We are at Indore railway station. On asking for Sandhya Agarwal, a station master happily points towards a room on the left corner of the platform. Amid the arrival and departure announcements, Sandhya is having a meeting with the auditors.
Flashback 1986: A right-handed batswoman from Indore hits the headlines. She had beaten Betty Snowball’s score of 189 in women’s Test cricket, a record untouched since 1935.
Cut to the present: That attacking batter is completing 30 years in the Indian Railways. She is one of the oldest employees who started coming to work regularly after retirement from cricket in 1995. She holds an honorary life membership at the Marylebone Cricket Club and is also India’s highest run-scorer — 1,110 runs with four centuries — in Test cricket among the women.
In a freewheeling chat with Sportstar , Agarwal showers praise on modern-day legend Mithali Raj and stresses on the need to restore the longer format in women’s cricket.
Q. It is strange to see you in a regular office environment. I believe the railways played a big part in your cricketing career...
A. I am working here for 30 years. We all used to represent our States earlier. In 1985, Railways first introduced a team. Madhavrao Scindia was the Railways Minister and he wanted a solid side with international cricketers. He had approached me and for that, you needed to have the railways job. So I joined as there was no option that time. I did not have to report to work.
You have also been involved with domestic cricket in Madhya Pradesh in different capacities…
I have been a chief selector of the State, but I wanted to move to coaching. If you are in sports, and if you have a good team, it depends who is handling the team. Selectors have their own mindset, talking to coaches and captains, to make a balanced team but when the players don’t apply, you feel strange.
What would you tell young girls who want to take up cricket as a profession?
I used to train kids at the Happy Wanderers Club in Indore. It was the only centre for women cricketers. Now the other clubs have also started, which is good. If somebody wants to play cricket, they should definitely go for it. See, there will always be a difference if you compare us to men but you can probably train with the boys for better preparation. If an U-14 girl trains with an U-15 boy, she will improve. There is definitely a difference in strength and it will stay forever. You need to improve your skills. If a boy hits one into the stands, a girl can as well. Maybe her six will just cross the rope and won’t go that far.
How did you train back in the day?
There used to be a lot of Kho-Kho players in that club who used to bowl to me. We never had a gym culture but the senior coaches would use different methods to train me. I have sat on railings with steps, locking my legs, to go up and down. I have never had a back problem after that. Then, one player was asked to carry the other and climb up and down a heap of soil. Cycling was compulsory; daily eight to 10 kilometres. When I went to play for India, I was ready.
The games weren’t televised in the 1980s. How did you keep yourself motivated?
We never got much games too. We had camps, really long ones, at times for two months with breaks. And that time, there used to be a lot of matches in Indore at the Nehru Stadium, and my house is right there. Those days, Sanjay bhai (Jagdale) used to be with the Ranji side. After a round of fitness drills, we would go to the ground to watch Sunil Gavaskar and Gundappa Viswanath. Even our coaches would sit down and watch. They would point out how a player’s feet moved, how the shoulder moved playing a particular shot and when we would return to training in the evening, we would try to apply whatever we saw. We had had good discussions [with coaches] watching those games.
Didn’t the lack of games affect the mindset and preparation?
It did. When we toured Australia in 1991, it was after 1986. The five-year gap pushed us back. When we reached, the wickets were bouncier. England wickets do not have as much swing as it had many years ago. When I played in England in 1986, the ball was swinging even at 3 pm. In India, it never swung after 11 am.
How strong were the opponents in international cricket during your time?
The level of cricket was quite strong back in the day. Even now, it is good. Now there is no Test cricket. It needs to happen if we have to keep the sport alive among women. Day’s cricket is a must. I feel the temperament and ability that you get from day’s cricket is unparalleled.
You’ve played a lot of cricket with Diana Edulji and Shantha Rangaswamy? What are your best memories?
Diana and I have played a lot of cricket in India, as well as in the domestic circuit. She was in the Railways. Shantha was my first captain in 1984. She would motivate me a lot. Diana and I played for quite long. She was one such cricketer who made players. She would make a player out of an average cricketer by talking, helping in training sessions and just by giving inputs. She had this insane capability. When I had her from 1985 in the Railways, I knew she was one person who could take anybody to the top.
What do you think of women’s cricket now?
They are doing well but I feel they can do much better. Mithali Raj is beyond comparison. Everybody goes through a period but if people say things about her today, it is strange. She has done a lot for India and one must respect that. Jemimah Rodrigues from Mumbai is young but talented. I think she is a fast learner.
There was a lot of controversy regarding how Mithali Raj was handled in the T20 format by the then coach Ramesh Powar and captain Harmanpreet Kaur.. .
I have a thought. If you compare her with an 18-year-old today, it is wrong. She has played 20 years for India which included some brilliant knocks. So there should be no comparison. Today the one you are calling the best, can she perform in same capacity as Mithali in future? Can she sustain her place in Team India for 20 years? Mithali is beyond all these.
You think the girls can get better en route to the ICC T20 World Cup?
They can, of course. If you play one format for too long, you gradually develop your game. If today there is more of T10 and T6, the game will change. It depends on the generation and the period when you grew up. In our times, there was a lot of day’s cricket. Indians are sensitive. They think India should win as it is going for the tournament. India is good but others are good too.
Among all your knocks, what has been your favourite?
[The] 132 against England in the second Test in Blackpool in 1984-85. I had got the 190 in the third Test but 132 was a better knock. I had failed in the first Test and after that, it was Diana who had assured me that I will make a comeback. I had no idea it was a world record.
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