Rumeli Dhar: Of never giving up and scripting remarkable comebacks

Rumeli Dhar was one of India's best ever. © Getty Images

“The frustration of being away from the team for those six years will always stay with me. I had thought after announcing my retirement that I will wake up very peacefully but my first thought after waking up today was about missing out on playing for India for those six years and not being able to keep injuries at bay. Otherwise, I could have still been playing for India.” Rumeli Dhar may have hung up her playing boots but the fire to remain associated with the game still burns bright. India’s leading allrounder for almost a decade, Dhar represented the country exactly 100 times across formats.

At the domestic level too, she was a colossus, playing for over two decades and winning titles with multiple teams. When she started in 1996 though, she had aspirations of being a gymnast.

“I started my career in 1996 in Shyamnagar, a district in West Bengal. Back then, there were 80-100 boys at the place where I started playing. My first coaches, Tultul Chatterjee and Prodyut Mitra, helped me a lot in Kolkata and then I started playing in the Kolkata league,” she tells Women’s CricZone in an exclusive chat.

Not only was Dhar playing with boys mostly, she had also only watched men’s cricket till then. “I didn’t know any women cricketers when I started. I really liked Rahul Dravid and Glenn McGrath but I never idolised anyone because I was not from a cricketing background. I was a gymnast.”

The 1997 World Cup, which was held in India, with the final being played in Kolkata, was to change things dramatically for Dhar, including finding an unfamiliar inspiration.

“The 1997 World Cup final took place in India and I got to meet the Indian team too back then. What I remember most fondly though is Melanie Jones taking a catch at point and I thought, ‘even women can take catches like Jonty Rhodes’. That gave me the inspiration to take cricket seriously.”

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Jones’ fielding efforts impressed Dhar but her first forays into the game as a child were thanks to her fielding excellence too. “When I used to play tennis ball matches with my cousins as a kid, I didn’t know how to bat or bowl. But my fielding was very good, which is why my cousins used to include me in the team for local tournaments so that I could field for them or do wicket-keeping. Because of being a gymnast, I was very flexible and my reactions were also very quick. Coach Chatterjee, who is also my uncle, first noticed me for my fielding.”

“I used to enjoy fielding a lot and never stress about it. I never took or felt any pressure while fielding.”

Rumeli Dhar

Rumeli Dhar could bat anywhere in the top and middle order © Getty Images

Her batting and bowling were equally impressive once she made the step up to league cricket in Kolkata and she soon found herself on the fringes of the national team.

“I was a part of national camps from 1999 but I never thought that I should be a part of the Indian team. I felt really proud to be in the same camp as Purnima Rau, Anjum Chopra, Anju Jain and Renu Margrate. When I finally was selected in 2003, I was elated. I did not expect to play the very first match against England. My only goal was to give my 100 per cent.”

Dhar may not have expected to debut immediately but she played in India’s very first match of the World Series against England in Lincoln in 2003 and was in the action almost rightaway, bowling first change and taking a catch to dismiss Charlotte Edwards.

Reminiscing that match, she says, “My debut will always be memorable for me. I didn’t get a wicket but I took good catches for the team and I remained not out on four when the match was won.”

Back then, the BCCI had still not taken over the administration of the women’s game. Dhar says the irregular nature of fixtures or the lack of money never deterred her though. “Before 2006, there was no money in the game. It was passion that drove us. Even if we only played five or ten matches, we wanted to play them with utmost passion so that the future generations could benefit. We only tried to enjoy the game and we were not concerned about fame or social media back then. Things started to change after we made the World Cup final in 2005.”

The 2005 World Cup was when the wider world caught a glimpse on Dhar’s talent as the some of the matches were streamed on TV. Dhar’s homespun bowling action and her ability to generate prodigious outswing made her stand out. The action though, with the index finger of the non-bowling hand pointing skywards, came naturally to Dhar.

