Jemimah Rodrigues: ready for lift-off
Jemimah Rodrigues points to her braces. "I've got a 2pm appointment with my dentist," she says, "look how these have grown a gap."
She has just wrapped up her morning nets session at the NEGEV Academy in Juhu, Mumbai. The facility, run by her father, Ivan, at the JVPD Ground, "has been Dadda's dream for years", she says. The Rodrigueses are middle-class, and the BCCI central contract she received within a month of her India debut last year helped Ivan's dream get off the ground. The academy opened a week after Rodrigues struck her highest score in international cricket - 59 against New Zealand in the World T20 opener in November last year.
"We're leaving for the New Zealand tour the day after, so I need to make sure I go see the dentist today. Missed so many appointments last year because of cricket…"
Since taking to the sport at age four, Rodrigues, now 18, has traded lunch breaks at Bandra's St Joseph's Convent, family get-togethers, a fledgling career in basketball and hockey, and many other routines of a regular teen's life for her "No. 1 priority". "Because at 12, I started taking the sport seriously, and by the time I was 14-15, Dadda made me believe I could get an India cap," she says.
A breakout 2016-17 domestic season, headlined by an unbeaten 202 ("the turning point for my cricket") in a record 1013-run tally for Mumbai in the Under-19 one-day tournament, segued into an impressive run at the 2017-18 Challenger Trophy. A maiden national call-up for the tour of South Africa followed, in January-February 2018, where she made her T20I debut after sitting out the ODI leg.
"Life has definitely changed since then, for me and my family," says Rodrigues, sipping tea from a paper cup that has 'Hearty Party' written on it. "There have been ups and downs, a lot of learning, growing.
"I'm not a party person, but definitely a hearty girl - if that means being up to something all the time," she laughs. "But this [past] year has made me a more mature person, because since I debuted, it's been a mixture of everything - highs and lows. I have never worked on my game, my fitness, or developed as a person so much as I did in the past year."
On comes a generous flash of the braces as she talks about the "good things" from the year gone by.
"My partnerships with Mithu di [Mithali Raj, in the T20I series against South Africa]. Rodrigues says Raj is her "role model for consistency".
Also memorable was her impeccably timed, back-arching, airborne, reverse-cup catch at the deep-midwicket boundary in the fifth T20I of that series, which sent Sunil Gavaskar into raptures on air and got Rodrigues' former neighbour Sachin Tendulkar tweeting praise.
She beams at the mention of her maiden international fifty, against Australia (opposition captain Meg Lanning praised her "fearlessness") and her 45-run partnership with the "friendly, chill" Suzie Bates during the IPL exhibition match in May last year.
Watching [the Bollywood movie] Kal Ho Na Ho with her team-mates in Sri Lanka was great fun, and so was being in the West Indies. "Of all the tours, I really enjoyed myself being with the team most there, because we gelled really well."
And what were the not-so-good parts?
"After the Asia Cup, I began doubting myself if I'm good enough to play for India," she says. During that tournament, in Malaysia, she warmed the bench, having fallen out of form in the nets, and asked herself if she belonged at that level. "I did not share [my anxieties] with my brothers or parents, because I don't like to share my emotions with anyone. I don't emote much on my face either, but my mom picks up whenever something's not right with me.
"I remember going to practice with Dad one day, and he asked me if everything was okay. I tried to convince him everything was, but I suddenly broke down [laughs]. Internally, I couldn't understand what was going wrong or why it was going wrong. Dadda made me understand that everybody goes through such phases. 'If you want to cry before someone, cry before God, not any human,' he said, 'because He sees your tears and He has a mighty plan and purpose for you.'"
Rodrigues' family is religious and faith in divine purpose is the bedrock on which their dreams stand. Ivan, a former aircraft maintenance engineer, switched to coaching girls at his daughter's school and running coaching classes with his wife, Lavita, to support the family. Ahead of the Challengers in January 2018, he borrowed a hefty loan to buy a bowling machine so his daughter could practise playing inswingers. "Earlier he used to given 200 throwdowns with his hand, and I was getting out to inswing a lot," Rodrigues says. A year on, Ivan has an academy to his name, Rodrigues a bat sponsorship and a player-management firm managing her commercial interests.
The Challenger Trophy in August last year, following the Asia Cup, was to serve as a selection tournament for the Sri Lanka tour. Rodrigues made scores of 10, 0, 0 and 1. "I sort of got into a zone where I felt like, 'No, I have to prove myself to the world that I can perform,'" she says. "I lost my focus. Instead of playing my natural game or being who I am, I went in the opposite direction."
