Turning wounds into wisdom: How Divya Gnanananda found the confidence to unleash the beast within
Indian cricket is full of stories of prodigious talent, of many individuals whose potential remained unfulfilled. Players who could and should have made their way up the ladder, but were never quite able to put the pieces together.
For many years, it seemed Divya Gnanananda’s journey would turn out that way. A precociously talented young batter who made her List-A debut for Karnataka at only 15, she was supposed to be their ‘next big thing’. In the mould of VR Vanitha, with the presence of Veda Krishnamurthy and the outward fire and aggression of Niranjana Nagarajan, she seemed to be a game-changer in the making. She oozed talent. The transition to performance was only a matter of time.
Walking out to bat in her cap, Divya would charge down the track to senior bowlers, looking to smack them over the top and assert herself on the opposition. On the odd occasion when she held her ground, she’d plonk her front foot forward and swing hard for the fences. Her theory was straightforward, ‘go hard or go home’. It was a simple method, but one that, on a good day, could cause plenty of damage.
In those early years, cricket for Divya was all fun and laughter. She enjoyed the feeling of bat on ball and being outdoors with her friends. Coming from a family that encouraged her to play and pursue sport, it was no surprise that she dabbled in a variety of different games of which cricket was one. She wasn’t keen on pursuing it seriously – not until her first coach, Srinivasa Murthy, told her it was something she was built for.
“I come from a sports background house – my dad was a cricketer – so sports was always something we were encouraged to take part in,” Divya tells Women’s CricZone. “When I was in school we had these school trials for a women’s team. I just went for that and got selected. It was all good fun.”
Having attended her first trials with the Karnataka State Cricket Association in 2009-10, she made her way into the Under-19 team and was also named in the standbys for the senior team.
Divya’s early years in state cricket were nothing to write home about. Her returns at Under-19 level were underwhelming to say the least. With so few opportunities to play competitively (at the time, there were only Under-19 and Senior state tournaments), her development was slow.
In the senior team, she largely spent her first two years on the bench, watching from the sidelines as Karnataka regularly bossed their way into the Super Leagues. With the likes of Vanitha, Krishnamurthy, Karuna Jain, Sindhu Ashok (Sriharsha) and Rajeshwari Gayakwad in the line-up, she saw it as an opportunity to learn from some of the best players in the country.
“[The] senior team was a very good learning platform for me. I was not a player who wanted to just get into the side and just (be handed things) – I knew that my time will come; and till then I had to see my seniors go about their business,” she says.
“I could see Vanitha perform, I could see Veda perform, and in fact one of my senior players who is not playing anymore, she was an opening bat… she was a player who used to go each and every match and score a hundred. So, I went about seeing her and learning from her. So, [the] initial stages of senior cricket was like being around and seeing my seniors play and how they went about their game and what they were doing differently to get those scores. I used to sit and talk to them and most of the seniors guided me through that journey which got easier for me to take that experience into my junior cricket.”
By the time Divya began to understand the nuances of the game, her Under-19 years had almost come to a close. But more time on the field and in the Senior XI (she made her List-A debut in 2011-12), meant the rate of growth had increased, and she was beginning to put together more match-winning performances.
In her final Under-19 season in 2014-15, she finished fifth on the batting charts with 275 runs under her belt at a strike rate of close to 80. Her performances helped Karnataka reach the final of the one-day championships where they lost to Bengal.
Divya was finally living up to the billing of being Karnataka’s game-changer – even if only at junior level.
That success saw her handed the captaincy of the Under-19 South Zone team and also selected for the One-Day Challenger Trophy in Mysuru in June 2015 where she was part of the India Green (Under-19) team.
Unfortunately, she could not translate that promise into performance at the senior level. Her naturally attacking style meant she took a fair few risks to score her runs. She rarely held herself back – going after the bowlers no matter what the state of play. Swing, seam or spin, her first option was always to look for the boundary. When it came off, she was unstoppable, but when it didn’t, it looked rather reckless.
It was around this juncture, in 2016, that Divya was encouraged to rein in her style – take less risks and build up the numbers. She needed to develop consistency, and was told the best way to do it would be to change the way she played – potentially cutting out a few shots, thereby reducing the risks.
What resulted was more consistency through Under-23. Across four seasons (2016 to 2019), Divya scored 817 runs in the 50-over format, but her strike rate had dropped considerably – down to less than 60 runs per 100 balls.
It wasn’t what she was known for. The runs were coming, but Divya was no longer a force to be reckoned with. To the opposition, it appeared she had lost her edge – she was a lion, trying to behave like a house cat.
While the conservative approach may have reaped rewards in age-group cricket, she quickly realised it would not work at senior level. She needed to find her edge again. And what better way to be jolted back into action than with a setback?
… That came in her final year of Under-23 cricket.
In the 2018-19 Under-23 one-day tournament, Divya’s tally of 230 runs, included three half centuries: a 53 in the opening game against Indian Railways, 69 in a crucial league encounter against Punjab, and a 120-ball 71 against Kerala with knockout qualification on the line. Along the way, she led Karnataka into the quarter-finals.
