Meghana Sabbineni: Indian Railways’ North Star

Meghana Sabbineni and Mithali Raj. © Special Arrangement

It started with a crisp back foot punch through the off-side and ended with a run-out at the non-striker’s end. In between, Meghana Sabbineni cemented her spot as Indian Railways’ no.1 opening batter.

On a slightly overcast day where the sun played hide and seek behind a billow of shifting grey clouds, Meghana was a central figure in Railways’ 149-run win over Odisha in the quarter-final of the 2021-22 Senior One-Day Tournament at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium on Monday (November 15).

Having chosen to bat in their first match of the knockouts, Meghana, in the company of wicketkeeper-batter Nuzhat Parween, got Railways off to a brisk start, striking three boundaries off the inswing of Rameshwari Naik in just the second over of the day. She pounced on short and wide deliveries, crunching them past point, throwing her hands through the line of the ball on a surface that had no demons.

After racing to 19 off 11, Odisha managed to rein her in, setting straighter fields, bowling wider lines, and generally, keeping her honest. While the fall in run rate didn’t bother her too much, the generally free-scoring Meghana, on occasion, found herself feeling for the ball outside off-stump.

Every loose shot or dip in concentration was followed by a loud cheer from her long-term South Zone and now Railways teammate Hemalatha Dayalan – egging her on, reminding her to calm down a little, to bat on and the runs would come.

Head down, Meghana carried on – resetting her focus, reminding herself of what was at stake.

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Odisha also made the task rather easy, opening up the field and going on the defensive rather early. With the field was spread, Meghana knocked the ball along the ground, collecting runs with utmost ease.

When the message was sent to up the scoring rate, she played the field beautifully, crunching a couple of straight lofted shots, hitting regally over cover, and gliding the ball past point when width was on offer. When Odisha packed the straight field, closing out the gaps, she walked across her stumps and nudged the ball through mid-wicket or shoveled it to long-on.

She brought up her 50 with Railways’ score on 87. She had done a bulk of the run-making, and would continue that vein through the innings. The celebration was minimal. There was a glint in her eyes, barely visible under the shade of the helmet, accompanying that cheeky grin… This was the Meghana Sabbineni of old… The Meghana Sabbineni that Andhra knew well…

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When Meghana made her way into Andhra’s system, she was seen as a talented allrounder – an outswinger who could give the ball a good whack. Rated highly by former Andhra head coach Purnima Rau, Meghana made her way into the Under-19 squad at only 13, opening the batting – and sometimes bowling – for a solid team. Her driving on the rise was a cut above even in the early years. Pace didn’t bother her. Neither did bounce. She could ride it all with much ease.

The sheer talent, however, didn’t mean she was able to set the stage alight from the get go. After taking a couple of years to find her feet at state level, Meghana made a habit of dominating age-group cricket – often finishing in the top five run-getters at Under-19 and Under-23 levels when on song. She became the figure whom Andhra’s batting revolved around; the one who would lead them into an era of age-group domination.

In 2011-12, she topped the Under-19 run-charts ahead of the likes of Veda Krishnamurthy, Deepti Sharma and Smriti Mandhana with 375 runs, including her maiden century. In 2012-13, she scored the most runs (134 runs in four matches) in the Under-19 Inter Zonal and second-most (411 runs in nine matches) at the Inter-State tournaments. A couple of seasons later, she crunched the most runs (594 runs in nine matches) at Under-23 level across the Inter-state and zonal tournaments. That, led to her international call up for the home series against West Indies.

Meghana was Andhra’s best batter. Their captain. Their international. She was their North Star.

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In 2017-18, Meghana made the move from Andhra to Railways. With the likes of MD Thirushkamini, Punam Raut, Mithali Raj, Nuzhat Parween and Mona Meshram in the top order, Meghana was seen as a back-up batter – not one for the frontlines.

At the Under-23 level, she continued her good run, scoring heavily in the one-day and T20 formats for Railways, but opportunities with the senior team were few and far between. When handed the the at List-A level though, she made an impression every season – scoring her maiden half-century for Railways in 2017-18 and managing 109 runs in two innings in 2019-20. The truncated 2020-21 season proved to be the year that saw her shake off the tag of ‘back-up’ and emerge as one of the team’s lead batters. Her total of  329 runs, including a maiden List-A hundred, was the most for Railways through the season, and helped them regain a title they had lost to Bengal a couple of seasons before.

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With Thirushkamini having returned to Tamil Nadu for the 2021-22 season, a big opportunity opened up for Meghana at the top of the order, and the right-hander began the tournament with bang, blasting a career-best 142 against Chandigarh. She followed it up with scores of 11, 86 and 23 in the league stage matches in Pune. Then, on Monday, when her team needed solidity in a knockout game, she scored a 101-ball 90, laying the base for Railways’ total of 271 for 9.

In typical style, Meghana collected her runs in an orthodox manner. There were no dinky shots. No cheeky paddles. No fine late cuts. She plonked her front foot forward and muscled the ball through the off-side.

Her power came to the fore when she hit down the ground – creating a solid base from which she swung. Her transfer of weight was beautiful, more so when she hit over the offside. She danced down the track, got down on one knee, extended her arms through the ball and held the pose as the ball flew over the in-field and towards the boundary.

When she needed to up the ante, she knew where her boundary options were. She backed her strengths, and Odisha helped her by somewhat feeding them. She never let the pressure of a slower batting partner get to her, instead, she kept her tempo up and encouraged Parween to up hers as well. Meghana’s innings allowed Railways to seize control of the match early, and they never lost the upper hand.

The only moment of madness came when she danced down the track to off-spinner Rasanara Parwin and tried to slog her over long-on, only for the ball to turn past her pad and into the ‘keeper’s gloves. She was lucky to survive the stumping, with match referee Anupa Narvenkar, declaring that she had made her ground before the bails were dislodged.

Her innings though, came to an anti-climactic end only two runs later when Priyanka Priyadarshini knocked off the bails at the non-striker’s end. Meghana, who had paid such close attention to the bowlers when she was at the other end, had wandered out of her crease, and was caught short of her ground for a well-compiled 90.

Meghana’s half-century saw her take her season tally to 352 runs in just five matches – by far the most for Railways this year – moving to second on the run charts.

She may have taken a couple of seasons to get going like she did with Andhra, but no matter the colours she dons, Meghana Sabbineni is proving that she continues to be a North Star.

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