Jemimah Rodrigues: 'If not for the Hundred, I don't think I would've been selected for India'
Rain in Gold Coast spoilt what was brewing to be an exciting contest between Australia and India on Thursday. For the first time in recent memory, an Indian team appeared to have taken the field in a T20I against Australia as equals, playing to their strengths and not the opponent's reputation. They didn't appear to be daunted by the prospect of facing Ellyse Perry or the chirp of Alyssa Healy from behind the stumps. And leading the way was Jemimah Rodrigues, back in form, in the middle of a purple patch.
When they faced off in a T20I last, on that memorable March day of 2020, in front of 88,000 spectators, a nervous team suffered from stage fright in a World Cup final and collapsed at the first sign of intimidation. On Thursday, 18 months on, India decided they were here not to play party poopers but own the big stage.
It all started with Shafali Verma, that gum-chewing, big-hitting monster of a teenager, whacking her first ball for six. At the other end, the calm but equally destructive Smriti Mandhana decided to be less brutal on the white ball while still managing to clear the ropes by sheer timing and footwork. And then, later, the pint-sized Rodrigues took charge with an unbeaten 36-ball 49, the top score of the aborted innings.
If not for a stint at the women's Hundred, where she was the second-highest run-scorer, Rodrigues may have perhaps been twiddling her thumbs at home in the Mumbai monsoon. She had a forgettable tour of England, where all of two opportunities yielded two single-digit scores. In a rare year where India played two Tests, Rodrigues missed both her chances. Yastika Bhatia, it would appear, had bypassed her on some counts. But on Thursday, against this backdrop, and with a mini crisis to avert after Mandhana and Verma had fallen in the space of three deliveries, Rodrigues came into her own.
"I think it was a matter of waiting for the right time," Rodrigues said at the post-match press conference. "I have realised it now. I don't want to rush into things. I know when it has to come to me, nobody can stop it, and when it comes, it'll be something big."
It was as if "something big" was hardwired into her even as she played out three dot balls and Australia were starting to apply the brakes. A shot in desperation? No chance. Instead, she saw-ball, hit-ball, a half-tracker that was crashed to the point fence. Rodrigues let out a roar, punched the meat of her willow and took guard again. This was Rodrigues trying to reassure herself that she belonged.
"I was happy to be back out there after so long, I waited a long time for this," she said. "Sitting out and watching everyone play, sometimes you wonder 'when will my time come'. Today when the chance came, I was just enjoying it. I'm not very disappointed that the fifty didn't happen because I know there are loads of runs coming."
What stood out about Rodrigues' knock was the decisiveness in her footwork, clarity on when to attack and when to defend, and her power game, well exemplified by her backing away to loft debutant medium-pacer Hannah Darlington over mid-off and extra cover. She was playing the fields perfectly, not giving Australia an inch that they often open up to an acre when they get quick wickets.
What is the secret to her ever-improving range of shots, you may ask. It's the hunger to pocket gifts and freebies from India's throw down experts every time she's at the nets. "We have Kranti bhaiyya and Ashok bhaiyya [throwdown specialists] who help out, and they make it very challenging for us," she said, when asked if she was working specifically on the short ball.
"We play like six balls and keep a target. If I win, they'll give me 50 dollars or buy me dinner. If they win, I have to buy them dinner. So, we have this fun competition. They are the kind of people who won't give away easy runs, we have to fight it out in the nets before fighting it out in the match."
It has also helped that there has been role clarity. "Even before coming here, Ramesh [Powar] sir and [SS] Das sir have been guiding me, and giving me confidence," she said. "They told me my role is an anchor role, to get singles-doubles, find the odd boundaries and play with a good strike rate. About the formats [waiting to play], I was prepared for the Tests, ODIs, but at the end, it's important India finds the right balance. If India is happy with the balance, I'm happy too."
Rodrigues has a lively personality, on and off the field. She is team's prankster, choreographs perfectly timed dance moves that become Instagram hits, plays the guitar, sings, and dances like no one's watching. All these merely reflect the kind of person she is - affable, not overawed in a team environment with senior players, and enjoying what playing a team sport offers.
She has also freely spoken in the past of her fears, fighting her own battles and disappointments in her young career. For someone all of 21, it's quite rare to be able to have these qualities, and also articulate them as well as Rodrigues does. Another refreshing aspect is that she is a straight talker. No diplomacy. So, did she feel upset at being left out of the ODIs and Test?
"Honestly, any player would be frustrated not getting picked for the ODIs especially when I knew I was batting well and in good form," she said. "But at the end, I'm ready for what the team wants, and if the team was finding the right balance, I'm happy sitting out.
"There's so much to learn, but it wasn't an easy time for me. There are lots of things going on sitting out, there were a lot of doubts in my head sitting out, but I'm grateful to be a part of this team. If not for the Hundred, I don't think I would've even been selected to play for India."