The artistry of Purvaja Verlekar

Purvaja Verlekar of Goa. © Special Arrangement

“After retiring from cricket, I would like to sell my paintings,” Purvaja Verlekar laughs.

Scroll through her Instagram page and it’s not hard to understand why the 21-year-old says so – sketches, oil paintings, acrylic paintings and the like are littered between music videos and a few pictures of her life as a cricketer. Born into a family where she was surrounded by art and music, it comes as no surprise that Purvaja grew to appreciate the fine arts.

“My grandfather is a good singer and my father, Prashant, also is a good singer,” the Goa opener tells Women’s CricZone. “He is also interested in drawing. He is a goldsmith, so they are into artwork and all. Even my mom (Priya), is also multi-talented. Our family is only multi-talented. So, that’s how, I guess, I got into all this – it’s part of the family.”

“Actually, I wanted to study fine arts, but I couldn’t join because attendance is important. Now, I’m doing my BA in Economics (Honours),” she chuckles.

While she has temporarily traded the paintbrush for a cricket bat, the artistry is still visible. The bold strokes no longer run colour across the canvas, instead, they fetch her runs – through cover, point, straight down the ground, past mid-wicket, over long-on, anywhere she sees a gap; the shades must be filled in.

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When Purvaja first burst onto the scene, her cover drive, both lofted and along the ground, stood out. It was an effortless push, often, against deliveries that didn’t deserve the punishment. Tall in her stance, she’d take a balanced stride in to the ball, tap it on top of the bounce and watch it race through or over cover. It appeared ridiculously easy. It wasn’t meant to be.

It was that style and finesse that saw Purvaja stumble into Goa’s cricket system. A lover of sports, she grew up trying her hand at a variety of them including football, baseball and cricket. There, playing in the colony with her friends, she was ‘spotted’ by a boxing coach and somewhat begrudgingly joined a coaching camp in Mapusa where she met her first coach Anil Arolkar.

“I used to play many other sports like football, baseball and all. I was not so interested in cricket at that time… Cricket we would play in our colony with my friends,” she recollects.

“There was one boxing sir who used to play with us. He saw my shots and all and he was like I should join cricket practices and go for coaching. My mom immediately agreed and was like, ‘let’s get into cricket’. Even though I wasn’t that interested, just because my mom told me I went.”

© Special Arrangement

Purvaja’s artwork. © Purvaja Verlekar/ Instagram

Reluctant starter or not, Purvaja blossomed quickly representing Goa’s Under-16 and Under-23 teams in her first year.

The following season, in 2016-17, she scored an impressive 39 off 76 deliveries on her Under-19 debut against Hyderabad. Her poise at the crease, the calmness under pressure (Goa were reeling at 28 for 3 in 10 overs), and her incredible cover drives caught the eye. Watching from the edge of the Gymkhana Ground (Hyderabad) boundary that day in November, one could see the potential of the artist at work.

Two years later, in 2018, she made her List-A debut against a star-studded Railways in Mulapadu, top-scoring for Goa with a 38-ball 15 in their total of 72. Nothing spectacular, but the building blocks were being put in place.

“I was very nervous in my debut match – playing against Indian Railways,” she giggles. “But it was a good experience. I played against almost all the top bowlers. I think that helped me moving forward. It gave me (a) lot of confidence.”

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Put a target in front of Purvaja and she generally delivers.

In 2019, when she was called up for the Under-19 India camp conducted by the National Cricket Academy, the right-hand batter was challenged by former Delhi cricketer and her team coach, Bantoo Singh, to score two hundreds over the course of 10 matches.

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Despite poor returns in the preceding selection matches, with the target in mind, Purvaja shook off her disappointing form by finishing as Team C’s top run-getter with 429 runs in 10 matches at an average of 61.28. Her tally included top scores of 102 not out, 92 not out, 87 and 78.

A couple of years later, Goa head coach Anant Tambvekar used that tactic to fire up the misfiring opener – with qualification for the knockouts on the line, he set her a target.

After scores of 23, 21 and 26 in Goa’s first three matches of the 2021-22 Senior One-Day Competition, Purvaja sat through a “horror movie” of a team meeting before she found her mojo.

“Against Madhya Pradesh, I played a Test match (26 off 74),” she laughs. “Really! I played a Test match against MP and then I got a firing from my head coach, Anant sir, from Cheeku (Shikha Pandey, captain) and from almost everyone! ‘What are you playing?’ ‘How could you play like that?’… That day was like a horror movie for me!”

“But after that, our assistant coach, Sarvesh sir, told me what mistakes I am doing and how I have to play and go about my innings. He just told me not to be afraid of getting out. That was the main point. And also, he was like just focus on one ball.”

“Before the tournament also, our head coach had given me a target – one century at least. So that was also there in my mind… That target, and also the process which Sarvesh sir told me.”

© Special Arrangement

Purvaja poses with Goa skipper Shikha Pandey. © Special Arrangement

The following day, against Gujarat, Purvaja scored her maiden List-A half-century – an unbeaten 56 that helped her team seal a 7-wicket win. It was an innings those watching described as “free-flowing” – an inspired artist painting a vibrant picture.

“Every player has an innings or a spell which makes you believe you truly belong (at that level)… That innings (against Gujarat), according to me, was the innings for Purvaja,” Goa skipper Shikha Pandey told this portal. “She showed us what we always knew she was capable of.”

That Purvaja reached her milestone in the company of Pandey, a long-time supporter and admirer of her skill, made the moment extra special, but what truly made the youngster’s day, was being there when the winning runs were scored.

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“She was simply ecstatic after I hit the winning runs, and when I asked her why, she said it was the first time she was in the middle when the winning runs were hit,” Pandey recalls. “It showed that she cherishes being there at the end. She understands what it means to finish off games as a top (order) batter, and I’m not surprised she backed that up with an unbeaten knock against Mizoram.”

Purvaja followed up the half-century with a 39-ball 25 not out against Mizoram that sealed Goa’s place in the knockouts in Bangalore where they will face Punjab in the pre-quarterfinal at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium on Saturday (November 13).

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Over the last few years, the world has marvelled at the cover drive and the general artistry of South Africa’s Laura Wolvaardt. She started off as a compulsive cover driver, scoring most of her runs through the off side, often struggling to buy a run on the on-side. But, over the years, she moulded herself into an all-round batting gun – one of the most versatile T20 and ODI players on the international circuit. But she has, through that time, remained true to her artistic style – continuing to caress deliveries through the off-side while also stroking boundaries through the leg-side.

Skipper Pandey has often likened Purvaja to Wolvaardt. After all, it was the cover drive that forced onlookers to stop and watch in her early years. But now, she believes there is more to her than just that one shot, and much like Wolvaardt, she will have to find the confidence to use them all.

Come Saturday, Goa will be hoping their opener carries the confidence she gained through the group stage games in Vishakhapatnam into Bengaluru. For, she will no doubt play a key role in their quest to make the next round. She is clear of her target going forward: “To win the next game.”

Target set, it’s time for execution.

One hopes the weather around the Chinnaswamy Stadium clears for long enough so the country can get a glimpse of the artistry of Purvaja Verlekar.

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