This is not the story of a precociously talented teenager who blazed her way through age-group tournaments, being marked out as ‘one for the future’ from the very start. This is the story of your everyday state cricketer — the kind that works as hard as possible to eke out every ounce of her ability. This is the story of how that player has reached the doorstep of her dreams.
There is nothing special about Neena Choudhary. Watch her bat in the nets, and none of her shots will take your breath away. The right-hander’s defence is immaculate, her favourite cover-drive is clinical, and her shots off the back foot are effective. She is your quintessential nudger and nurdler — the kind who will accumulate runs at a steady pace.
She has a bit of Cheteshwar Pujara about her — not flashy, but solid. She understands her strengths and limitations and works within them, making the best of her abilities. That is why Neena Choudhary is the kind of player you would want to bat for your life.
Her cricket journey, like that of most other Indian girls, began on the streets where she played with her family and friends. “I didn’t know that girls played cricket,” says Neena, who hails from Sunder Nagar in Mandi district of Himachal Pradesh. “I played with the boys around my house most of the time. In 2008 I saw an advertisement in the paper about cricket trials being held for girls in Dharamsala; and that was when things took off for me.”
Neena attended the trials held by the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association (HPCA) and was selected for both the Women’s Senior and Under-19 (2008-10) teams.
At the junior level, Neena batted in the top order and often opened the bowling for Himachal Pradesh (HP) with her right-arm medium pace. In her first match at the senior level she took 3 for 40 against Jammu & Kashmir, and it seemed her career path was set as a bowling all-rounder.
“No, no! My batting was always my priority,” says the 26-year old, laughing at the suggestion that she could have been a frontline bowler. “When I started playing for Himachal, we needed someone to chip in with a few overs, so I used to do that job. If I was bowling well and picking up wickets, I happened to bowl my full quota of overs.”
A wrist injury stopped her from bowling for a few seasons, but now that she has fully recovered, Neena is more than happy to send down her part-time medium pace if required. “Abhi thoda bahut bowling daal deti hoon [now I am back to bowling the odd over], but for me, batting always comes first.”
Neena has been on the domestic circuit for nine seasons and her overall record is middling. In 45 One-Day matches, the right-hander has scored 1,253 runs at an average of 35.80 with one century and 9 fifties — decent, but not earth-shattering numbers. Track her recent progress though, and it is easy to understand how she has found herself in contention for a place in the Indian team. In the last three seasons alone, Neena has scored more than half her career tally. Her statistics read 741 runs with 6 fifties and a century. Over these three separate seasons she has averaged 51.50 (2014-15), 46.75 (2015-16) and 69.60 (2016-17) — a model of consistency.
Unsurprisingly, her rise has coincided with HP’s ascent in the domestic circuit. In 2016-17 Neena scored 348 runs in 7 innings, including her maiden century (103* against Chhattisgarh) to finish at the top of the domestic one-day batting charts. On the back of her incredible run, HP managed to win the Plate Division Championship, thus qualifying for the One-Day Elite division next season.
It is an achievement that gives Neena much pleasure. She played a major role in the final against Uttar Pradesh, scoring a 124-ball 77, carrying the innings on her shoulders as she had for a large part of the season.
“It was a great feeling winning the Plate Championship. It was the first-time we passed the quarter-final stage, and was nice to have won,” says Neena, her voice brimming with pride. “We handled the pressure situations very well and that’s what got us through. I am happy to have scored some runs and contributed, but the most important thing is that the team won. Now Himachal will get more exposure [in the Elite division].”
The 26-year old says the secret to her consistency is an increased focus on her fitness and training routines: “My role in the team is to bat for as long as possible, while the others bat around me. I am not a power player, so I concentrate more on hitting the gaps and picking up ones and twos. To do that over 5-7 matches in two weeks, you need to be fit.”
Previously, Neena found herself scoring one fifty, but not having enough gas in the tank to push through the rest of the season. This time though, she invariably batted through a majority of the innings and made her contributions count.
“It was nice to score some runs. I worked hard on my batting with Ravikant [Sen]-Sir at Sunder Nagar Cricket Academy and made sure that this season I maximize my output,” she says. “I knew that if I stayed at the wicket, the singles would keep coming, and when the scoreboard keeps moving it reduces the pressure on the other batter.”
The HPCA influence
Neena is just one of a number of girls from HP who have started to make people sit up and take notice of their performances. From a team that caused the odd upset, they have become more consistent with their results, and their most trusted batter puts this down to the work done at the HPCA academy in Dharamsala.
“We have always had lots of good players in our team; it was just about finding a way to turn that ability into performance. We have put in a lot of work at the academy in the recent past. Pushpanjali [Banerjee]-Ma’am has really helped.
“Before the season we have a rigorous one-month residential camp at Dharamsala. We have fitness or gym sessions in the morning and skills in the afternoon.
“There are lots of girls doing well for Himachal,” adds the soft-spoken Neena. “Now it is about us getting more opportunities and going from strength to strength.”
Since Sushma Verma’s elevation to the Indian team three years ago, HP has somewhat dropped off the radar. The current group of players are doing their best to change that.
One step closer
Despite topping the batting charts, Neena was ignored for the 2016 Challenger Series in Baroda. The setback only strengthened her resolve to carry her good form into the domestic Twenty20 tournament in January.
Although HP did not qualify for the knock out stage, Neena’s performances did not dip as she scored 168 runs in 5 innings at a Bradmanesque average of 84. Her hard work and consistency paid off, and her breakthrough was just around the corner.
Neena was named as a standby of the Indian team for the ICC Women’s World Cup Qualifiers in Colombo and joined the pre-tournament camp held in Alur in January, earlier this year. Being around the national setup and training alongside the likes of Mithali Raj, Jhulan Goswami and Harmanpreet Kaur was a dream come true for her.
“I was in absolute awe of them [Mithali and Jhulan]. It was a great opportunity to be playing alongside wonderful players and watching them go about their routines,” says Neena, the excitement levels rising in her voice with every word.
“I was obviously nervous because it was my first big camp, but everyone made me feel welcome. The seniors were very encouraging, especially Jhulu-di and Shikha [Pandey]-di. They just told me to be confident and play my game; and also pointed out the areas I need to improve on — I learnt a great deal.”
The brush with the national team, however brief, has given Neena a huge confidence boost. Her dreams seem closer than they once were, but she remains grounded and fully focused on the road ahead. Ask her about her goals for next season and she says she is looking no further than the India probables fitness camp in Mumbai that began April 5. She knows that the hard work has only just begun and is determined to keep evolving to maintain the high standards she has set for herself.