Saika Ishaque could not have asked for a better start to her Women’s Premier League career. Representing Mumbai Indians in the country’s premier women’s franchise tournament, she took a wicket in every over she bowled in MI’s campaign opener against Gujarat Giants. She followed it up with two wickets against Royal Challengers Bangalore.
Saika has come a long way, given she contemplated walking away from the game a few years ago. After enjoying success early on with the Bengal women’s U-19 team, the spinner, who hails from Park Circus in Kolkata, found it difficult to keep up the momentum.
She found a source of encouragement then in erstwhile national selector Mithu Mukherjee who, as a last ditch effort, sent her to former Bengal spinner Shivsagar Singh to work on her bowling action in October 2021.
“She was one of the most promising left-arm spinners for Bengal and was also the captain of the U-19 team. She grew up in a difficult environment in the slums of Park Circus and having lost her father at an early age, it was incredibly challenging for her to pursue the sport,” Mukherjee tells Sportstar.
While her mother struggled to make ends meet, Saika - the youngest of the two sisters - chased her dreams of becoming a cricketer. “She was a bubbly young talent, who overcame all odds to follow her passion. It was not easy given the financial conditions at home, but we ensured that she got all the support,” Mukherjee says.
That support extended beyond just working on her game as Mukherjee ensured she got kits and equipment too.
In hindsight, Mukherjee ranks Singh’s intervention in Saika’s trajectory as a career-changing moment.
“I knew Shibu (Singh) was a good spin-bowling coach, so I asked her to train under him for a while and see how it goes. She listened to me and I am glad she did…”
Alongside her technique, an important facet to improve was her self confidence. Towards that end, Singh got Saika to train with the men’s team of East Bengal cricket team.
“I always knew that if you have to be ready for the WPL, you have to be ready for all challenges. That’s why I would make her train with the East Bengal men’s team and make her bowl at regular intervals. That strategy worked,” Singh reminisces.
“That increased her level of confidence and the technical side of things fell in place. Once that was addressed, my job was to make her understand how to bowl specifically in ODIs and T20Is. Earlier, she would just come up with good-length deliveries outside the off-stump, but in women’s cricket, that’s actually very easy for the batters to play. I changed that approach. I asked her to bowl full-length and she picked it up quickly,” Singh says.
The fruits of their labour are for all to see in the WPL. Saika removed Annabel Sutherland, Georgia Wareham, Mansi Joshi, and Monica Patel, playing a crucial role in Mumbai’s demolition of Gujarat in the opening fixture. In the match against RCB, she removed veteran international Sophie Devine and Disha Kasat.
Watching the proceedings on television, both Mukherjee and Singh were elated to see their ward come so far. But they weren’t the only helping hands Saika had in her career - the other being former India captain and her mentor at Mumbai Indians - Jhulan Goswami.
A good student of the game, Saika was a quick learner and eager to apply her lessons on the field, a marked change from the underconfident player who initially made her way to Singh. She still makes it a point to dial Singh for advice to this day.
“Even today morning she called to discuss a few things and we spoke at length on a few areas. The best thing about her is that she is never shy of taking challenges and is ready to learn,” the coach says.
Saika’s potential and knack for taking wickets make her a tempting choice for the national team. With many more games to go and her emergence as a vital cog in the Mumbai bowling line-up, Saika will hope the selectors are taking notice as she waits to break into the international scene.
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