Thirush Kamini, the first Indian woman to score a century in the World Cup talks to Anusha Parthasarathy about her love for the willow and how women’s cricket is looking up

It’s beginning to drizzle as Thirush Kamini pads up but the 22-year-old still saunters down to the ground for a shoot. “Last year was my comeback season,” she says, as she stretches and bats for the camera, “I had been out of action for two years after a knee injury and I’m glad to be back.”

Thirush’s latest in her long list of achievements is a century against the West Indies during the first match of the Women’s World Cup this year. The first by an Indian woman in the World Cup, her hundred runs beat captain Mithali Raj’s earlier record of 91 runs. “It was an honour and an absolute wonder to be able to do that. I think my reaction, if you had caught it on TV, said it all,” she laughs.

When she was eight years old, Thirush would wake up to see her father (and now coach) watch late night matches. When he found out about her interest in cricket, he encouraged her to pursue it. “I would go to the Gopalapuram ground and practise with the others there. We would have the centre wicket practice and most of the time I’d be the only girl playing with a group of boys,” she says.

Was there ever a time when being a woman cricketer was challenging? “Well, it was never like that,” says Thirush, “except perhaps in the beginning. When boys bowled and I hit a shot, they would be embarrassed. So, their next ball would be aimed at my face.”

When she was 10, she represented the state at Jamshedpur, in the under-16 tournament. When she turned 12, she debuted for the senior state- level, and at 13, played her first state match in Chennai against Kerala. Here, Thirush won the Promising Cricketer Award. She joined the under- 21 Indian team when she was 15 and finally, went on to join the Indian women’s cricket team.

“It’s difficult to manage your studies and the game when you are very young,” she says, adding that three hours of practise in the morning and evening can tire you out. “You are occupied the entire day. Sometimes, you just want to have your own space, play or just relax but there is never time. I got used to missing classes but my school encouraged me throughout. I took special classes and studied to cope.”

While her memories of playing with the boys in Gopalapuram include a broken nose and many hits, her life in the training camps was intense but more regulated. “How else do you learn?” she wonders. “Everyone was surprised when I chose to pursue cricket at a young age. Some were encouraging, others critical and many targeted my father for encouraging me. ‘Why would you put a girl through this’ they would ask but he stood his ground.”

Thirush, a left-handed opening batsmen and leg spinner, has now played more than 20 ODIs for the team. “My proudest moment was when I was selected to play in the team,” she says. Thirush received the Alan Border-Gavaskar Scholarship in 2008 and spent two weeks training in Australia at the Centre for Excellence in Brisbane.

In 2007-2008, Thirush was also awarded the BCCI Junior Cricketer of the Year. “My first World Cup was the one in Australia in 2009, where India finished third. I was excited about it even if there was always an underlying fear. But I had a lot of help from the seniors who guided me on the ground. Playing in a World Cup is overwhelming,” she adds.

And about working under Mithali Raj, Thirush has only good things to say. “She’s a world-class batswoman, a very good cricketer and a great captain,” she says, “She teaches youngsters how to go about the game and cheers us on. There was a lot of pressure on me this year, during the World Cup, and it was through her support that I succeeded.”

For Thirush, the World Cup this year was extra special, because she was back in the team after two years. “During the England home series in 2011, I had injured my knee and had to rest. But to come back and hit a century was amazing. Everyone was pleased and I only wish we had won the World Cup,” laughs Thirush.

Thirush feels women’s cricket has undergone a seachange since it was taken over by the BCCI and this has helped boost women’s cricket. “We now have access to better infrastructure. We’re also getting paid, which is an important thing if you want to take up the sport as a profession. The word has spread and after this World Cup, more girls have been inspired to take up the sport seriously (her sister, Sugaragamini is in the state team of which Thirush is the captain),” she says.