club, an academy for which she has the utmost gratitude, owing to all the support she received from the coaches and staff members.
While it's no secret that men's cricket is placed at a higher pedestal than women's cricket - at least in India - the competition with the boys helped Pratyusha develop the mental strength required to succeed at the international level.
"It takes a lot of mental strength to come to this level. Now I’ve realised it takes even more effort to cement your place in the team. I feel right now things are in a much better place for women’s cricket, especially after the 2017 World Cup when India made it to the finals."
"Things have changed a lot since then, in terms of the coverage and everything. Now, even the domestic matches are being telecasted. Thanks to that, I won’t say women's cricket is at par with men's cricket, but it is much, much better than before."
A huge fan of MS Dhoni and more recently, Virat Kohli, Prathyusha has produced quite a few handy knocks with the bat in the domestic circuit. With the ball, the leg-spinner has managed to bamboozle some of the biggest names in world cricket.
In List-A cricket, Prathyusha has 66 wickets in 46 matches while in T20 cricket, the youngster has 34 scalps to her name from 38 matches, at a terrific economy rate of just 4.67.
While the bowling stats certainly overshadow her efforts with the bat, Prathyusha hopes to contribute a lot more with the willow in times to come.
"I like batting a lot. But looking at my stats, I have a lot of wickets. In the men’s team, (Washington) Sundar is being recognised as a good all-rounder after performing with the bat. I’m also looking forward to a similar role where I can pick wickets and chip in with the bat a bit as well."
As for personal goals, winning a World Cup is the pinnacle of sport, at least in cricketing terms. And for Prathyusha, the path ahead is heading towards only one destination - the Indian women's squad for the global tournament.
"Next year is a World Cup year, and being a part of that might really help. I am working hard towards being a part of that World Cup squad. Winning games for the country is the goal. Being part of a World Cup win is my ultimate goal."
"We need to have more teams in the Women's IPL"
Back in 2018, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) introduced a Women's T20 Challenge, a tournament akin to the IPL. The first edition featured just a one-off match between Smriti Mandhana's Trailblazers against Harmanpreet Kaur's Supernovas, an encounter that was won by the latter.
The next season, in 2019, the Women's T20 challenge grew bigger with the addition of team Velocity, led by veteran Mithali Raj. The 2020 edition of the competition featured the same three teams, but the absence of some high-profile foreign stars meant the tournament stuck out like a sore thumb.
To make matters worse, ardent women's cricket fans felt let down and even termed the four-match competition just a 'filler' amidst the glory of IPL 2020.
A few months ago, former Australian cricketer Lisa Sthalekar suggested that efforts invested in the Women's IPL would be similar to buying a house. Prathyusha threw her weight behind the topic, suggesting that more teams would mean a lot more exposure to international quality cricket.
"Three years back, the women’s T20 Challenge was started to see how things would fall into place. But now the way the Indian team is going, we have a lot of talent, more teams can be considered. It’s hard to perform in the domestic circuit and then go on to play at such a big level. More teams have to be there. Yes, we did lose to South Africa, but if we get more exposure with foreign players, Indian cricket will grow."
As recently as January 2021, the Indian Nippon Cup tournament was held in Bengaluru to celebrate Falcon Cricket Club's Golden Jubilee. The 4-team competition witnessed the participation of some big names such as Veda Krishnamurthy, Jemimah Rodrigues, Radha Yadhav among others.
One among the four captains was Prathyusha, who led the Kini RR Sports team. The biggest takeaway from the tournament was the underlying principle of promoting domestic talent.
While being effusive in her acknowledgement of the Falcons Club for giving the players a chance to get onto the field during the pandemic, Prathyusha reckons that Karnataka's success could be used as a yardstick for the BCCI to explore increasing the number teams in the Women's T20 challenge.
"What we've achieved in Karnataka is not an overnight result. We’ve been working on this for 4-5 years. The players who are clicking now, they haven’t just come in this year. In the last 2 years, we’ve got through the knockouts in every tournament. These players have put in so much hard work over the last 4-5 years and that’s why we are yielded results."
Having fought through hardships to earn a debut at the international level, one thing is for sure. Prathyusha will not stop at anything to push for a spot in the World Cup spot, and from there, she'll give it her all to bring the trophy home.