The magic of Shikha Pandey

Shikha Pandey celebrates the wicket of Alyssa Healy. © Getty Images

Shikha Pandey has been around the circuit for a while. Since 2014, she has been one of India’s most consistent performers with the ball, forming a strong bowling partnership with Jhulan Goswami. 119 international wickets, 75 of which have come in ODIs. After a slump in 2018, she made a roaring comeback in 2019, spearheading India’s attack on their way to a maiden T20 World Cup final last year.

“Rested” during the home series against South Africa, the 32-year-old returned for the tour to England. New coach, new pressures, and a desperation to prove a point. While she didn’t have the most successful tour, there were signs that her rhythm improved through the series. The more she bowled, the more confidence she gained, and therefore, the better she got.

Coming into the tour to Australia with close to three weeks of training and plenty of bowling under her belt, Pandey was primed for a good series. Returning to a country where she previously had some success, the confidence would have been high… But she would have to wait.

When she first made the trip Down Under in 2016, Pandey produced a cracking inswinging yorker to see the back of Meg Lanning in the first game of what was a historic T20I series win for India. Back then, in a column for Wisden India, English journalist Isabelle Westbury dubbed it “the ball of the series”. The seamer went on to finish the ODI series as the team’s top wicket-taker with eight scalps in three matches, often bowling first change.

ALSO READ: Another one for the highlights reel: Lil’ J’s big comeback

In 2020, when she returned to Australian shores, Pandey had made the transition from eager youngster to attack leader. She posted career-best T20I figures in the opening game of the T20 World Cup, before bowling a couple of searing spells at the death against Bangladesh and New Zealand to get India through the group stage.

Australia seemed to get the best out of her. This multi-format series was therefore meant to be her time in the sun… But her patience would be tested.

When Pandey finally took the ball in the second T20I of the series at the Carrara Oval on Saturday (October 9), it was after India had already played nine days of competitive cricket, none of which she featured in. She clearly had a point to prove.

 © Getty Images

Alyssa Healy was bowled by an absolute peach from Shikha Pandey that cut in sharply and shaved the bails. © Getty Images

Her first delivery was back of a length – ‘short’ in the book of Alyssa Healy – and was duly carted to the boundary by the Australian opener. It was the worst possible start for Pandey. Even worse for India. In defense of a severely under par 119, they needed early control. This would not cut it.

With the pressure mounting, from within and without, Pandey walked back to her mark. In England, when she conceded the boundary, the muscles seemed to tighten, her action looked strained and one could almost see the axe hanging over her head. But on Saturday, the rhythm didn’t desert her. She bowled like a woman possessed – a bowler with nothing to lose.

As her right foot hit the blue line that marks her run up on the outfield, it seemed the gears had kicked into motion. Her approach was relaxed, her stride length comfortable, and her bound strong. If there was tension, it wasn’t obvious.

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

With Healy having picked up a boundary off a delivery that was slightly wide of the off stump, Pandey chose to push her follow-up ball slightly wider, and a tad fuller. She hit a hard length around the fictional 7th or 8th stump, and as Healy shaped up to unleash a powerful cut shot, it was hard not to think ‘here we go again’. But Pandey had a bit of magic up her sleeve.

When the ball hit the surface, it seemed to gain some speed and develop a mind of its own, jagging sharply towards the right, taking a path no one expected. Healy, herself surprised by the change in direction, let out a muffled ‘Oooh’ as the white Kookaburra cut her in half and clipped the top of the middle stump.

One glance back at the disturbed woodwork followed by a shake of the head, and Healy trudged off to the dressing room, aware that she had been outdone by a gem.

A relieved Pandey celebrated with rather uncharacteristic enthusiasm. “C’mon!” she shouted, leaping in the air, doing an awkward double fist clench before Jemimah Rodrigues jumped into her arms. As she carried the 21-year-old – in one hand at that – the rest of her teammates enveloped her, patting her back, ruffling her hair, and excitedly passing on encouraging words. Pandey exhaled deeply.

She had made her point in the most emphatic way and released some pent-up frustration… Frustration of those runs conceded against the same opposition in the T20 World Cup final… Frustration of not being able to get the better of Healy when her country needed it most… Frustration of not living up to her own standards through that tour of England… And the frustration of having to sit on the sidelines when she had finally found her rhythm in favourable conditions. There was so much emotion behind that delivery. It was a long time coming.

ALSO READ: From forgotten to frontline: Shikha Pandey swings her way back into the spotlight

Although she didn’t pick up another wicket in the game, Pandey’s first spell set the cat amongst the pigeons as India, briefly, made their 118 for 9 appear like plenty more. The movement she was able to extract – cutting Meg Lanning in half, beating Beth Mooney on the outside edge – and the questions she continued to pose to the Australian batters made for great viewing. Her run-up was languid and her rhythm excellent. Struggling to hit the 110 kmph mark in England, Pandey almost effortlessly cranked up the pace to 119 kmph in Carrara; and along the way she didn’t just produce the “ball of the series”, but likely the “ball of the year”.

India might have conceded the match and hence the multi-format series, but that, as skipper Harmanpreet Kaur mentioned, was down to lack of runs on the board, rather than the seamers’ inability to close out the game.

But amidst the disappointment for India was a moment they will not forget anytime soon. Pandey’s ball to Healy, and her spell at large, was a timely reminder to those watching, and to herself that she has plenty left in the tank. There is magic in those deliveries yet. India would do well to remember that.