WPL 2024: Grace Harris was going to smash me, but knew I would take her wicket, says Asha Sobhana

Bengaluru, Feb 25 (IANS): In game two of the 2024 Women’s Premier League (WPL), UP Warriorz’ Grace Harris was threatening to take the game away from Royal Challengers Bangalore, via the 77-run stand with Shweta Sehrawat to make a chase of 158 look like a cakewalk.

But Warriorz’s intention to chase 158 was spoiled by seasoned leg-spinner Asha Sobhana, who previously took out Vrinda Dinesh and Tahlia McGrath. In the 17th over, Asha had Shweta caught at cover and three balls later, castled Grace with a slower leg-break while trying to sweep.

Bowling from the pavilion end of a sold-out M. Chinnaswamy Stadium, Asha signed off by having Kiran Navgire stumped to finish with 5-22, the first five-wicket haul by an Indian bowler in the WPL. It was Grace’s scalp which RCB craved the most and Asha did the job in a game-changing spell to ensure the side won at home.

“My strength is turning the ball and I tried to stick to it. We had specifically planned for Grace Harris and tried not to go different from what was planned with the bowling coach, who gave me the freedom to plan.”

“The way she bats, she can go behind any bowler. But I was sure that she was going to hit and smash me. I knew as well that I would be taking her wicket via bowled or top edge. Luckily, by the grace of God, it worked,” said Asha in a virtual media interaction.

Before the game-changing over, there was a timeout, where Asha and support staff were in discussion. “The homework was done already. We knew how the batters were, the preparation was too good. I knew what I had to deliver in the 17th over, which meant there wasn’t much to talk about in the time-out. The support staff just came out to encourage me and to tell me to bowl the way I was doing, as the homework was done way before,” she revealed.

When Asha was given the Player of the Match award, she was emotional and had tears in her eyes. “All I wanted to do was to win the match and in that target, how I could contribute was going on in my mind. I never thought about the five-wicket haul and when I got the Player of the Match award, I was really emotional.”

“I mean, a lot of hard work was done in the past one year – travelling to places, working on my fitness, bowling and fielding. Finally, the result is coming in my favour and I was pretty happy, so became emotional,” she said on her emotions in the presentation ceremony.

Back home in Kerala, what was the reaction of her parents? “They are just happy; they don’t know much about cricket. So, they are just happy that I am happy. They just asked if you played well, ate well, and did you sleep well. They aren’t much into cricket and just recharged the cable connection just to watch me play,” said Asha.

In WPL 2023, where RCB finished fourth, Asha picked five wickets in as many games. In the first game of WPL 2024, she took five wickets in her first game. But the faith and backing from the RCB management, as well as them running multiple fitness camps in the off-season as well as a pre-tournament camp, worked wonders for Asha.

“Right from the start, RCB management had faith in me. Picking a domestic player and playing on a big stage, it takes a lot of courage, and they had faith in me. I knew that situations like the one in the match would come and we were prepared for it.”

“Like, we had a good 10-day camp, where we had lots of conversations with Luke (Williams, head coach) sir, Smriti (Mandhana), Malo (Malolan Rangarajan) and Corka (Courtney-Winfield Hill). The five-wicket haul is the result of a lot of discussion and practice over ten days, and I think that really reflected in the match and I am really happy about it.”

By her own admission, Asha was mad about cricket in her growing-up years and wasn’t aware of the existence of women’s cricket. Growing up in Kerala, Asha and her friends would take up newspapers, roll them into a ball, and put a rubber band on it. At times, a milk packet was taken, and the paper ball was put in it and covered with some rubberband.

There was encouragement from her father, an auto-rickshaw driver and a homemaker mother, as well as from her brother Anoop. “All thanks to neighbours and friends around my house for playing together and having a beautiful childhood. My brother Anoop was a crazy cricket fan and he wanted to be a cricketer, but he couldn’t become. He always encouraged me to become a cricketer.”

When Asha was in seventh grade, she heard an announcement from her PT teacher about a women’s cricket selection camp and if anybody was interested, they could attend. An eager Asha didn’t wait, went to meet her PT teacher and went to the selection camp without informing anyone at home.

“After school, I directly went for the selection in a white shirt and green skirt, there I met Srikumar sir and late Shabeena mam. They liked my play and selected me in the district team.”

“I went back home smiling at 7:30 pm and screaming ‘I got selected’, where my parents were searching for me and were almost going to the police station to file a missing case. From there, my parents really supported me,” she recalled with a laugh.

The struggle was huge for Asha, who had to change two buses to reach the practice venue and would even fall short of bus fare at times, despite her father stepping in for the same. “I practised in the central stadium, but the biggest support was late Shabeena Jacob mam, who used to give me one week of bus fare when I didn’t have it. Sometimes Aaron sir gave me one week's bus fare and would take me for orange juice after practice. I know the value of everything.”

Asha’s cricketing journey took her to join South Central Railways in 2011, where she played for its women’s team for a decade, playing alongside Nooshin Al Khadeer and Mithali Raj, a phase which she calls a ‘turning point’ in her life.

“That really helped me to become a stronger version of myself. It wasn’t like a normal team, like there would be currently 14 Indian players and then there was you competing with them. Competing there in the Railways team was very tough for me.”

“But every time I was there in Indian Railways, I hardly sat outside and competed with everybody to get into playing eleven of all the matches. I was really happy about that, and it made me very tougher in decision-making by playing amongst the greatest players, which gave me really huge experiences.”

After leaving Railways, Asha had a stint in Kerala and is currently with Pondicherry in domestic cricket. She was at a crossroads in her career before WPL happened.

“I was in dilemma as to whether keep playing or quit, when the WPL happened. Kudos to the scouts, as they had faith in me. The day I came to RCB, Malolan sir said, “Your bowling is of a different level.” That really inspired me as when you come from the domestic level, getting such words at a big stage got me to contribute to RCB.”

Inspired by Anil Kumble, whom she met before WPL 2024, and Shane Warne, while being a huge fan of Stuart MacGill, Asha’s tale of grit, determination and toiling in the domestic circuit got its due recognition on the night of February 24, 2024, at WPL. In front of a packed crowd, she was the source of both hope and joy for RCB, two words seen on her Instagram handle.

“WPL has changed not just my life, but it has changed so many lives of domestic players. It is going to change many more lives and it puts a thought in everybody’s head that you can also dream and play alongside some like Ellyse Perry, Sophie Devine or Smriti Mandhana. A year ago, I never thought that I could share a dressing room with those three. Everybody can dream now and can achieve their dreams,” she signed off.



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Title: WPL 2024: Grace Harris was going to smash me, but knew I would take her wicket, says Asha Sobhana

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