IAF officer, Electronics engineer, first Indian cricketer from Goa: Shikha Pandey is an 'all-rounder' in every sense of the term
For Shikha Pandey, life has been about two halves - from donning the Indian Air Force uniform to wearing the Indian team jersey.
But smart planning has helped her secure a smooth transition between the two worlds and become a champion in both fields.
Not just that, this Electronics and Electrical engineer from Goa Engineering College had ditched three high-paying jobs in pursuit of her passion.
The 27-year-old Indian all-rounder took a trip down memory lane and recounted experiences from her days as a junior cricketer.
Academically inclined but cricket lover
"I took a liking to this sport through my cricket-fanatic father – he used to listen to a lot of cricket commentary on a transistor in the late 70s, early 80s. I used to go for long walks with him and hearing all the stories, my love for the game and the habit of following every game started growing," says Shikha in a chat with Sportskeeda.
She was always inclined towards academics and scored a decent 90 percent in boards. "My father is a teacher and he always used to say - studying should not be neglected. So the decision of taking up engineering after Class 12 was not hard to make," she adds.
By the time Shikha was in her second year of engineering, she dreamt of playing for India.
The first international cricketer from Goa recounts, "When I was 15, I played for Goa (was in West Zone then) once. But dad wanted me to finish my education first, so cricket took a backseat back then. But after my fourth year, I opted to take a year off to stick to a decision - whether to pursue cricket or work in one of the MNCs."
Gets maiden call-up against England
England toured India in 2010 and that's when she was asked to be a part of the Board President’s XI to play against the Charlotte Edwards-led England. The right-arm medium pacer took the wicket of the England captain and scored 17 in that match.
Next year, she was again selected for the Board President's XI to play against West Indies but failed to make the national squad.
"That's when my Dad asked me to appear for a random IAF exam. I cracked it based on my merit and when the opportunity presented itself, to join as a trainee in one of the most formidable air forces in the world, I jumped at the chance," says Shikha.
Sometime next year, she became the Air Traffic Control Officer
It was tough and the 'Proud Air Warrior', as mentioned on her Twitter handle, believes it wouldn't have been possible without the support of my family.
Grown up in Goa, the UP-born India's allrounder is the biggest success story in the football-dominated state. Shikha was playing for Goa Cricket Association all this while and very few people in the Air Force knew about her first-class career.
"Once, in a friendly match, each team needed at least two female players. I was asked to be a part of one of the teams. After seeing me bowl and field, they were surprised to see a lady cadet playing so well," she laughs.
“I am grateful to the Goa Cricket Association and particularly the Air Force Sports Control Board for bestowing such faith in me. Their vision, guidance, and support have helped me to shape up my career.”
Believes test cricket is the game of games
Nothing can reciprocate the essence of the five-day marathon. And like all cricketers do, the green-top lover wanted to play for India in whites.
"When I was in school, I used to wake up at 4 in the morning and watch the Ashes with my dad. No cricketer can be complete if he or she doesn't play test cricket," she says.
Her dream came true when she was called to cover up an injured player in the test match against the Three Lions at Wormsley in 2014.
"I was the first standby. But from there I made it to the playing XI which was a huge achievement. I clearly remember, we went with 4 medium pacers and there were 8 debutants in the team," she recalls.
The all-rounder, making her debut, played an invaluable knock of 28 not out during the chase and even hit the winning runs to seal a memorable victory for the Indian women team.
"To bat with Mithali (Raj) di and taking India to victory, that too in test cricket, has to be the finest moment of my career," said the admirer of Shaun Pollock.
First Indian women cricketer to score 50 and take 3 wickets in an ODI
Since then, there has been a steady growth in her career. She may not have achieved all that she would have wanted to. But there has been a growth.
Although not very strongly built, she bowls with a smooth, easy run-up and has been the strike bowler for the Indian squad along with Jhulan Goswami for quite some time. In 2014, she became the first Indian women cricketer to score a half-century and take three wickets in an ODI against South Africa.
The self-confidence she gained from the air force wing of the Indian Armed Forces transformed her into one of the most dependable bowler's in the Indian women's cricket circuit.
On being asked to assess the domestic structure of women's cricket, Shikha promptly replies, "Things are changing in Indian cricket. There are under-23 categories now. All states have under-16 tournaments which was unimaginable few years back."
"A girl can think of taking up cricket professionally which is a good sign," adds the lower-middle order batsman.
Shikha Pandey is just 27 and wants to continue playing the sport till she if fit. "Age is just a number," she concludes.
Slipping into an Indian armed forces’ jumpsuit when required and sometimes into an Indian team jersey, her journey continues to be just as inspirational.