‘The last year has taught me to respect life more’

Shikha Pandey. © Getty Images

There’s a clip of Shikha Pandey on YouTube that shows the allrounder nudging a delivery from Natalie Sciver into the off-side and taking off for two. As she whirls her bat in the air, celebrating an improbable Indian victory alongside skipper Mithali Raj, her teammates can be seen charging on to the pitch. Pandey, whose first attempt to pick up a stump in celebration goes in vain (she succeeds the second time), is warmly embraced by a bespectacled Smriti Mandhana, Rajeshwari Gayakwad and Ekta Bisht before the ground visuals disappear.

It is a video that has been replayed by Pandey dozens of times, because it marks the “real beginning” of her international journey – when she became India’s Test match cap no. 78 and earned her own little place in history.

“That game is still definitely one of the highlights of my career,” Pandey tells Women’s CricZone. “To don the whites, and play a Test match for India was a dream come true. To win it, even better.”

In 2014, a 25-year-old Pandey, in her first year of international cricket, played a key role in India’s famous Test match win at Wormsley. The allrounder finished with match figures of 3 for 58 before scoring a crucial 28 not out as nightwatchman to seal the visitors’ six-wicket victory.

But many don’t know, she almost didn’t make that trip.

Despite performing well in the two-day selection matches held in Alur in June – where she took a six-for against the Harmanpreet Kaur-led India B in the opening match – Pandey failed to make India’s 15-member squad announced for the tour of England in August 2014. Understandably devastated, she tried to dull the pain by burying herself in work, but the rejection was hard to ignore.

However, as luck would have it, a few days before the squad was due to leave for England, one of the players developed a slight niggle and Pandey was called in as last minute cover. Eventually, India travelled with 16 players.

ALSO READ: With more in her armoury, Shikha Pandey hopes to build on the success of 2019-20

“Not many people realise, the last time I played a Test match [in England] in 2014 I actually went in as a replacement player,” she chuckles. “It was a real scramble to get everything together and reach Mumbai before the team left. I literally went from Delhi, to Mumbai, to Goa, to Delhi, to Mumbai again. It was a case of taking 4-5 flights in a matter of two days.”

“I remember getting to the hotel mere hours before we departed for London. It was a whirlwind.”

Despite the late call-up, a green surface at Wormsley meant Pandey found her way into the XI – one of eight Indian debutantes – and luckily, she didn’t allow herself to be swept up by the whirlwind. Feet firmly planted in the present, she battled her “nerves of a nightwatchman” and got her team over the line.

Shikha Pandey and Mithali Raj celebrate the Test match win in 2014. © Getty Images

Shikha Pandey and Mithali Raj celebrate the Test match win in 2014. © Getty Images

“To be able to start in the playing XI and contribute a little in the win was amazing. To be honest, the way I made the trip to England, it (playing in the XI) was a little unexpected, but to be out there on the fourth day, to be batting alongside Mithali di was an opportunity that I got and I think I was very fortunate. It all took a while to really sink in.”

If it was a whirlwind seven years ago, in 2021, Pandey found herself as part of a storm ahead of the squad announcement for India’s tour of England. “Rested” for the home series against South Africa, her name was brought up several times in discussions about the selection committee and squad announcements. Someone who generally likes to stay abreast of developments around the world, she chose to keep her “virtual blinkers” on, focusing on her training routine and staying off social media.

“I’ve had a seven year long international career and by now I know when I need to keep myself off social media and when I can log in again and read about things,” she laughs. “Whenever I think I shouldn’t be on social media, I just take time off and put these virtual blinkers on because that has helped me focus better on my game. I still like reading about what’s going on around and what’s happening in women’s sport and women’s cricket because I like to be informed, but then I know when to kind of get off and focus on the controllables.”

ALSO READ: Confident and unfazed, Indrani Roy a step closer to her international dream

These “controllables” come up consistently through our conversation. Whether speaking about training, performance, or dealing with disappointment, Pandey keeps going back to her favourite catchphrase. It is a lesson, she says, she has had to learn the hard way – to focus on the here and now rather than agonise over what should or could happen. It was by focussing on these “controllables” that she managed to push past her most recent setback – missing out against South Africa.

“I would say that I was obviously quite sad and disappointed (to miss out). But if I weren’t, then there were other decisions to be made.”

“I am a firm believer that hard work never goes to waste, so just put your head down and keep doing your job. And of late, I’ve started thinking more about the controllables – things that I can control. I can control how much I practice. I can control how I practice. And if my process is right, the results will follow. So, [I try] not think too much about what’s not in my hands, and just go out there and play cricket irrespective of whether I am playing domestic cricket or international cricket. That’s something that I am going to be following always.”

© Getty Images

Smriti Mandhana embraces Shikha Pandey. © Getty Images

Out of the national side, Pandey turned out for Goa in the 2020-21 Senior Women’s One-Day tournament in March and had a middling season. While she admits being disappointed with the results, she says, returning to the domestic circuit allowed her to rediscover the simple joys of playing. After all, having been cooped up indoors for the better part of a year, she was “thankful for the opportunity to be out on the field”.

“The last year and a half has actually taught me to respect life more. I wouldn’t say my perspective towards life has changed, but just that I am so thankful for the life that I have because there are so many out there who are finding it difficult even to find one day’s meal.”

“I really understand how privileged I am and how thankful I [should be] for the life that I have. The very fact that I am able to do something I love is a huge plus for me.”

“I have always believed that when I get back to playing alongside my state mates, I enjoy the game so much more. This (domestic tournament) was the perfect opportunity to just get back, not think too much about the results, and just enjoy every day, and every game that we played. I’ve made some really great memories this time [whilst] playing domestic cricket.”

ALSO READ: Nervously excited about returning to Test cricket, says Jhulan Goswami

Now, back in the Indian squad after close to 15 months away, the allrounder is keen to carry that attitude into the international arena as well.

“I’m just really excited to be back,” she beams. “I’ll be playing in an international series after 18 (15) months or so. I always take huge pride in the fact that I’m representing India, so there’s plenty to be excited about.”

And if simply returning to the national team wasn’t enough for Pandey, India are scheduled to play a Test match – her “favourite format” – to kick off their tour.

“As a kid growing up it has been my favourite format and I consider it to be the purest form of the game. So, I’m very blessed that we are starting with the Test. I’m very excited to be donning the whites again, and getting down to playing four days of Test match cricket.”

Comeback. Check.
A plethora of potential debutantes. Check.
Test match after forever. Double check.

Are the stars aligning for a repeat of 2014?

“I mean, if the stars are aligning, it’s for the good; and that probably means we are going to win the Test match, is what I want to think,” Pandey laughs.

“Of course, I would do everything I can to contribute to the team’s win in the Test match and the series that follows this time as well. But whatever said and done, I want it to be a good game.”

And just as the conversation begins to veer towards what could or should be, her catchphrase appears again: “Like I said, the controllables… Those are all uncontrollable – none of it is in our hands. The pitch, the weather, the toss… I’ll pay attention to what I need to do, and how I can best help the team win – the controllables. As an athlete, I realise that’s what works for me.”