On 20th November, 2021, under gloomy clouds at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium, a young and pumped-up Karnataka women's cricket team prepped themselves to take on their biggest challenge yet.
Facing off against the mighty Railways unit led by Mithali Raj was always going to be an arduous task, but there was not a chance the visitors were going to play without a sense of pressure.
In what was the state's first summit clash appearance in 16 editions of the Senior Women's ODI Trophy, it was only fitting that friends, family members and a few ardent fans were present to cheer the hosts on in what was perceived as a David v Goliath clash.
While the result wasn't as kind to the young team and its many fans, making the final itself was the first victory, as per Karnataka head coach Mamatha Maben. After jostling their way out of a seven-year struggle in the Plate category to make a mark in the knockouts of the tournament, the Karnataka team's meteoric rise is there for all to see.
In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, Maben shed light on how years of struggles and partnerships have eventually led to producing a team that has the potential to beat any other side on its day.
Q. How would you describe the mood of the very young team before the big final, against the heavyweights Railways? All nerves or a mix of all emotions?
Truth be told, the fact that we reached the finals itself was a huge weight off our backs, because although we should have been preparing for Railways before the start of the tournament, we were preparing to first reach the finals, that was our first target. No one expected us to make the final.
If you delve back into our history, we were in the Plate category for seven years, eventually when we found ourselves in the Elite, we couldn't make it in the 1st year, the third year we lost in the quarterfinals. In the second year we qualified but unfortunately due to COVID, it was abandoned.
So reputation wise itself, probably Bengal were heavier than us and a couple of other teams like Maharashtra and Orissa may have been tipped more than us to reach the final. So, reaching the final itself was like a first victory for us. We had many boxes ticked on the way.
So the first day was just to celebrate and just soak in the fact that we were in the final, then the second day, the girls were relaxing in the morning. I felt mentally they may have still been in the zone of having reached the finals. So that was kind of the atmosphere.
We did discuss and plan to win the game and the girls were all buoyant about it. I did not want to in any way dent their confidence so I just let things be, but we must acknowledge that on paper, Railways are very heavy.
It would be foolish not to acknowledge that, and we maybe only had a 25-30% chance if everything went well. We didn't take that and the conditions didn't help either. We knew we were capable of putting up at least 170-180 if one batter came off, maybe even 200 if two of them scored well. But unfortunately the openers went chasing for the ball and our middle order was exposed. Before we knew it, the game was over but there's a lot that we learnt.
I genuinely feel we are a side now that can beat any state side. We may still lose on a given day, but we have the stuff to be challenging any state side, we have reached that state. So probably the next step for us would be to prepare how to take on the best of the best, a heavy side like the Railways. So probably next year we'll go in prepared to take our game a couple of levels higher.
Q. A very young team getting through some obstacles and one match at a time to eventually make the final. Despite the loss, how proud are you of the performance?
I'm really proud of them, because it's a relatively raw team at the highest level that has made it so far. Like I told you, nobody gave us that chance. Here I must give a lot of credit to Veda (Krishnamurthy). Our team has always been good. We've been doing fairly well, but she's taken it to levels higher with her captaincy and what she brings to the table. Not only on the field, but off the field as well.
As a coach, I was at ease to allow youngsters to be groomed by her. I knew that if I fielded a youngster there would be someone to mentor her, otherwise I would have thought twice before releasing them in a big event. But with Veda there, I knew she would give them the right kind of load or the right kind of pressure, not expect too much out of them, just for them to play a supporting cast. So since I had that kind of confidence in Veda, it helped for us to blood three youngsters this time in Vrinda (Dinesh), Shreyanka (Patil) and towards the end, Nikki (Prasad).
I'm very proud of this team because in some matches, they played beyond my expectations. Probably the wins against Baroda and Uttar Pradesh (the kind of total we put up), I was pleasantly surprised.
Even last year, we paced the chase of 260 nicely in the quarterfinal, and even though we lost, I knew our batting unit had arrived. It was the bowling and fielding unit that we laid a big emphasis on thereafter, and it's there for all to see that we've pulled up our socks by 30-40%, but there's still work to be done.
Even in the final, the body language while defending 70-odd felt like we were defending 300. For me, that is the victory because the substance is there. Now we need to add quality, but the spirit of not giving up is there. I feel that's the base for anything.
