We are only a couple of minutes into our conversation, and Sonia Mendhiya, this being her ‘pehli’ interview, appears nervous. She has answered mostly in monosyllables and frequently looked at India U-19 women’s team coach Nooshin Al Khadeer, who is at the other end of the Bandra-Kurla Complex ground.
But when asked about her favourite cricketer, the girl from Bahmanwas village in Haryana’s Rohtak district comes out of her shell, sporting a broad smile on her face, and replies, “Rishabh Pant…”
A middle-order batter and an effective spinner, Sonia has not met Pant yet, but as she talks about the India men’s team’s dashing wicketkeeper-batter, her eyes light up. “It is because of the way he approaches his game,” Sonia explains why Pant is her favourite.
Sonia makes sure she watches every innings of Pant and learns how to bring in a positive mindset and sport a never-say-never attitude on the field.
Having lost her father early, Sonia’s journey to becoming a cricketer has not been easy. When she started playing in her village, her neighbours saw potential in her and encouraged her to pursue the sport seriously. “Bhaiya has helped me a lot in taking up the sport seriously, and eventually, I made it to the Haryana squad,” she tells Sportstar.
Sonia has always had the support of her mother. “My mother works in a government department, and she has always encouraged me to play cricket. I have two elder sisters - both are married - and a younger brother. And everyone in my family has supported me,” she says.
As she established herself as a talented all-rounder in the state, cricket administrator Anirudh Chaudhary came forward to support her. “I have been playing for five years, and Anirudh sir has supported me a lot, and he played a key role in my cricketing career, and it’s because of his encouragement that I could come so far,” says Sonia.
Currently, Sonia has been training under the watchful eyes of coach Sunil Vats, and during camps with Haryana, she practises with India international Shafali Verma. “Shafali keeps telling me not to change my style. We train together, and every time she says, ‘jaise tera game hain tu waise hi khel… (just stick to your original game)’. I keep doing that,” says the youngster.
Having represented her state at U-19 and senior levels, Sonia now understands the importance of playing according to her strength. “I don’t plan too much. Jaise ball aata hai, I try to play accordingly. I aim to understand the conditions well and pace my game depending on the situation,” she says.
As part of the India U-19 team, under coach Nooshin, Sonia is improving her level. “The coaches have helped us immensely. Every time there is some mistake, they point it out. That helps us improve. I will try to work on those areas and get better.” But she admits she gets nervous at times. “At times when I cannot time the ball well, I get nervous. But then I calm down and tell myself that I need to focus on the next delivery. That way, it helps me to ease out the pressure,” she says.
Sonia usually played as an opener for Haryana, but in the India U-19 team, she has batted at No.4. “That is not a problem. Whenever I get to bat, I will do so. Batting positions do not matter to me much. I want to go out there and hit big shots,” she says before quickly adding, “just like Rishabh Pant…”
After the ongoing series, the India U-19 women’s team will have a camp in Bengaluru before flying out to South Africa later this month. With not much time remaining for the inaugural U-19 Women’s T20 World Cup, Sonia and her teammates want to fine-tune a few things. “We want to improve our overall game and keep working hard in every department,” she says.
Off the pitch, too, Sonia is a soft-spoken, calm and quiet girl, but when she pads up and walks out to bat, the youngster loves making some noise, albeit with the willow!