With an Under-23 Challenger Trophy being introduced, Divya believed she had a realistic chance of making it into one of the three teams. There were also whispers of an India A and Emerging tour around the corner; that was the opening she needed. She had scored runs against some very good attacks and led her side well. She felt ready for it. But the call never came.
She was devastated.
“I felt that was one of the breakthrough in my life that I think should have happened because with that tournament I think maybe that was a platform where it would have taken me higher up. They (India A) played two series (Emerging Asia Cup and the tour to Australia) after that which was in the limelight where they were looking for younger talents. I think maybe if I had got a chance there I would have…,” her voice trails off, as if still trying to make sense of the omission.
“I know for the fact that I was in great form and I could have done my best and it would have taken me to another step. I always regret that. That’s the only black spot where I still regret that saying that it could have turned my life.”
Although the snub hurt, it didn’t leave her defeated. Only 23 at the time, Divya took a leaf out of Oprah Winfrey’s book and “turned her wounds into wisdom”. She chose to focus on how she could get better and slam down the door, rather than be consumed by disappointment.
“I told myself, maybe they wanted to see a little more from me; maybe they thought that I am capable of much more. I tried to take it all in a positive way. Maybe these are all the things in the periphery of my head that are driving me forward even now.”
Identifying the need to change things for herself, Divya reverted to her old style of play. If runs were her currency, she was determined to make them playing the way she knew best. She had her eyes on the big leagues now and needed to level up. That started with a change in mindset.
“Looking back, I feel I have lost [a] few years of my cricket playing something that is not myself – playing 100 balls, scoring 50-60 runs. I realised that will not take me anywhere because if I am thinking of playing [for] India I can’t be thinking about how anyone else wants me to play.”
“I told myself that instead of focusing on the risks that I am taking, I might as well convert the same into my strength. I sat down and thought about the shots that are getting me out, I worked on them all, and then started to play percentage cricket.”
“I marked myself – where all I am confident initially, and then where I am actually taking a risk and hitting shots. Now, most of the shots I play are actually all about percentage cricket. I back my strengths and trust my instincts more. I understand better what shots are on in what conditions, against which types of bowlers… I feel those things have helped me a lot.”
Come 2019-20, Divya’s mindset was different. She understood her responsibility as a senior batter better and was keen to take up the role of being the team’s ‘impact player’.
She had a middling one-day tournament, scoring 229 runs at an average of 33 and strike rate of 64 including a career-best score of 90. Her contributions helped Karnataka into the knockout stages in Baroda, before the pandemic brought the season to an abrupt halt.
With the time to introspect, Divya took a long, hard look at her game. She saw the time off as an opportunity to work even harder and focus on the changes she wanted to make. Along with a few friends she created a bubble of her own, away from her family, to focus on her cricket. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing.
“Because of Covid I think we got that time to sit and see our games, and I was able to identify where I was going wrong. I had a long chat with my sports psychologist and my coach about my inconsistency.”
“They have seen me play in the nets and score runs in big games and they knew I am a better player than I was showing – I am not that 20-30 player, I could score more runs… We spoke about it and identified that it was an issue with stamina and fitness. I was a bit on the heavier side, and needed to work on that.”
“I left home to go into that [bubble] and practice really hard. I had gone to the other side of Bangalore in order to just focus on my game. I had taken a separate house with my friends and we were practicing there.”
Within two weeks of her relocation, Divya was summoned home – her parents had both tested positive for COVID-19. Taking on the role of primary caregiver, cricket was pushed to the far corners of her mind. Her parents’ recovery was first on her priority list – she needed to help nurse them back to health.
“That period when I was at home was quite hard [for] me. I was the one doing all the roaming around – getting all the medical stuff and all that. Since I was in constant contact with my parents, I didn’t want to go out also – that would mean I am putting other people at risk. I took the call to stay home, but it took a toll on me. Since I was home, not able to do too much, I also put on weight during that time… All the work I had done before that was almost gone. It was tough.”
Then one day, in late October, when things had settled down a little bit, Divya headed out to a gym nearby, Indian Athletic Academy, just for a change in scenery.
It was a decision that would change her life.
“October 27 (2020) was the day I went to the gym that’s quite close to my house and I felt that was a blessing in disguise. That’s the best place I have ever been to because there are so many positive people there who have achieved so much for the country — not in cricket, but in other sports.”
“My trainer, his name is Roshan (Bachan), he is an international athlete and a Paralympic coach, and he knows how to be mentally tough and how to go about things. One day he sat and spoke to me about ‘why are you like this and what is making you workout so hard?’. I was very hard on myself because I had to get back into shape… I sat and spoke to him about my game, told him that this is what I am doing and this is how I was getting out. After speaking with him, again I sat with my psychologist and then I told him that this is what is happening and then he said that it’s the mindset: What were you thinking at that point of time when you played that shot? Is it the situation? Or were you physically tired?”
