Karuna Jain - Flight of a batswoman
There’s little doubt that cricket is indeed the most popular sport in India as thousands throng a stadium every time an ODI is played and millions more tune in to watch on television. But when the women turn up to play - even if it’s for the country - the crowds are non-existent and broadcasters turn a blind eye.
It’s an irony that you cannot miss. The partisan outlook notwithstanding, a bunch of steely Indian women took on the rather mighty Australia and got the better of them in their own backyard in the T20 series last month.
It was yet another reminder of their capabilities, if not of their very existence. Women cricketers in India are a forgotten lot. While the men rake in sponsorships by the crores, the women are left languishing – often having to work jobs in addition to training.
But their resolve and commitment towards the game is undeniable. When the Indian women leapt up in joy at the historic MCG, in faraway Bengaluru, a soft-spoken woman sported a beaming smile.
With over 1,100 international runs from 44 ODIs and 5 tests, Karuna Jain is no stranger to experiencing victories with the Indian women’s team. She was part of two memorable Test wins against the English women in England – one in 2006 and the other in 2014. And with 87 international dismissals (Test, ODIs and T20s), she’s behind only Sulakshana Naik (94) and Anju Jain (104) in the Indian women’s wicket-keeper honour roll.
Currently playing for Karnataka and South-Zone in the domestic circuit, Karuna spoke of women’s cricket in India and her journey as a cricketer in a freewheeling interview with SportsKeeda.
A prodigious start and baptism by fire
Incidentally, cricket wasn’t the first sport that she set her eyes on. Born in a sport loving family – her father was a competitive boxer and mother played ball-badminton – Karuna was skating at the national level at age 6. When she was 12, her brother - a former league cricketer - introduced her to cricket. “I would go to his school and college matches and slowly my interest in cricket took off”, she recalls.
As it turned out, she was quite a natural. Bowling off-spinners, she broke into the U-16 state side soon after her first tournament. But as the state-side had no wicket-keepers, she put her hand up. Soon enough, she was one of the most promising teenage wicket-keepers in the country. Railways came calling, but Karuna opted to join Air India.
“I think that was one of the major decisions that I took up. It was a bold decision for my career to go to Air India and nowhere else”, she says. And it was with Air India that she blossomed. Studded with prominent players from Indian team such as Anju Jain, Anjum Chopra and Purnima Rao (the current Indian women’s coach), the then Air India side was virtually the national side.
Moving to her new employer from the state-side, Karuna recalls that differences in the training rigour were visible immediate almost immediately. “I was in Mumbai at the time for 5-6 months. It was difficult being away from family. We would leave the flat at 7 am and be back only in the evening by 4 or 5 pm. It was really ripping”. But the hard work paid off and she was handed her India cap at 18 years of age.
Her ODI debut was however, bitter-sweet. Picked in game four of the 2004 West Indies tour of India, Karuna was tasked with opening the batting with the experienced Jaya Sharma. When the Indian innings concluded over three hours later, she was still at the crease, having batted out the entire 50 overs.
Her contribution – 68 runs from 150 balls. The innings was an ordeal. But Karuna is grateful for her teammates and Mithali Raj in particular for rallying behind her that day. “She kept on telling me you can do it, just stick on. Luckily I went on to get a fifty but it really wasn’t a memorable one” (laughs).
Despite the players jostling hard for team selection, Karuna says that the competition amongst the girls is healthy and the camaraderie undeniably strong. She recalls Anjum Chopra guiding her through the nineties in the Kolkata ODI against England in 2005. “I was mentally and physical drained out and told her I can’t push anymore. But Anjum kept talking to me and was guiding me with every run.
“I would give her credit for pushing me and helping me get to that hundred”. It was Karuna’s maiden ton. England was beaten by 38 runs and India pocketed the series 4-1.
There were other career highs as well. “In the test win against England in 2014, we had 8 debutants. When the men lost, we won. So that was really good for us and a great achievement”.
Incidentally, she was the vice-captain for that test. Karuna also led an India U-21 women’s team to Pakistan that returned victorious. “It was a different feeling, there was a lot of protection everywhere. From the time we left the hotel till the time we were in the plane, there was security all around us. But we actually enjoyed the attention”.
“Come what may, we are going to win”
When quizzed about the pressure to win, Karuna says that the current crop of girls enjoy the pressure and take it in their stride. “Previously, we would put enormous pressure on ourselves to win, but the current team’s mindset is one of – come what may, we are going to win. It’s as simple as that”.
The mindset is a paradigm shift in the approach of the Indian women’s team. The current team appears remarkable gritty as the players stride out with a hitherto unseen air of confidence. “They can take on anybody – player or team – in the world now” says Karuna. “All credit must go to Purnima Rao, who’s handling the side very well and the selectors who picked the right side”, she adds without a hint of remorse over having missed selection herself.
The women’s cricket scenario in India is slowly but surely changing. The BCCI offering central contracts was one such indication. “What I would expect now is more series. Also, hopefully we will get permission to play in WBBL (Women’s Big Bash League)”, Karuna said while adding that the current bunch of Indian women are just as good as those from England or Australia. And without batting an eyelid she says that some of her colleagues would surely come up for consideration if the WBBL option is made available.
Another noticeable feature is the foray of youngsters into the Indian women’s team. Karuna attributes the enormous coverage that cricket gets in India as the probable reason for young girls taking to the sport in the country today. All it needs now, she feels, is for a couple of woman cricketers to appear in commercials to lend the big push.
“I am just enjoying my day to day sessions”
Looking back on her own journey since making her India debut 12 years ago, she says that it’s been a “happy cricketing career”. Having donned the Indian colours with pride and travelled the world, Karuna marks the Adelaide Oval as her favourite ground. Having scored her only hundred at Kolkata, the Eden Gardens is close to her heart as well.
And who are her favourite cricketers? Dhoni, she says while stating that she watches the men’s game to “study their body language and the positive attitude they bring to the game”. Amongst the women, Anju Jain is her personal favourite. “I’ve been with her in Air India. She has pushed and guided me in every aspect, even now”.
With the Zonal matches around the corner, Karuna is training as hard as ever while continuing to juggle desk work at the ticketing department of Air India. Her colleagues at work are a constant source of encouragement and often tend to nudge her out of office while hinting that she ought to be training instead. But Karuna isn’t looking too far ahead just yet. Not one to put undue pressure on herself, the talented cricketer says she likes to take it match by match. “I would rather say that I’ve scored, I’ve done my job and that’s about it”.
She identifies batting as her core strength and coupled with her wicket-keeping, she continues to see herself as a formidable all-round cricketer. “It’s going to be a comeback period again for me now. That said, I love the game and I am just enjoying my day to day sessions and thinking of nothing else” says Karuna before returning to her net session.
And as she faces the bowling machine and relentlessly drives ball-after-ball, there’s little doubt that India colours still beckon as the fire in the belly continues to burn and fuel her unending love for the game.