Saika Ishaque: From Kolkata’s city slum to becoming WPL star

Saika Ishaque, the left-arm spinner from Bengal, has emerged as one of the stars of the inaugural Women’s Premier League (WPL) by scalping 15 wickets in nine matches for Mumbai Indians Women. She is the second-highest wicket-taker of the tournament after another left-arm spinner — UP Warriorz’s Sophie Ecclestone.

On Sunday, when Mumbai face Delhi Capitals Women in the final at the Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai, Saika will be one of the players to watch out for.

It has been a turnaround for the cricketer who wanted to quit the game following a shoulder injury and was not able to find a place in the Bengal team for nearly three years. The break in women’s cricket because of the pandemic only made matters worse for her.

Just as thoughts of giving up cricket were swirling in her head, Saika called up Mithu Mukherjee, a former India cricketer. Mithu knew that Saika’s cricket is what helped put food on the table for her family. Saika lost her father in 2018, her mother used to work as a maid.

The phone call just before Durga Puja in 2020 lasted an hour and started with Saika saying, “Ma’am mai cricket chor dungi. Kuch ho nahi raha idhar (I am planning to quit cricket as there’s nothing happening for me).”

The two years, from 2018 to 2020, were the worst for Saika. Her career almost ended because of a shoulder injury. She was dropped from the senior Bengal team. Once hailed as a prodigy in Bengal cricketing circles, she was now losing her way.

“For the first few minutes, it was one way. She vented out all her frustration. She was right also, for three years, she was not in the team, and her confidence level was low. After a while, I asked her, ‘do you know anything apart from cricket? There was a pin-drop silence,” Mithu told The Indian Express.

“She comes from a poor family. Her family lives in the Park Circus slum. Her mother used to work as a domestic help. Because of financial stress, she had to stop her studies. Once she started earning from cricket, their lives improved,” Mithu said.

The former player noticed the absence of a spark in Saika, someone who was known to be carefree and a motivator.

WPL Mumbai Indians Saika Ishaque along with her teammate celebrates the wicket of UP Warriorz Shweta Sehrawat during the 2023 Women’s Premier League (WPL) Twenty20 cricket match between Mumbai Indians and UP Warriorz at DY Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai, Friday, March 24, 2023. (PTI Photo)

She asked her to meet former India Under-19 and Bengal cricketer Shibsagar Singh.

“I got a call from Mithu di about a girl, who had played for Bengal, is the sole bread earner of her family, and now wants to quit cricket. She requested me to help Saika,” recalled Singh.

Saika would soon meet Singh, and after her watching her bowl for an hour, the former Bengal all-rounder told her she would have to make some changes to become more effective.

“I made it clear that if she wants to work with me, she will have to trust me. She will have to believe in my process,” Singh said.

Saika said she would follow every instruction.

One of the first things Singh told her was to change her length.

“To understand her bowling better, I started batting against her. I noticed that she would only bowl on the good length. She will not leave that tappa. I explained to her that in 50-over cricket, this length is good, but in T20, the length needs to be pulled back a bit.

Within weeks Singh noticed the improvement, and in three months’ time, she was back in the Bengal senior team.

Earlier this year, when she was picked by Mumbai Indians (Rs 10 lakh), Singh started a new training regime for Saika — bowling against batsmen who play Ranji Trophy for the state. It didn’t begin well.

“I gave them instructions to tear her bowling apart. She was absolutely hammered by them in the first few days, but slowly she adapted and started beating them with her variations. The fear factor had gone too,” he said.

Her 15 scalps in the WPL, include some of the biggest names in Australian cricket — Meg Lanning, Alyssa Healy, Tahlia McGrath, Annabel Sutherland, Georgia Wareham and Megan Schutt.

She had an immediate impact in the WPL. Saika took 12 wickets in the first four matches. Then she went wicketless in the next three outings, and it hurt Mumbai Indians’ form too, who, after winning five games on the trot, suffered back-to-back losses. But Saika has looked good in her last two outings, which certainly is a good sign for the Harmanpreet Kaur-led team for the final against Meg Lanning’s Delhi Capitals.

After one of the matches when the broadcaster asked Saika about the secret of her bowling. She said: “Bowler hoon, wicket lene ke liye aayi hoon (I am a bowler, so I am here to pick up wickets).”

There is a reason why both Singh and Mithu are great admirers of her courage.

“All the selectors must be watching the WPL, and she is playing under India captain Harmanpreet Kaur, which is a big bonus. She has turned out to be the best left-arm spinner of the tournament,” Mithu said about the cricketer who wanted to quit.

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