Titas Sadhu. Pic/AFP
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India, it seems, had foreseen big things from Titas Sadhu when they recalled her to the side for the high-profile Asian Games final. Sadhu herself could hardly have predicted the events that would unfold against Sri Lanka on Monday. A sellout crowd jostling into the ground, a match-winning wonder spell, and tears all round as India clinched its gold. Perhaps, in years to come, when people recall India's first-ever Asian Games title in the sport, Sadhu's name will stand out above all others.
The rookie pacer from West Bengal seized her chance to shine with a devastating opening spell and finished with dazzling figures of 4-0-6-3 to ensure the Lankans remain shackled in their scoring rate, managing just 97 for eight in 20 overs. Sadhu, who fitted in seamlessly with the greatest exponents of the speeding ball, found an able ally in leg-spinner Devika Vaidya (4-0-15-1). On a pitch rather difficult for batting, the Indian pace arsenal, enhanced by two-pronged annihilating artillery, led Lankan batters to accept their defeat long before the final ball of the game was bowled.
Defending a low score of 117 runs, India's pacers came up with some tight and aggressive bowling as they made regular breakthroughs to put the side in the driving seat. Rajeshwari Gayakwad and Deepti Sharma endured a tough start, but were on target during the back-end as India always looked in complete control of the game.
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Sensing the slow nature of the track, Harmanpreet Kaur handed the new ball to her most trusted bowling warrior, Sharma, but a slog swept six and a boundary off that first over made the skipper think otherwise. She introduced her frontline pacers in the second over and Sadhu, playing only her second T20I, stepped up to the plate with the wicket of Anushka Sanjeewani. The ball came charging on a slightly wider line with all its force, and, as a result, Sanjeewani could not clear the infield as she went for a maximum. Only two balls later - a good length delivery from Sadhu, jagged back in after it fell on the seam, sent Vishmi Gunaratne back to the pavilion. The lanky Titas kept her deliveries on fuller length to finish her four-over spell with three wickets for only six runs.
As Sadhu's deliveries swung late and rather hypnotically, the Lankan top-order, with their bats appearing resigned to defeat, eventually perished. There is no other way to describe it.
It was like a child following the movement of a ring on a pendulum - Sri Lanka's finest batters were entranced and mesmerised, as they reached out to hit the ball harder and farther. They were aware they must leave alone this tantalising object hurtling towards them as if on a golden thread. But they couldn't. So they played as late as they dared. The ball, in response, swung sharply away. It came again, it moved again, they reached for it again and it found the edge to be caught first by Sanjeewani, followed by their best batter Chamari Athapaththu, and Gunaratne in the end.
Had Bengal women's team coach Shib Shankar Paul not been advised to try out a 16-year-old Sadhu by his former Bengal teammate Priyankar Mukherjee, she might never have known she had wanted to play cricket at the topmost level of the game.
"When I first saw her at the Bengal nets, I was surprised that she was way quicker for her age. Had a physique that you rarely find in a pace bowler from Bengal, Jhulan (Goswami) obviously was an exception. She bowled a good outswing and had good grasping power. She was a good student and fared well in her 10th boards. I didn't waste time to convince erstwhile CAB secretaries Snehasish Ganguly and Debu Das to allow me to take her in the senior Bengal team," Paul told PTI, pride in his voice palpable.
On Sunday, Sadhu deliberately chose to keep her deliveries inside the 5-7 metre range, forcing the batters to play them. On a pitch that was hard enough to hit through the line, her presence of mind and quicksilver reflexes deserved the most attention.
She may have featured in only two T20Is so far for India. But ask any Sri Lankan batswoman, the mere sight marking Sadhu's run-up induced shivers down their minds. Her genuine pace and pin-point line and length made the batters pity their willows more than their wickets.
The Indian team has been missing a genuine fast bowler in its ranks since the retirement of Jhulan and Sadhu looks to be a worthy successor. However, her wares would be proved once she is pitted against best players from SENA countries.
The right-arm medium pacer belongs to the kind who quietly, almost discreetly, gets all the hard work done. Sadhu, who is just two days shy of her 19th birthday, has enjoyed a breakthrough Asian Games, powered India Under-19 team into a World Cup final, and sneaked into discussions about India's fast bowling future. The teenager and her story - we are, bit by bit, getting to know.
Many milestones remain to be achieved, as one would expect of an 18-year-old with the world at her feet. She certainly has the talent with the ball, but the way she thrives under pressure against formidable batting line-ups, will define the next chapter of Sadhu's young career.