These conversations opened up new possibilities for Divya. She accepted the need to get fitter and stronger. If she wanted to make a statement, she needed big numbers, and for that, she would have to last longer in the middle. It was a simple case of needing to wake up the beast inside; that’s where Roshan came in.
“He was the one who told me I am different from everyone he has seen before – that I am genetically very strong and that I just needed to fine tune things. ‘If you work harder, I think you can do wonders,’ he told me.”
“He’s been the game changer for me I can say, because he has made me think something completely different from what other people think: how to go about the game, how you need to be hard on yourself in order to go on top, what elite players do, how you need to eat and think completely different… So, that’s where my thinking, my game, my mental strength all changed.”
“At that point I think I couldn’t believe in myself and he built that extra confidence and he told me that you have to believe in yourself more because you are something special. He saw that fire in me and he said that you are going to do differently; you are going to get better.”
Armed with that confidence, Divya went into the truncated 2020-21 season ready to smash the competition. While it didn’t quite go to plan – she scored 198 runs in six games – she was making strides in the right direction: an improved average of just under 40, and a strike rate over 75. It was enough to validate the work she was putting in – just the confidence boost she needed.
Shortly after that season, when wave two devastated the country, and India began to shut down again, Roshan came to Divya’s aid for a second time – this time doubling up as a throwdown specialist as well.
“In the gym itself there is an astro (turf) surface. We converted that into a net type thing and I practiced my skills there. He was the one throwing balls and giving me knocking all the time.”
“That one year – October (2020) to October (2021) really changed things for me – my game has completely evolved since then. I would say the main reason I am able to convert (those starts) now is because of my fitness. My strength has increased, so, when I hit the ball, it’s all about timing, rather than trying to muscle it. I no longer feel tired even after scoring 50s-60s. I am able to accelerate better.”
Fitter, stronger and mentally, in a much better space, Divya began the 2021-22 Senior Women’s One-Day tournament with a blistering 52-ball 81 against Uttar Pradesh. Her knock included 13 fours and two sixes that saw Karnataka post a mammoth 305 for 4. The beast had been unleashed. This was the game-changer Karnataka had unearthed all those years ago.
Through the league stage, Divya amassed 306 runs in just four innings at an average of 153 and strike rate just under 113. Her tally included her maiden List-A ton – an unbeaten 111-ball 128 in a chase of 215 against Baroda.
The 25-year-old says, all the while, her focus was on the team’s requirements, rather than any individual goals. It was a way to take the pressure off herself – a chance to move past that desperation to prove a point.
She also credits skipper Krishnamurthy for giving her the confidence to play with freedom and try to blow the opposition away.
“Veda being the captain has changed the entire dynamics of the team because of the way she has handled the youngsters and explained that this is the brand of cricket I want you guys to play no matter what the situation is. She specifically told me that ‘you are not the kind of a person who plays the entire 50 overs, so don’t try to do that’. She said as long as you are at the crease, make sure you make an impact – play your style of game and get us ahead of the rate. She gave me that license just before the tournament, and when the captain gives you that confidence, it is everything.”
Having qualified for their first ever one-day domestic final (under the BCCI), Karnataka were demolished by Railways on their home turf – an eight-wicket walloping, courtesy Renuka Singh Thakur’s four-wicket burst at the start of the day. Divya herself looked comfortable through her 16-ball stay, but fell to Singh when she mis-timed a pull shot.
Despite the disappointment of finishing second, the right-hander says the team have taken plenty of lessons from the loss. “We’ve understood the need to be more versatile in our approach. We can’t just be one-dimensional. It’s now about learning to adjust our approach according to the conditions, which we didn’t do in the final. We will continue to play our attacking brand of cricket, but with some adjustments as per the situation.”
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On the back of a terrific tournament where she finished sixth on the run charts (346 runs) – just two behind teammate Vrinda Dinesh – Divya has made her way into the Senior One-Day Challenger Trophy, as part of a powerful India D side led by allrounder Pooja Vastrakar. After the disappointments of 2019, her big moment has finally arrived.
“This is definitely a big thing because it has been about six years that I have played any big tournaments apart from state.”
“I will do my best because this is, I think, going to be my second tournament where it’s going to be the cream before entering into the Indian side. It is going to be challenging, but I will not waste this opportunity because I have had to wait a long time for it… I badly wanted it, you know, like I was literally begging for an opportunity to play higher level. So, now that it has finally come my way I think I am not going to let go of it and I think I am going to take it with both hands.”
Despite the emotion in the words, Divya’s tone is relaxed. She trusts her game. She is no longer the reckless teenager who wants to get one up on the bowlers as soon as she walks in to bat. She is calmer, and wiser; willing to bide her time before landing the sucker punch.
“My aim this season was to be consistent while still playing my brand of cricket. I am a strokemaker, and that’s how I want it to be. My style is to take on the opponent head on. That involves risks, but I understand my percentages better. I am mastering that side of it, and I am confident in my methods. I am batting the best I ever have.”
Six innings, 346 runs, an average of 86.50 and a tournament strike rate of 111. Divya ‘game-changer’ Gnanananda has finally arrived.