Q. You did mention Veda as captain. Can you take us through the conversations between you both, knowing that she was coming off a tough period to lead the side?
She was very inclined towards it (captaincy). We did even discuss that she was coming off a tragedy and she was wanting to make a comeback, but she herself was inclined. My point is when somebody is inclined and I know what Veda's caliber is and I was okay with it, because she herself felt she's not a novice to not handle the pressure because she's been through that phase.
It's another matter that I expected her to do well in the series but I backed the idea of her leading this side because I knew what she brings to the table. Between us, we never discussed the personal things or anything like that. That said, I had made certain things clear to her that it's a ‘partnership’.
She is the link between the management and the players and we defined roles even there, between coach and captain there were rules of some sort. During the practice I would be in charge mostly and in the match she would be the one to call the shots mostly.
We made sure we had clear cut roles so that we could strike a good synergy. So that was the first thing I discussed with her, because she's a former Indian player and she was coming back and the girls were yet to get used to her. That worked out really well for us.
Q. The youngsters in Vrinda, Shreyanka and Nikki really stood out throughout the season with their own contributions. When did you know they were ready to take on the challenges of the tournament?
Truth be told, they've been on the radar for the last couple of years and they didn't just float out of nowhere. After last time (Jharkhand), Veda and myself felt that this was the right time because the regulars were all snapping at their heels and if we didn't hand the youngsters an opportunity now, we would lose them. They are primed to play. for the two years that they've been around, they were most ready now and hence we took the call to blood them.
For example, Shreyanka was about 60% ready a couple of years ago but now we feel she is 75-80% ready. As for Nikki, she had a fabulous Under-23 season, I can't tell you how good she was. She surprised me beyond my expectation. So once I saw that there, I said we need her in the senior team, not in a lead role, but in a supporting role. She has been around for us for the past 2 years now.
In a team, there will always be one spot where you want a good fielder, someone who can give us 20-25 runs and bowl a little. Because the top 5 will be set, the bowling will also be set, and Nikki fits that bill really well.
In so many games before she has got us a few wickets, fielded brilliantly and even last year she got us some runs with the bat (against TN), even won us a game against Delhi with a run-a-ball knock, so she was always there in our consideration.
Vrinda was in sublime form last season but we couldn't slot her in because she is someone who bats in the top 3. Shubha (Sateesh), Divya (Gnanananda) were doing well, Vani (Vanitha VR) was on and off, but she has served us so much, you have to give her that rope. Vrinda got a couple of centuries (in the selection and practice games), we weren't able to give her a single game, I was feeling bad for her.
But it so happened that the slot opened up for her naturally and she grabbed it with both hands. The one slot I was referring to was between Shreyanka and Nikki. As per the conditions (in Nagpur), we needed a pure bowler and we went for Shreyanka, you'll notice that although she's in her grooming phase, out of nowhere she will pick up a wicket.
Veda had told me early on that even though Shreyanka went for runs against UP, she was the only one who looked like troubling the batters. She only needs a little bit more polishing, but she's a wicket taker. Hence, we persisted with her and now she's growing slowly.
In Nagpur, we played 6 bowlers, even Rama did very well partnering Monica Patel. Once we were here we realized we needed someone who could give us runs at the bottom and give us some overs, we replaced Rama with Nikki, since we didn't want to put her in a lead role yet. By God's grace, all 3 did very well for us, and the future is in good hands, all of them are of good caliber. Even temperament-wise, Vrinda did a great job. It's not easy to pile on runs match after match.
Q. Grooming of youngsters has always been the way forward, but what's the effort being put in by KSCA and the team management to get these young girls ready for big matches?
I had made it very clear last year itself that if there is a junior who is 80% ready, then we will go with them, because we want those fresh legs in the team. There was a gaping hole there that when we go higher up, our fielding gets exposed. After drafting these three, the others also pulled up and it looks like a good fielding unit. However, because of COVID, we haven't had a proper summer camp. It's all God's grace that the conviction we had paid off.
Honestly, we are looking good. There's so much talent, whoever is walking into the XI is good enough. Even those sitting on the benches, it's not like they're not good. There's Kohli, Rama, Rakshitha, Sanjana who have all featured in the XI, which is a testament to our talent pool. Kudos to KSCA also, they are helping us a lot.
Especially Santosh (Menon - KSCA Secretary) sir, he has given us a lot of games and a ground for our open simulation. That is all reflecting in our work of two years. The team practices in such open environments, they are fearless, and to top it we have an aggressive captain, all that is rubbing off.
