Every player on the Indian team has a distinct way of moving. Team stalwart Jhulan Goswami glides on her impossibly long legs, her trademark stoop in place. Lanky Smriti Mandhana (“the next Sachin”, the team’s media manager tells me with a reverent hush, but who wasn’t able to get the show going this time) is all limbs when she walks. Anuja Patil, who’s proved a valuable all-rounder this WorldT20 with 4 wickets, 4 catches and 43 runs, moves from the hip, with a side-to-side waddle that leaves you unprepared for her quick reflexes when it comes to taking catches. Opener VR Vanitha moves with the swag of a friendly gangster. So does middle-order batter Veda Krishnamurthy, who catches your eye on the field; but she moves like she always knows what she wants, planting each foot wide and firm on the ground. With her batting pads on, Veda’s walk reminds me a little of everyone’s favourite transformer: Optimus Prime.
* * *
“I don’t see why we shouldn’t be qualifying for the semifinals,” India captain Mithali Raj told journalists ahead of the ICC World Twenty20 2016. Fresh from victories against Sri Lanka in February and heavyweights Australia in January, the entire team shone with self-belief, sure that they’d get far, and buoyed by the thought that they’d have the public eye on them like never before. Believing you can do it is half the game won: while training men’s team Sydney Thunder during Australia’s Big Bash League, coach Paddy Upton made players hold their breath for as long as they could in a swimming pool to improve their ability to keep calm – what he believes prevails over skill at crunch time. “[P]layers find that they can keep their head underwater for as long as they keep their mind in the right place,” he told an interviewer. During a training session in Bangalore between practice matches, Veda told me that she knew the team would be “blasting” their way into the finals. The psychological aspect
of the game was her focus going into the tournament; for her body to do what it already knew how to, her mind had to be “absolutely clear”. But with one victory and three losses in the group stage meaning India’s disappointing exit from the Women’s WorldT20, if there’s one thing Veda – the second-highest scorer for Indian women this World T20 – is happy about, it’s that she was able to bring her trademark aggression to the field. “I hate playing submissive cricket,” she says on the phone from Chennai, to where she’s already flown to play in her next cricket tournament.
At 18, Veda was captain of the Karnataka team, and later picked for the national team, when she made her international debut in the quadrangular ODI and T20 series’ in England in mid-2011. In her first ODI match of the series against England, she scored 51 runs – a great start that was never repeated in the next 22 T20 and ODI innings she played. She was then dropped from the national team, going through a dark period until a comeback a couple of years later. In 2015, she drew attention again with her performance in the ODI series against New Zealand in Bangalore. On January 26, 2016, at the age of 23, she played a key role in India’s 141-run chase in a T20 match against Australia, making 35 off 32 balls and keeping the team’s momentum going in what was to be a thrilling 5-wicket win. Batting isn’t her only strength; one of her coaches strongly believes that she could be one of the world’s best fielders, like Jonty Rhodes. But her rocket ride to the top of the game and the period she was dropped from the team both relate to an important question: how confident is a sportswoman allowed to be?
* * *
If upbringing is considered the key to one’s self-esteem, Veda was born set. She spent her early childhood in Kadur, a tiny town in Karnataka’s Chikkamagaluru district, about four hours’ drive from Bangalore. She was the youngest child of Cheluvamba, a homemaker, and Krishna, a prosperous businessman with a military background. Veda now has a tattoo of the sun with her parents’ names inside it, on her right forearm. When she was little, her family thought the sun shone out of her. The youngest of four siblings by a 10-year margin, she had everything and more that a little girl
could ask for, and an army of siblings and parents who would do exactly as she asked.
Little Veda was short-haired, great at sports, and loved to dance. Details really, really mattered: at 10, she once sent her family all the way to Bangalore looking for a plastic guitar as a prop for a school dance. Another time, she went as a Yakshagana performer for a fancy dress competition at school: her father brought in a professional makeup artiste to get her ready.
If Veda always aimed high, perhaps it was because
her family aimed even higher. Krishna wanted his daughter to be an IAS or IPS officer when she grew up. As an 8-year-old she’d begun karate lessons as part of his plan for the Education of Veda Krishnamurthy. By 12, her father told me, Veda had earned a black belt and was Karnataka champion in the 35kg category in 2004. He wanted her to take up taekwondo, and envisioned sending her off to the Olympics one day.
But it was cricket, a much older love, that commanded her attention. She’d tag along as a five-year-old to watch her brother Yashavanth play cricket at the ground right by the family’s house, and his friends would encourage her to join them. At 12-and-a-half, she saw a newspaper ad for a cricket training camp. “She’d silently point to something, and it would need to be done,” says her sister Sudha. That’s what got Veda to a six-week camp in Bangalore at the Karnataka Institute of Cricket (KIOC), run by renowned coach Irfan Sait.
“I remember the day I first met her very clearly: her family said she was ‘hyperactive’. I knew what they meant; that she was mischievous, and wouldn’t keep quiet,” says Sait, who spotted her incredible talent early on. When the camp ended, he tried to convince her parents that they needed to keep her in training. Veda moved to Bangalore, staying at the home of another young cricketer until her oldest sister Vatsala moved to Bangalore to facilitate Veda’s training. She completed her schooling and pre-university education in Bangalore, and later did a BA in Psychology via correspondence.Sait was so struck by Veda’s fielding that as coach for the Karnataka women’s senior team, he got her onto the squad when she was only 14. Early on, there was talk of Veda playing for India. She was athletic and strong. She pulled off impossible catches, and her batting strokes were big and hard. Sait says she showed that a girl could do these things. “And made other girls believe they could do it too.”
