When Renuka Singh is asked to pose for a photograph, near the dressing room at the Shaheed Veer Narayan Singh Cricket Stadium in Raipur, she gets self-conscious. Flashing that shy smile of hers, she requests, “Please take it fast, everyone is looking at me.”
She may feel uncomfortable at the thought of her India-D teammates watching her while being photographed, but the fact is that the entire cricket-playing world has been watching her, fascinated, for the last one year. And what a remarkable year it has been for the India seamer after making her international debut in Australia back in October 2021.
The 26-year-old is now No. 3 on the ICC rankings for T20I bowlers. And she has established herself as one of the finest practitioners of swing bowling in international women’s cricket.
“I have been swinging the ball right from the beginning,” Renuka tells The Hindu at Raipur, during the Senior Women’s T20 Challenger Trophy. “And I continue to work on my swing; when there are days when I don’t get it right, I look at the video and try to see where I need to improve.”
Emphasising the basics
Pawan Sen, the coach whom Renuka credits for helping her become the bowler she is, says he was impressed by her desire to improve and the enthusiasm with which she played cricket.
“Maybe she was a bit too enthusiastic when I began coaching her,” he says over the phone from Dharamshala. “She would ask me to teach her how to bowl the cutters and how to swing [the ball]. I told her she needed to learn getting the basics like line and length right first.”
But he had no doubt that she was a special talent when he first saw her at the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association’s women’s academy at Dharamshala. Renuka feels she probably would not have become a professional cricketer if that academy hadn’t come up in Himachal.
“So I am grateful that Anurag Thakur [Union Minister and former BCCI president who also headed the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association] started the academy,” Renuka says. “Himachal is a small State and without that academy, girls like me could not have played cricket.”
She used to play the game at Rohru, about 110 km from Shimla, with boys — her cousins and friends. “The boys always made me bowl,” she recalls. “My father — whom I lost when I was three — was very fond of cricket and kabaddi. My mother told me that he wanted me and my elder brother to play one of those sports. He had even named my brother Vinod, after his favourite cricketer Kambli.”
Renuka’s brother, Pawan says, had made sacrifices so that she could have a career in cricket. “It makes me really happy to see Renuka taking the wickets of top batters in women’s cricket, like Meg Lanning,” he says. “But I feel she should have been picked for India earlier. She was feeling low when she was ignored after being the leading wicket-taker among medium-pacers in the domestic one-day tournament a few years ago. I told her about Cheteshwar Pujara, who had been scoring heavily in successive seasons but not getting selected. After getting into the Indian team, I think Renuka has been showing her frustration [at the batters].”
The post-Jhulan era
Her bowling has certainly sharpened the Indian attack. In the post-Jhulan Goswami era, her role assumes even more importance. In Jhulan’s last match, the third ODI against England at Lord’s in September, Renuka took four wickets and was the Player-of-the-Match. She wishes she had taken another wicket in that game, which may forever be remembered for Deepti Sharma running Charlie Dean out for backing up too far at the non-striker’s end.
“If I had taken five wickets, I would have made it to the honours board at Lord’s,” she says with a smile. “I have enjoyed bowling in England, where the conditions help me.”
Before the England series, she was the leading wicket-taker in the women’s cricket competition at the Commonwealth Games in the same country. Her splendid spell against Australia — four for 18 — at Edgbaston, wasn’t enough for India, though.
But her three for five was enough for India to win the Women’s Asia Cup final against Sri Lanka at Sylhet a couple of months ago. But she wasn’t satisfied with her effort in that match. “I could have bowled better,” she says.
That sentence gives an insight into her approach to the sport. “She is never satisfied with her performance,” says Pawan. “That is one of her strengths. She has always been willing to work hard. She is, of course, very skilful too. I could see at the academy that she is a natural swing bowler.”
He adds that Renuka had been good enough to be fielded in Himachal’s under-19 squad when she was just 15. “Later on, when I included her in the senior team, I told her that she had to improve her speed, as the level of the competition was going to be much higher. She did that.”
Looking back at her days at the academy, she says she benefited immensely from training under Pawan. “The facilities at the academy were very good, too,” she says. “A hat-trick in an Under-19 one-day game — I think it was against Karnataka — gave me a lot of confidence early on. Then after my good shows on the senior circuit, I had been hopeful of making it to the Indian team.”
When she was finally selected, for the Australia tour, she was attending the national team’s camp at Bengaluru. “I was very happy, especially for my mother, who has worked to make me a cricketer because that was what my father wanted.”
Now when she visits home, she is recognised by people. “I am glad when little children recognise me,” she says. “It feels nice to know that I could inspire young girls to take up cricket.”
She believes women’s cricket in India will change with the launch of the Women’s IPL, which is set to happen within a few months. “It will change the attitude of people towards women’s cricket,” says Renuka, who admires the bowling of Zaheer Khan and Bhuvneshwar Kumar.
The female bowler who inspired her, Harpreet Dhillon of Punjab, may never have played international cricket but her skill caught Renuka’s eye. “As a young bowler, I marvelled at her ability to swing the ball,” says the reigning queen of swing. “I wanted to bowl like her.”
She also wants to bowl in Tests. “I would like to bowl with the red ball,” she says. “There is more scope for swing bowlers like me in Tests. I think India will be able to play more Tests in the future.”