How faith in the universe and self belief helped Asha Sobhana blaze her way to Team India

The 33-year-old opens up about her early days in cricket, her WPL success with Royal Challengers Bengaluru and her maiden call up to the Indian team

Published : Apr 21, 2024 12:07 IST , CHENNAI - 12 MINS READ

Asha Sobhana Joy is an individual with immense faith in the universe. In 2021, the leg-spin-bowling all rounder was dropped from the Railways side and found herself low on confidence. She posted a photograph on her Instagram account then with the text — ‘Fall seven times, stand up eight.’

Roughly 869 days later, she and her Royal Challengers Bengaluru outfit, led by Smriti Mandhana, lifted the franchise’s maiden Women’s Premier League (WPL) title. Less than a month later, Asha was named in the squad for India’s five-match T20I series against Bangladesh.

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“I was in the domestic circuit for almost 17 years but nothing big was happening in my life. I kept thinking of giving up from time to time, but something kept me going. In my prayers, I kept thinking that I have worked so much, I should get somewhere,” Asha said at an event recently. Finally, at 33, she’s one step away from her ultimate dream — wearing the India jersey.

Asha and Kerala player Sajeevan Sajana were included in the 16-member contingent headed to the neighbouring nation in what will be an useful recce for the T20 World Cup later this year. If they manage to earn a cap, they will join Minnu Mani in the club of Kerala players to have represented India.

Five life-changing seconds

“I couldn’t control myself. I’ve been waiting for this moment my whole life,” she tells Sportstar. “Getting that India call-up in an age when people normally stop playing is very special. I think I should give the credit to the selectors also for having the guts to trust me at 33 and coming from the domestic circuit.”

The team news was followed by congratulatory calls and messages. Head coach Amol Muzumdar rang in with words of encouragement and a training plan to follow in the run-up to the series. Mandhana, India vice captain and Asha’s skipper at RCB, also wished her.

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Smriti’s was particularly special because of the journey this duo had taken together in the WPL.

“After that five-wicket haul (against UP Warriorz in the WPL 2024), I was talking to Smriti about my bowling and this topic of my ambition to get an India cap came up. I told Smriti, ‘I am a very positive person but I am not aiming for India, I just want to play my best cricket.’ She immediately told me, ‘That’s not being practical, that is being stupid. Don’t think that way. I am telling you, don’t give up.’”

“That was a big moment for me. That changed my full perception of things. She said it casually in five seconds, but it left such a big impact on me. After my selection, she reached out and said, ‘Asha, I told you not to give up..’”

By now, the country knows the Asha Sobhana story — Of how a young girl would make balls to play with out of newspapers, old milk packets and rubber bands; of how she snuck away to try out for the Trivandrum district team at 12 without telling her parents, leaving them worried when they couldn’t trace her after school; of how watching Sachin Tendulkar’s ‘Desert Storm’ live turned a simple love for the game into an obsession to follow in her idol’s footsteps.

Asha Shobana (Extreme R) celebrates the wicket of Shafali Verma of Delhi Capitals with RCB teammates during WPL 2024.
Asha Shobana (Extreme R) celebrates the wicket of Shafali Verma of Delhi Capitals with RCB teammates during WPL 2024. | Photo Credit: Sportzpics

Asha Shobana (Extreme R) celebrates the wicket of Shafali Verma of Delhi Capitals with RCB teammates during WPL 2024. | Photo Credit: Sportzpics

Seeing is believing

Asha’s long association with the sport stemmed from a simple truth, ‘if you see, you can become.’

“I used to watch cricket as a kid. My brother is a crazy cricket fan, and he would stay up late at night to watch Test matches happening on the other side of the world. That’s when I got a sense of what professional cricket is like. They’re changing the wickets, fielders are moving. I never knew that. I thought the fielders would stay put the whole day and the surface stays the same. So that drew me into watching more and more professional cricket. And then I watched Sachin Tendulkar batting.

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“He was an emotion for us 90s kids. He wasn’t just a cricketer,” Asha says as she remembers carving Sachin’s number on her notebooks, coconut wood bats and more. But what truly turned her life around was catching a match featuring the senior women’s team on TV.