Lean returns notwithstanding, the selectors picked her in both limited-overs squads, but the 11-run patch had provided an awakening - one that proved the foundation of some of her most memorable innings later in the year.
"Ramesh [Powar] sir [the former interim head coach] asked me one day, 'Why are you taking so much pressure? Always remember why you started playing cricket. Don't get carried away by success or failure. You don't have to prove to anyone who you are.' He suggested I shuffle across to make use of the crease better, to increase my scoring options. That worked for me."
At five feet three inches and all of 49kg, Rodrigues is small. Her frame doesn't allow for the reach or power some of her team-mates possess, and she has had to rely on tweaks - technical and mental - along the way. Like the one suggested by former India captain Anju Jain during an Under-19 Zonal Cricket Academy camp in 2014-15.
"At the time my bottom hand was such that my bat face was closing. She was our West Zone coach, so she changed my grip so that I was able to get more power in my shots.
"I was thinner in the previous U-19s," she laughs. "I couldn't even clear the 30-yard circle." When she hit her first half-century, at 12, there were only one or two boundaries in it, she says. "I was not good at uppish hitting, so my dad started working on my timing, step-out shots, how to pierce the gaps, getting more power through a higher backswing, and bat speed. I have been practising all that since before my India debut, but it is only now that I'm starting to see the results."
The advice of her experienced India team-mates came in handy during the Sri Lanka tour. The most helpful of them came from two players with experience of overseas leagues.
"Smriti [Mandhana] had seen the video of the Challengers after returning from the Kia Super League. She pointed out that my top hand had moved towards my stomach. Her grip, too, used to keep changing. She helped identify the problem compared to the grip in the previous Challengers [in Jan 2018], where I had performed well."
The other notable bit of encouragement came from her T20I captain, Harmanpreet Kaur, and its impact, Rodrigues says, showed in a Player-of-the-Series performance in the T20Is against Sri Lanka, and a record 134-run stand with Harmanpreet in the World T20 opener against New Zealand, where Rodrigues became the first Indian woman to score a half-century on World T20 debut - a record held by Virat Kohli in the men's game.
"In Sri Lanka, Harry di came up and said, 'You're going to play all the matches, so just go and bat. Don't worry about anything else.' So whether it was those three [consecutive] sixes against Sri Lanka or my overall performance there and in the World Cup, Harry di's saying that helped, because I knew things wouldn't go all wrong for me if I didn't score in one game."
On the back of her year-end showings, Rodrigues, who was voted the BCCI's Best Domestic Junior Women's Cricketer for the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, was No. 8 on the list of top run getters in T20Is in 2018, and rose to a career-best No. 6 spot on the ICC T20I rankings. The talk around her being the next big thing in Indian cricket, much like fellow Mumbai player Prithvi Shaw, gathered pace.
"All that doesn't weigh me [down] or make me feel self-important," she says. "If I get to know that Sachin sir or Nasser Hussain has said something or tweeted about me, it makes me want to be better.
"I also have my own expectations to deal with. I acknowledge them, keep them realistic, so I don't feel pressured. But they shouldn't be too small to not challenge me to be better. I think it's good to have expectations because it means you care about your performance, the responsibilities given to you by your team."
Rodrigues describes herself as a target-driven individual. For her, in the international season ahead, there's consistency to be "achieved", a regular place in ODI team to be "earned", and copious notes to be taken.
"Anju ma'am inculcated in me this habit of writing down match experiences and scores during that [ZCA] camp. I gradually found myself get more focused. I set personal goals in my practice sessions, and per season: say, if I play about 40 matches, I should look to score these many runs. So I have a purpose behind playing every match… I've stuck to that habit of jotting things down."
Rodrigues says it's part of her nature "to keep people in a fun zone all the time". Except "when it comes to cricket. I'm focused… not easily distracted by anything".
Not even waffles and shawarma?
"That's only part of my cheat days," she laughs. "When I'm in town, I go out with my brothers [Enoch and Eli] to have pastries, waffles… Because I do have a sweet tooth. But otherwise, I'm really quite focused on my cricket.
"If I put in the extra effort, it will get easier for me. I keep telling myself I don't want to be the same the next year, I don't want to be at the same level. I need myself to go up."
As she takes flight, trust a former England captain, who watched her up close last April to foretell the future: Rodrigues is going to be a star for India.