* * *
On March 22, during the India vs. England match halfway through the group stage, Veda’s large family gathered in her large home in Kadur, tense. A win against England, the strongest team in India’s group, might have cemented their path to the semi-finals. Her parents, three siblings, two nieces and a nephew crowded before the TV, all eyes on their girl.
With two practice match wins and a great start to the tournament with 163 against Bangladesh, their highest T20 score, India hit the ground running. But in a match against Pakistan just days before the England one, watched by a large roaring crowd, the Indian batters seemed to crumble on the slow wicket at Ferozeshah Kotla. Under pressure, India only managed an abysmal 34 for 2 wickets in 11 overs until Veda came out and scored 24 runs off 18 balls – hitting three fours – providing the turning point for the Indian innings that seemed to put the fight back in the team. The game picked up during the second innings, and it looked like the bowlers had saved the day, but India ran out of luck; the match was rained out, and they lost by 2 runs.
Veda’s family hoped fervently that the Indian team would win against England, but with a similar Indian batting collapse at Dharamshala and Veda out for 2 runs off 6 balls, even her careful bowling in the penultimate over didn’t turn things in India’s favour – England won by a hair. West Indies similarly scraped past India into the semifinals almost a week later; Veda, after a smooth catch sending Deandra Dottin back to the dressing room in the first innings, was pushed up the batting order to No. 3, and got India off to a brisk, energetic start. Her early dismissal (a careless pull shot to mid-wicket, caught, ironically, by Dottin) left behind a team that didn’t work hard enough to chase down West Indies’ total, and that was it for India. Game over.
It wasn’t just India that wobbled under pressure in the women’s game. After her team’s great 4-match victory in the group stage, New Zealand captain Suzie Bates said there was no secret to their performance, just confidence. But with raised stakes in the semi-final against the West Indies, for the first time, they had sloppy moments while the West upped their game. This time, it was New Zealand’s turn to go home. In the finals on April 3, the West Indies beat three-time defending champions Australia, with a first-ever WorldT20 finals win and the highest-ever chase in the finals of a women’s World T20. Hours later, their men’s team had a thrilling win too. The word on everyone’s lips, from reporters to players to overjoyed bowling coach Curtly Ambrose, legendary West Indies pace bowler, was “self-belief”.
* * *
“The amount of self-belief Veda has is amazing,” says coach Sait. This WorldT20, Veda proved she could hold her breath underwater. She managed to score by identifying the gaps in fielding – something India’s more experienced batters failed at repeatedly. A self-professed Suresh Raina fan, she has the poise and ability of the team’s seniors, like Mithali and Harmanpreet Kaur, and the fearlessness and aggression of the team’s younger players like VR Vanitha and Anuja Patil.
Those who’ve played with her describe her as a thinking cricketer, and someone who works endlessly just to get a shot exactly right. Reema Malhotra, a former India player, and Veda’s colleague and current teammate in the Western Railways, strongly believes that Veda will lead India one day. She saw Veda through the low in her career when she was dropped from the team not long after her amazing 2011 debut. Selectors told her the problem was her attitude. Being so successful so young went to her head, and it affected her game, Veda says. “I was on a high, making a score like that at such a young age. I thought there was nobody like me.” She took advice, took time to reflect and worked hard to change her approach after the setback, and it’s to Veda’s credit, says Reema, that she never lost hope. “She’s a good listener – that helped her overcome her problems. Now she’s a better person, a better player.”
Her family and fellow players talk about Veda’s constant calm, her equanimity despite victories or losses. Can it be that the girl who once cared so deeply about school dances and costumes down to the last detail doesn’t care deeply about the milestones in her career?
“I’m a very emotional person, I try not to show it to people,” she says. “Once you share the good in your life, you have to share the bad as well.” And she’d rather not have her family worrying about her well-being, she says, more serious than I’ve ever heard her. If there are ever cracks in her superb confidence, I get the feeling she’d never let them show.
So though Veda agrees that she’s always open to listening, she admits that she isn’t open to discussing her game with anyone; not even coaches. I recall speaking to Divya Gnanananda, Karnataka’s opening batter, who describes Veda as being fun-loving, light-hearted, into food and music and movies and shopping, and someone who would chat about anything under the sun – except for cricket. Coach Sait believes she’s stagnating as a player, and her potential as an extraordinary fielder is being neglected because of her focus on batting. Whatever Veda’s thoughts on the matter, it’s a conversation she is perhaps unlikely to engage in.
I also get the feeling Veda’s confidence will always be something she will feel pressure to carefully calibrate – flamboyance and aggression on and off the field are cool in a Virat Kohli, and infinitely less so in a woman. (If you’re boxer Laishram Sarita Devi, being “too nice” might be used to explain why you didn’t make it to the top. If you’re MC Mary Kom, not being nice and making to the top can have you painted as being somehow morally inferior.) Veda, always polite in conversation, makes sure to drop platitudes like, “You can’t be bigger than cricket,” or “Everything you do is in service of the game.”
For now, she has more matches to think about: it’s the All India Inter-Railways Cricket Tournament, where there’s a different set of people, a different atmosphere, less pressure, and more freedom. For later, there’s a long-deserved break, and a holiday with friends. Veda, who also has to deal with endless declarations of love from male fans on her Facebook page, hasn’t thought much about a life after cricket, she admits, but doesn’t see herself continuing in coaching or admin once she stops playing. What she would like to do is become a politician, she claims. “I keep telling my father and sister to enter politics, to make it easier for me when I join,” she says, laughing uncontrollably. I doubt they’d refuse.