“My action came naturally to me. When my coach wanted me to be a medium pacer because of my height, I used to feel very bad about having to run in from a distance and bowl. I wanted to be a wicket-keeper but my coach said that it was very expensive with all the extra equipment that a keeper needs. I took his advice because I trusted them way more than I trusted myself. My late coaches, Mr. Chatterjee and Mr. Mitra, were instrumental in making me an allrounder.”

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Dhar might have wanted to be a wicket-keeper initially but her batting prowess was on full show in the 2005 World Cup, with her seeing a couple of tricky chases through for India against quality opponents like England and South Africa, innings that Dhar picks out as two of her best.

“There are two other matches from the 2005 World Cup that I always remember. We bowled South Africa out for 80 but lost all our big names early in the chase. I then took the responsibility to see the chase through and got support from Amita Sharma and our partnership helped India win the match. The other knock is also from the 2005 World Cup, where I put on a 106-run partnership with Anjum Chopra to win the match against England.”

Dhar was unbeaten at the end in both those matches as well as her debut, making closing out tight chases her speciality. While she was adept at finishing matches, she was capable of batting anywhere in the batting order. She batted everywhere from no. 1 to no. 8 in ODIs for India, barring the no. 3 position.

Rumeli Dhar had a unique bowling action © Getty Images

When asked about her versatility to bat and bowl at any stage of the match, Dhar credits former India captain Purnima Rau.

“The one person who I could never be thankful enough for is Purnima Rau. As the Air India captain, she taught me to go out in any situation. She made me open the batting and bat at number three even when there were established batters in the team. I will always be very grateful to her and my coaches who moulded me like that and even till my last match I was ready to bat and bowl in any situation.”

Dhar was India’s lead allrounder in their run to the final in 2005, and she backed up Jhulan Goswami and Amita Sharma as India’s first change bowler extremely effectively. India pacers’ bowling average of 18.13 was second only to Australia’s 18.00.

They were even more successful at the next ODI World Cup in 2009. Dhar’s ten wickets were the most by a pacer in that edition, while India’s pacers average of 20.13 and economy rate of 2.96 was easily the best in the tournament.

Dhar says that their contrasting styles and camaraderie made them extremely successful. “Amita and me used to swing the ball away always. Jhulan (Goswami) used to get the ball to move both ways but we never envied each other. We used to always share the wickets and support each other. We were always happy for each other’s successes and Amita and me never felt bad about bowling first change. We used to always challenge each other by targeting specific batters.”

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Dhar was also one of the few players who played for the big four of Indian Railways, Air India, Bengal and Delhi on the domestic circuit. While she has good memories with all those teams, her stint with Delhi is particularly close to her heart as it helped her script that remarkable comeback to the Indian team at the age of 34 after six years away. Having helped Delhi win their first and only senior Women’s T20 Trophy title, Dhar then decided to go back to where it all began, West Bengal.

“I will also be thankful to the DDCA for wholeheartedly welcoming me in the 2017-18 season. Everyone was very supportive, and I got to open the bowling and bat one down. That season led to my India comeback after six years. I had always wanted to start and end my career at the same place, so I’m very happy that I played my last match of cricket for Bengal, which is where it all started for me.”

Rumeli Dhar

Rumeli Dhar was the leading wicket taker among pacers at the 2009 World Cup © Getty Images

At her core, Dhar was just a player who wanted to play, which is why she also turned out for Assam and Rajasthan in the domestic circuit, teams that were among the lesser fancied ones and completely shorn of big names. It is an experience she learnt a lot from.

“Assam and Rajasthan did not have big names but I thought I could teach them something. I couldn’t expect them to be at the same level as the Railways team that I had played for. I think they got to learn from me and I also learnt from them. One of the key things I learnt was patience. I was depressed during those six years but my family and well-wishers pulled me out of it. The one thing I learnt was to never give up and believe in myself. That is the first message I give to youngsters. The never give up attitude is probably why I could play till the age of 38.”

Rau might have left the deepest imprint on Dhar as captain but she says each of the captains she played under had their own unique styles and more importantly, they always gave their best. “I have played under both Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami, especially Mithali because she used to captain Railways too. Mithali had her own style of captaincy, Jhulan was a little different. She was an aggressive captain and wanted to get the best out of her players, be it by reprimanding them or gently guiding them. When I made my comeback, I played under Harman (Harmanpreet Kaur) too. She is also a very expressive captain.”