“Once I came back from school and saw India Women playing the West Indies. I saw Neetu David bowling then and I then realised that this is serious; women’s cricket exists and I should be playing at that level. The very next day, I went to my school PE teacher who was a national handball player and cycle polo player - Thangamani teacher. I told her that I wanted to play cricket. She said we didn’t have a full proper team, but I was adamant. ‘Okay, I’ll tell you when school selection and district team selections happen,’ she said to me. If she had said no or said there was no women’s cricket in Kerala, I would have stopped there. But she did not. That made my career to be honest.”

Her inspiration to bowl leg spin came from watching Anil Kumble take 10 wickets against Pakistan in 1999.

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“I think it was a Sunday. I think I was returning from school. My brother told me that the Test match is on and Kumble is about to take ten wickets. We both ran back to our neighbour’s place and saw that moment live. I noticed his action and realised he was so quick in the air. It was the first time I had observed someone bowling this way. I asked my brother what he was bowling and he said leg spin. I didn’t know what that was. I’ve modelled my action on him. I used to copy his run up and loading. I also really admired Neetu David. I enjoyed watching her bowl. These two people are the reason why I bowl the way I do and inspired me to stay with cricket.”

Life would come a full circle for Asha in more ways than one. While one of her idols, Neetu, chairs the selection committee of the Women’s Senior side, Asha also got to meet Kumble by chance during the WPL.

From one generation to another

Asha is two seasons old in the WPL and has cherished the opportunity to share space with some of the best in the business. She remembers how daunting her first day at RCB was.

“First day, coming from the domestic circuit, I felt a bit insecure. All of them were international players. How would I match them? Of course, I was coming into the limelight after so many years, so my mindset slipped in that direction. Smriti took the effort to get everyone together. The first time I spoke to her, she was very cool and that calmed me down. Before my first match, I was quite nervous. The night before, she called me and checked on me and said ‘ Bindaas raho (stay cool) , you’re the best, that’s why you’re here. Just do your thing.’ The international players were so friendly. Sticking together was our target. We never spoke about the trophy, we spoke about sticking together in victory or defeat. That powered us to the trophy.”

Once RCB won the cup, Asha returned to her neighbourhood to see how the cycle would renew itself, except this time, she was the one inspiring others.

Asha Shobana celebrates the wicket of Marizanne Kapp of Delhi Capitals during the WPL 2024 final.
Asha Shobana celebrates the wicket of Marizanne Kapp of Delhi Capitals during the WPL 2024 final. | Photo Credit: Sportzpics

Asha Shobana celebrates the wicket of Marizanne Kapp of Delhi Capitals during the WPL 2024 final. | Photo Credit: Sportzpics

“One of the girls in my neighbourhood was playing cricket near my house with a bunch of other kids and I went up to her and asked if I could join. She said, ‘We know you. You’re Asha Sobhana of RCB’ and she did my celebration too. That made me so happy, more so because it was coming from a young girl. That’s the impact WPL has had. When we were growing up, I saw Neetu David on Doordarshan. If I hadn’t, maybe I wouldn’t have asked my PE teacher about a team and set this journey in motion. Recently, I visited a few academies where girls came up to me and said they want to bowl like me. They asked me how I manage to consistently bowl in certain areas which means they’re following women’s cricket closely.”

One step at a time

Asha has had to overcome obstacles aplenty to get to where she is today. There’s a lot of potential additions to the vision board that can leave her a bit overwhelmed - an India debut, a potential look in for the T20 World Cup, even a Test cap.

“Not exactly thinking about the World Cup. Personally, one good thing about me is I don’t think too far ahead. In front of my eyes, only the Bangladesh tour is there. It’s the biggest thing for me now. I have to do well, I will do well, this is all I have on my mind. If I do manage to make it to the World Cup, nothing like it. It would be a dream come true.

“A Test cap is my dream. For any cricketer. I would love to be part of a Test squad. Nothing like being a three-format player, but it needs a lot of work and I am putting in the hours. Hopefully, I’ll do well and I hope I get a few games.”

Enjoying a break before she heads to the India camp, Asha has been spending time with her closest friends, family and dog Dexter. She is a big movie buff with a massive place in her heart for popular Malayalam actor Prithviraj, catching his latest release Aadujeevitham (A Goat’s Life) on the second day.

The film traces a treacherous path Prithviraj’s character has to traverse to deliverance, an emotion Asha can resonate with.

“There’ll be times in your life when you will struggle. If you quit midway, you’ll never know what was waiting for you at the end. Don’t get depressed. Just keep moving forward. No going back. Forward only.”

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