The start has not been perfect, but Simran Shaikh is already pretty sure that this is her stepping stone to getting into the Indian team.
The 21-year-old batter has scores of 0, 6, 9, 2 in her first six matches of the Women’s Premier League (WPL), in which she plays for the UP Warriorz (she did not bat in one match, and while she was in the Playing XI in Saturday’s match against the Mumbai Indians which UP Warriorz won with five wickets and three balls to spare, she didn't get to bat).
The team itself is in the middle of the points table, with three wins in six matches as of Sunday (March 19). But Shaikh’s is the kind of instant success story that cricket’s premier T20 league (first the IPL, now the WPL) churns out—whether or not it sustains is difficult to predict.
Born and brought up in Mumbai’s Dharavi, one of Asia’s largest slums, Shaikh learnt to play cricket in the gullies of the neighbourhood, first watching others play and then joining them for fun. The fun soon turned into an obsession, as Shaikh progressively got better at belting the ball. Broken window panes and complains from the neighbours became the norm.
Bhailog of Dharavi
“In our neighbourhood, everyone is playing, cricket, football… I first watched and then played with kids and then the older players who could not get me out. I would play the whole day,” Shaikh says in Hindi. “People would complain that they got hit but I had a lot of support from bhailog.”
The local community of boys, whom she refers to as “bhailog”, helped her get better at batting, besides the support of her family that includes four sisters and three brothers. There were many who offered advice, telling her that cricket could be her pathway out of there, the proverbial ticket to a better world. United Club in Cross Maidan became a facilitator as she progressed from playing with the beginners’ tennis ball to leather that professionals use, which is a completely different ball game.
“I didn’t have much interest in academics,” she says grinning. “I like cricket so much that it’s the only thing I played. I have a brother (referring to one of the community boys) who got me into United. It did not take time, but I had to get some technique right.”
From Mumbai Under-19 to WPL
A few cricket camps led to the Mumbai under-19 team, then to the Mumbai team before she played the Women’s T20 Challenger Trophy last November for India C. In January, she scored an 86-ball 97 against Rajasthan for Mumbai in the Senior Women’s One Day 2022-23.
When the auctions were held for the WPL in February, Shaikh sat in front of the TV, hopeful that her turn would come. As time went by and team rosters got filled up, her father Jahid Ali lost hope, she says. But her name did come up towards the end, sold for Rs 10 lakh to UP, which took a few days to sink in. She was one of 87 players who were included in WPL teams for a total spend of just under Rs 60 crore.
“My father said it would not happen. I said it will, with Allah’s wishes. When my name came up, I could not believe it for a few days. I was so happy that it didn’t somehow feel real,” Shaikh says.
Now the “whole of Dharavi” comes to watch her, she claims with deliberate exaggeration and her mohallawallahs are super thrilled by her success.
A day after Mumbai Indians beat UP Warriorz on March 12, Shaikh is seated by the Trident poolside wearing the team colours. It’s a day of shoots, promotional activities and three days before UP lost to Royal Challengers Bangalore. Her activities are now managed by a team of professionals, not family and friends, and when she is hanging around, waiting for the next assignment, it’s on an open terrace facing Marine Drive and the Arabian Sea.
Shaikh says she did not feel intimidated by the instant glamour of the WPL or with having to share a dressing room with the world’s best players. She has, however, still not managed to get that selfie or have a chat with her favourite player, RCB’s Australian star Ellyse Perry. By now, though, she has become a bit more comfortable with her other Australian favourite, UP teammate Grace Harris, even if they have not really discussed cricket in detail.
The cricket has been good, she says, right from the practice sessions to the matches, which are being held in Mumbai’s Brabourne Stadium and Navi Mumbai’s DY Patil Stadium. Shaikh believes she has not had much time in the middle, which is part of the reason why a big score has eluded her so far. She was out first ball against Gujarat Giants, managed an unbeaten four-ball six in a failed chase against the Delhi Capitals, did not get to bat in the first match against RCB, had an unbeaten nine against Mumbai Indians after coming in to bat in the 17th over, and scored two in the second match against RCB.
She says it’s only a matter of time before she gets into the Indian team. “I have worked hard; my confidence is high and I have belief that I can do it. I don’t think I will need much time to play for India—probably a couple of years.
“Some said I was so lucky to get this far,” she says somewhat hesitantly. But it’s clear Shaikh does not subscribe to the theory because, as a batter, she adds, she has “all the shots”.