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Dhar was always the ultimate team player, so it was fitting that she got to lead India in an ODI in Canberra in 2008. She remains the fifth-youngest player to captain India in ODIs. She says it was something she never expected. “I was very happy when I was named the vice-captain for the Australia tour. Mithali was a part of that team and Jhulan was the captain. I was not expecting that I would get to captain the team. Jhulan was ruled out of a match and I went numb when they told me that I would captain the side. Leading India is a big achievement. It was my learning phase, so I decided I will take help from the seniors. I took a lot of help and even Mithali helped me and guided me.”

She might not have a favourite captain but Dhar definitely had a preferred bowling partner. Dhar says Goswami was the bowler she enjoyed bowling the most in tandem with, something she missed doing for a long time after being excluded from the Indian team in 2012. She did get one final chance to reprise the old memories though. “Jhulan is one of the legends of the game and after many years, I opened the bowling with her again for Bengal in the 2021-22 season against Rajasthan before she got injured. I felt extremely happy that day,” she says.

Rumeli Dhar

Rumeli Dhar starred in India’s crucial win against England at the 2005 World Cup © Getty Images

After being one of the first names on the Indian team sheet for the better part of a decade, Dhar was dropped from the team in 2012 after a big loss against Australia, where she was the team’s most successful bowler.

The comeback took longer than anyone expected. In that time, Dhar also had her fair share of niggling injuries. That’s when her motto of never giving up came to her rescue. Comebacks after six years away, that too from a player in her mid 30s, were almost unheard of in women’s cricket. Dhar, though, was never deterred easily.

When she finally got the call up as the injured Jhulan Goswami’s replacement for the South Africa tour in 2018, Dhar had a hard time believing it.

“I was planning to go to buy spikes for the domestic season when I got the call. For ten minutes, I just stood still and I could not understand how had I managed to reach the Indian team again after so many years. I only called one person immediately and that was my mom. She did not have any words and was speechless. She is extremely introverted and doesn’t express herself a lot generally. Two days later, when I came back from office, I saw that she was sitting with tears in her eyes beside my new India kit. That really touched me.”

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Dhar played only three matches after that comeback, including a three-wicket haul against South Africa, but she continued to soldier on in the domestic circuit.

The longevity of Dhar’s domestic career is almost unsurpassed in Indian cricket but her performances were top notch even till the fag end, including a couple of landmarks that she always wanted but were missing from her CV. “I was the leading run scorer in the 2019-20 edition of the Senior Women’s T20 Trophy for Bengal and that is an achievement that I’m very proud of in domestic cricket. In my last season this year, I also scored my first hundred finally. I had a lot of scores in 80s and 90s but had never scored a hundred, I ticked that off too against Hyderabad and the hat-trick I took against Himachal Pradesh in the same tournament is also among my favourites.”

When asked about India’s current all-round strength, Dhar picks out two players as the standouts. “Pooja Vastrakar has the potential to be the allrounder that India was missing for all these years. Sneh Rana is another top quality allrounder. If India find a way to play both these players in the XI, they will play a key role for India. These two players can fill up the allrounders void that India has experienced for a long time now,” she says.

Difficult as it is for her to not play anymore, she doesn’t plan to be away from the action for too long. “Coaching is my passion and it gives me happiness as I get to be on the ground and remain connected to the game. I feel at peace after a day of coaching when I lie down on my bed at night,” she says when asked about her future plans.

Elaborating on her coaching style, she adds, “The coaching scenario today is very different. You can’t just get away with scolding the players or yelling at them. You have to think like the youngsters and understand their perspective. Even as a player, I used to always put myself in the other player’s shoes while talking to them. I also tried to analyse situations when I was captaining Bengal. That has helped me a lot and hopefully helped the youngsters too.”

Dhar’s cricketing career was signified by all out commitment. If her coaching career is anything like that, Indian cricket will be the ultimate winner.