Q. So not playing some of the more experienced players in the 15-member squad was more of a tactical ploy?
Tactical in Nagpur, here in Bengaluru, we went with fresh legs and it paid off. Nothing against the old brigade, but if you have to sustain in this team, you have to win matches and pull off special performances big time. After a point, after 30, even Mithali and Jhulan (Goswami) will have to make way if they only contribute and do not win games, the same applies to our team.
If you want to retain your spot in the XI, you have to win us matches or at least contribute big in a win. 25 runs here, two wickets is okay for a contribution. But if a youngster is pressing for a spot, yes they are not yet match-winners, but they can eventually be groomed to win us matches. Nothing personal, just that the talent is there, so if you can't win matches, what is the point of playing someone at the expense of a youngster?
I'm for having old players in the side, but they have to prove their weight in the XI, you can't only be contributing, you have to win matches. Only then can you retain your spot in the XI, that's the concept.
Q. So what's next for Karnataka women's cricket, after this memorable journey? How do you keep the team together for the upcoming series/tournaments?
Next, we have the T20 tournament in February 2022. So I'm a little proactive. You can't say at the last minute we can go and do that, it's expecting too much of the girls. This time we had a three-week window and KSCA backed us to the hilt in those three weeks, but I think we need better preparation.
A couple of things are in the pipeline where we could play some friendly games against a few states. But we've been backed really well, and now not only the admin, I can even see the staff being proactive asking us things like "How many wickets do you want", "Do you want this, do you want that". It never used to happen earlier, we had to fight to get something extra at the staff level. Now they are following us at the grassroots level and they think we are no less.
And like I said, it's not about winning but it's about the way we won. They feel that with so little we are trying to compete at the highest level. Now the assistance comes out effortlessly. I foresee that it will get stronger.
If at all I speak to Santosh sir, I hope they pump funds at the grassroots level. The cream will be there, they will come, they will go. I would like to very soon see a school-level tournament being established, there's so much more talent that people aren't seeing.
It's unfortunate that the U-23 competition didn't happen this time, because Karnataka is bursting with talent. Because of what's happening now, the likes of Shafali (Verma), Smriti, Jemi (Jemimah Rodrigues), their talent is being sold so vigorously now, so in the last 2-3 years in small towns they are so much talent, we only need to invest in them.
I want a five-year program where we can make the Karnataka team a powerhouse, like the men's team. This should be the state that should be churning out India players more often than not, we want to bring back those glory days.
If at all I speak to the management, it will be about addressing the bottom crop of players, the top ones are already doing their job. I know Santosh sir will enhance it a little but I want the admin to work more towards the club level, inter-collegiate level, school level etc. This will only ensure that the pipeline keeps churning out the talent. I think the time is right now, the iron is hot now, we have to strike it.
Q. Finally, a few words to champion the heroes behind the scenes who have worked towards helping this team get to the level it is at right now?
This victory belongs to everybody, it's a combination of a lot of effort that has gone in. One, the management. They have backed us to the hilt, they are giving us a lot of practice games and facilities. Second, we have a lot of players who are with different coaches in their academies.
For instance, Murali sir is working with Prathyusha. Divya is with Srinivasa Murthy sir and Sujith Somasundar sir has worked on her psychological aspects. Irfan Sir has worked with Chandu V. Vrinda is with Kiran Nuppoor and Shreyanka is with Arjun Dev. So there are 5-6 people who I have had conversations with and we work hand in hand to improve these players while in their academies. Quite a few are also with other coaches but I am unable to recollect their names.
Unfortunately I don't get that time with them, I haven't had a single off season as their coach. Earlier i used to have a partial contract, which was very seasonal. During the past couple of years, when I have had a full contract, because of COVID I haven't had time. I speak to these coaches individually, so it's a combination, they have played a huge part in the skill enhancement of the team.
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And of course, the support staff (Hithaishi, Sindhu, Rachel and Mala ma'am), who do a lot of background work, without them none of this would have been possible. The fans and the media as well. This time we've got so much support, so this victory belongs to each and every stakeholder of Karnataka cricket, even the selectors and former cricketers, who have helped us a lot. We're all performing different roles, but the credit goes to the entire spectrum of people who are pushing to improve Karnataka cricket each day.