Losing father at 3, leaving home at 13 for cricket, Renuka Singh Thakur grabs the spotlight

Renuka Singh Thakur bagged four wickets against in India’s Commonwealth Games opener against Australia.

India’s Renuka Singh celebrates a wicket during the Group-A Preliminary Round women’s T20 cricket match between India and Australia, at the Commonwealth Games 2022 (CWG) in Birmingham.

India’s Renuka Singh celebrates a wicket during the Group-A Preliminary Round women’s T20 cricket match between India and Australia, at the Commonwealth Games 2022 (CWG) in Birmingham. | Photo Credit: PTI

Renuka Singh Thakur bagged four wickets against in India’s Commonwealth Games opener against Australia.

Renuka Singh Thakur was just three when she lost her father Kehar Singh. She doesn’t have too many memories of her dad, but growing up, Renuka has heard several stories of her father’s love for cricket.

Hailing from the village of Parsa in Rohru, Himachal Pradesh, Kehar was a die-hard cricket fan, so much so that he named his elder son after Vinod Kambli. So, it was quite natural that cricket was a popular sport in the family, and while in school, Renuka, too, developed a passion for the game.

In the afternoons, as the local boys would play tennis ball cricket, Renuka, too, would join in. The friendly games would continue for hours and even before she could realise it, Renuka was in love with the game.

After a year or so, her uncle Bhupinder Singh Thakur persuaded the family to send a young Renuka to Dharamshala and join the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association’s women’s residential academy.

Renuka was hardly 13 then. Leaving behind her family, she shifted base to Dharamshala, hoping to make every opportunity count. Back then, she was a fan of South Africa pace legend Dale Steyn and would often admire his heroics on the field.

And on Friday, as Renuka celebrated her four-for against Australia in the Commonwealth Games opener in Birmingham, for her friends and family, it was an emotional moment. Spearheading the pace attack against a star-studded Australian team, Renuka rattled the top batters and helped India take control of the game, even though Harmanpreet Kaur’s team lost the plot at the end and eventually conceded a defeat.

But it was a treat to watch Renuka bowl. For India international Sushma Verma, who has known Renuka since 2009, it was a nostalgic moment while watching the fixture on television.

“We were the first batch of the HPCA women’s residential academy and Renuka and I have been room-mates since 2009. From the beginning itself, she wanted to be a fast bowler and I am really happy that she has been able to fulfil her dreams,” Sushma tells  Sportstar.

“She was perhaps the youngest in the academy at that point in time, so it was tough for her to stay away from the family and then get used to it. We had to stay 24X7 at the academy and initially, it was initially challenging, but slowly she kept improving,” Sushma remembers.

Just like the other wards at the academy, Renuka, too, honed her skills under the watchful eyes of Pawan Sen. While the coach made it a point to work on developing Renuka’s skills, Sushma believes that a lot of credit also goes to Anisha Ansari for helping Renuka improve her game. “For the first six months, we would play Cosco ball (tennis ball) cricket in the academy and were not introduced to the leather ball because everyone was so young. I remember in those times also, Anisha and Renuka would bowl in partnerships,” Sushma says.

“If you go through the stats, Anisha is one of the most economical bowlers for HPCA. So back in those days, Anisha would build the pressure from one end and Renuka would take care of things from the other end. Today what she did, she was doing the same thing for HPCA as well,” the India international points out.

While Sushma remembers the time when all the youngsters would dream of making it to the Indian team someday, coach Sen believes that hard work and dedication paid off for Renuka. “It was difficult for her to break into the Indian team despite being a regular performer in the domestic circuit. There would be times when she would be frustrated, but I would give her examples of Cheteshwar Pujara and how he had to prove himself before making it to the Indian team and that certainly motivated her,” Sen says.

She bagged 21 wickets in the 2018-19 season, which led to her selection in the Challenger Trophy, followed by an India A call-up for the tour of Australia.

For Renuka, life wasn’t easy. “After her father’s demise, her mother took up a job at the irrigation department, but obviously that salary was not enough. She wanted to enrol both her kids to cricket, but that was not possible. So, I would often tell Renuka that “ tu itna dur aayi hai, mummy ne itna sacrifice kiya hai, so kuchh bada ban ke jaa na…” (You’ve come so far, your mother has sacrificed so much. So you have to do something big) and those pep talks helped,” the coach says.

While she was slowly noticed by the national selectors, Renuka needed a job to run the family. In 2021, she got a job with Northern Railways and eventually started playing for Railways. She made an impact with five wickets in nine matches in the one-dayers and eventually broke into the senior India team last year.

There hasn’t been looking back since. With Jhulan Goswami retiring from T20s and Shikha Pandey out of the reckoning, Renuka soon featured in the final eleven and had a successful outing against Sri Lanka last month.

Former national selection committee chairman Hemlata Kala believes that over the years, Renuka has matured as a bowler. “When we picked her for the India A team, she was an outstanding talent but we could not draft her into the national team as there were no slots available. But with talent, hard work and determination, she waited for the opportunity and lapped it up when a chance came her way,” Hemlata says, “She is a very talented fast bowler and I can only hope that she gets better and better…”

At Edgbaston on Friday, it may have been a heartbreak for the Indian team, but for Renuka, it was a moment of redemption. After years of waiting in the wings, she has finally found her moment in the sun!

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