As Purnima Rau, Nooshin Al Khadeer and Rajani Venugopal were handed their ‘one-time benefit’ cheques by Ravi Shastri at the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium in Hyderabad on April 17, a small section of the crowd, seated in the South stand, cheered boisterously. The group, comprising former and current women players, friends, family, and other well-wishers, screamed, jumped, whistled and, generally tried to be as noisy as possible.
Once the IPL match between the hosts Sunrisers Hyderabad and Kings XI Punjab was underway, the energy levels in the stadium soared. But for the group in the South stand not a single act on the field was received with as much enthusiasm as seeing the three women take centrestage.
I have been extremely fortunate to have trained under all three of them at different points in my career, and each one has been instrumental in moulding me into a better player and person.
Purnima Rau, affectionately called Puri-di, was the first coach of the Hyderabad Women’s cricket team after the merger of the Women’s Cricket Association of India with The Board of Control for Cricket in India in 2007. At 16, I failed to make the final XV, but she allowed me and a few of my Under-19 teammates to train with the squad. It was an experience I will never forget.
She kept us entertained by telling stories of her glory days, patiently answered our unending list of questions, taught us to slide and dive using wet covers, and most importantly, made sure we had fun. Her mantra was “Cricket is a game that is meant to be enjoyed”.
I was an overenthusiastic player — the kind that was constantly bubbling with energy, desperate to make an impression. I was always among the first in line for a fielding session, and reluctant to part with the ball while bowling in the nets. Puri-di encouraged this side of me and told me to “never let go of that eagerness”.
Even though she had to leave the very next year as she was appointed a national selector, Puri-di kept a watchful eye on all of us, monitoring our progress from afar. She was always just a call away, willing to listen to the problems of a terribly confused teenager and help bolster her self confidence. Her favourite line was “Chin up and keep going. This game is one of miracles, kiddo.” She took me under her wing and became my first mentor.
As I grew into a more mature player, we discussed the game endlessly — including the technical issues and the mental side. She encouraged us to let go of all our inhibitions and play with freedom. Results were of no consequence: “Win or lose, as long as you play the game with the right intent, I will be happy.”
As a teenager taking her first steps in professional cricket, Puri-di was a figure larger than life. I worshipped her for all that she had achieved and for all that she was.
Her passion and love for the game rubbed off on me, and it is something I carry with me always.
I first met Rajani-di during a summer camp conducted by the Hyderabad Cricket Association in April 2007. Her reputation preceded her — an outstanding batter and an extremely strict coach. I was intimidated by her.
She was our batting coach for the camp, and soon became the Hyderabad Women’s Under-19 coach. During every nets session, she screamed at batters to “hit harder!” and most of us wondered if the skinny coach of ours was capable of hitting the ball any harder than we were doing.
A few months later, we played a six-a-side tournament where the opening match was between the ‘veterans’ — a team that included Puri-di and Rajani-di as well as the ‘current India players’ — the likes of Nooshin-di (Al Khadeer) Gouher Sultana, Diana David, Sravanthi Naidu and Mamtha Kanojia. While we had heard of Puri-di’s ability to clear the boundary with ease, most of us were yet to see Rajani-di bat. The pair opened the batting for the veterans and remained unbeaten in their six overs. The ball went soaring all over courtesy Puri-di, but Rajani-di was not far behind. Unlike Puri-di, Rajani-di did not lift the ball over the ropes, but pummelled it past hapless fielders.
Although I never managed to hit the ball as hard as she would have liked, Rajani-di was one of the first coaches who recognized my talent as a middle order nudger and nurdler.
“You are able to hit the gaps and rotate the strike, but you need to develop one or two boundary options.” was her recommendation. She was delighted when I was able to put some weight behind my pull shot.
I did not get to work with her for long, as she moved on to play other important roles — match referee, national selector — but her encouragement to hit the ball hard has stayed with me. To see someone I was absolutely terrified of as a youngster, giggle like a schoolgirl when she met Ravi Shastri, was one of my favourite moments.
My hero has heroes too!
Nooshin Al Khadeer
Nooshin-di was at the top of her game when I began playing cricket, forming the less-celebrated half of India’s spin attack led by Neetu David. She was someone who inspired me as a player, and continues to inspire me as my coach.
In my early days, Sundays at the Keyes High School Cricket Camp run by Mr Dorai Raj were special because his daughter Mithali and Nooshin-di would come and play a match with us. More often than not I was in Nooshin-di’s team and I suppose that was where our relationship began. She had the knack of making us kids feel special. I was in awe of her, so it took me a few years to actually start talking to her. She taught me not to let failure or the fear of it drag me down.
“What’s the worst that can happen? You get a first-ball duck, field terribly and get smashed around the park, right? You can still get up the next day and get better. It is not a life-or-death situation.”
It is fair to say that Nooshin-di the coach is as passionate as Nooshin-di the player. The only difference is that she now has bucket-loads of patience, which means I can pester her with questions without worrying about the consequences.
While Puri-di and Rajani-di had helped mould me as a junior cricketer, Nooshin-di has been the biggest influence and support along my journey in the senior circuit. I have spent countless hours practicing with her. After lots of trial and error, tears, sweat and blood, she has seen me grow by leaps and bounds as a player. She has instilled within me a belief in myself — something I had inadvertently lost along the way. She is my coach, my friend, my mentor.
I am one of her many wards in the Hyderabad team, and as a group, we owe her a great deal. She has worked tirelessly to help us improve both individually and collectively. We are a better team because of her. It was fitting, therefore, that the loudest cheer from the players came when she had her moment in the sun.
I was very lucky to have been part of Hyderabad teams that have had some wonderful coaches, who not only knew the intricacies of the sport but also understood our individual strengths and weaknesses. Purnima Rau, Rajani Venugopal and Nooshin Al Khadeer were three of the best!