From Vijayapura to Lord's, Rajeshwari's inspiring tale

From Vijayapura to Lord's, Rajeshwari's inspiring tale

Rajeshwari Gayakwad has beaten several odds to reach the pinnacle of her chosen sport.

In a place, which is defined by its backwardness and poverty of a large section of population, sport is the last thing on people’s mind. And even if someone shows some interest, it’s quickly discouraged by parents for whom securing future is more important than indulging in "uncertainty."

Vijayapura, or the erstwhile Bijapur, famous for its 15th century Indo-Islamic architecture, figures nowhere on Karnataka’s sporting map. It has some well-known national-level cyclists, but there have been few sports persons of note in popular disciplines. Like any part in India, cricket is quite popular here too, but for the longest of time, its connection with international cricket was restricted to a benefit match for former Karnataka player Prakash Rathod, who hailed from this place.

The match involved the then India captain Mohammad Azharuddin among others. Rathod, to this day, remains the only male player from this part to have represented the State. And to play for the country, that too for a girl, is a task next to impossible. Until Rajeshwari Gayakwad, one of the five children of a government school teacher, decided to dream, dare and do it.

Last month marked Rajeshwari’s fifth year in international cricket, having made her debut against Sri Lanka in Visakhapatnam in 2014. The left-arm spinner has been regular in the India limited overs sides. Surprisingly (or is it?), she had no idea about the existence of women’s cricket. “Cricket is a game for the rich people,” she had assumed.

The second Shivanand Gayakwad's children, Rajeshwari didn’t have it easy while growing up. While her father enrolled each of his children into schools, pursuing other passions like sport was difficult given the financial situation. As a budding cricketer, embarrassments and doubts filled her young mind. A quality cricket bat would cost anywhere close to Rs 2000, and for a government school teacher, who had to take care of seven in the family, this was simply not  affordable. During games and ‘nets’, Rajeshwari would do what many from such humble backgrounds did. "Untill my father could afford it, I use to take my friend’s bat or guards and play,” she laughs. “That was the only option I had.”   

As a child, Rajeshwari played many sports in her school for fun, but her first cricketing memory is of getting amused with the process of bowling. “I can’t explain why but I loved to see a bowler running hard and executing the delivery. The run-up, the jump and the follow through thrilled me. I decided if it all I play the game, I would be a fast bowler,” she tells DH.

Until the women's cricket came under BCCI's wing, access to basic infrastructure was difficult dream even in many bigger cities, and it was a pipe dream in mofussill areas. However, the establishment of a private women’s cricket academy in Vijayapura was the turning point in her life. Shivanand, knowing her daughter’s interest in cricket, wasn’t going to waste this opportunity.

“My father who enrolled me there (academy) and it was my first ever exposure to cricket. I totally loved the experience,” she says.

Rajeshwari calls her father, or appaji as she refers to him as, her hero. Shivanand was a man who never believed in complaining about dismal financial situation.  

“Not once did he make us feel guilty of using his money for our sporting activities. In a family like ours, it’s understandable to expect parents to wish their children excel in education. But appaji wasn’t like that,” she recollects.

Shivanand, even took personal interest in encouraging Rajeshwari's career. He would start his day as early as 4:00 am to ensure his daughter put in the right amount of training required to excel in the game. 

“I realised being fit is very important for a cricketer," she notes. "So, every day at 4:00 am, my father would take me to the ground and I would run for an hour. He would guide me with many fitness drills after which I would go to practice in the academy,” she says.

After switching to spin as per her coaches’ suggestion, she was a consistent performer at the district and State level. In the Gayakwad family, the encouraging atmosphere helped other youngsters follow their passion.

While she is happy her father saw her make India debut, he didn’t live long enough to see her play outside India. He chest would have filled with even more pride had he seen his daughter excel for India in the 2017 women's World Cup in England at Lord's where they finished runners' up to hosts. 

“I miss my father,” she says.  But today, happily settled in Bengaluru, Rajeshwari has a changed opinion on sports. “I now realise that talent can take you places,” she states.

“We were five children. My younger sister Rameshwari too pursued cricket. My elder sister played hockey while my younger brother was interested in badminton. My father’s massive support made a huge difference in our lives. My mother Savita showed great grit. Not once did she complain,” she offers.

En route her journey to the Indian cricket team, a shift to Bengaluru was inevitable. With the move, Rajeshwari faced fresh hurdles, on and off the pitch. “We played on matting wickets in my home town but here we had to bowl on turf. That was a challenge,” says Rajeshwari, who is employed with Indian Railways.

Adjusting to a big city wasn’t an easy task for Rajeshwari. There was a drastic difference in the lifestyle and people here as compared to her hometown. But again, in a crucial juncture of her career, she was lucky to get the best support. This time, it was her brother-in-law Maruti. 

“Rajeshwari was a bit reserved when she first came to Bengaluru. She feared commuting alone. I spoke to her and asked her to focus on the game. I told her to be confident. Soon, she was lucky to have good friends in the Karnataka team and very supportive coaches,” says Maruti.

Rajeshwari’s ability to provide breakthroughs cemented her place in the national side. Her best effort arrived in the Women’s World Cup two years ago. With 5/15, she was one of the key performers in India’s big win against New Zealand. Her most forgettable moment also came in the same tournament.

“We lost the game by nine runs. We lost from a very strong position. It hurts even today when I think of the final,” says Rajeshwari, who was the last batswoman dismissed in the title clash.

As siblings, Rajeshwari and Rameshwari have won many matches for Karnataka. “She (Rameshwari) is a right-arm spinner. We would bowl from both ends and dominate the opponents. I am the elder one but she is always there for me with words of comfort,” she tells of her sister, who has also played the Women’s Challenger.