S Sajana's instant hit a reward for decade of hard toil

Bhatia: 'Sajana is the Kieron Pollard of MI women's team' (2:32)

MI beat DC in a last-ball thriller, courtesy a six from the debutant Sajeevan Sajana (2:32)

She has a degree in Political Science. She's featured in a Tamil film as a support artist. She was football captain of Wayanad district in Kerala in her teenage years, and a track-and-field champion in college. And on Friday night, S Sajana announced herself on the cricket field with a sensational first-ball act in the 2024 WPL season opener at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru.

As Sajana swung powerfully and cleared the long-on boundary with Mumbai Indians needing five runs off the final delivery, Biju George sat in the Delhi Capitals dugout soaking in an emotional moment that may have been bittersweet.

Biju, a renowned state coach in Kerala, has seen Sajana travel an arduous path from Wayanad where she once was also a cricket-throws champion. Modelled on shot-put, the competition at her school rewarded those who threw a cricket ball farthest. Sajana impressed local cricket coaches with her athleticism and, in 2013, she was invited to train at Wayanad's residential women's academy run by the Kerala Cricket Association, with Biju overseeing the camps. More than a decade later Biju, now the Capitals' fielding coach, watched Sajana beat his team.

Sajana's career had been on the upswing until disaster struck in 2018. Only three weeks before the floods in Kerala washed away her home, Sajana had scored the fastest hundred in age-group women's cricket in India, which earned her a call-up to a women's NCA camp.

The year before, she had led Kerala Under-23 to the inter-state T20 title, leading to a call-up to the senior Kerala team when she trained once again under Biju. She was named KCA's women's player of the year two years in a tow.

But when the Covid-19 pandemic struck in 2020, it set Sajana - like it did many others - back.

Sajana's father, Sanjeevan, an autorickshaw driver in the scenic Wayanad hills didn't have much of an income due to pandemic restrictions, especially with tourism in the region coming to a standstill. Her mother, Sarada, worked at the municipality in Mananthavady. The lack of a regular income was tough on the family.

At this time, Sajana received assistance from Nazir Machan, secretary of the Wayanad District Cricket Association, who let her stay at KCA's residential facility free of cost so that her cricket training would be unaffected by the pandemic.

"Sajana was a natural athlete, so there was never a question of her having to put in more hours on her fitness," Nazir told ESPNcricinfo. "She only needed guidance, which she got when she joined the KCA academy. She made use of the opportunities to excel even though there were numerous hardships like losing her home."

Ahead of WPL 2024, Sajana trialled with three franchises. Biju had even recommended her to Capitals, who couldn't bid at the auction because they had exhausted their purse. Sajana had also been to trials with Mumbai and Gujarat Giants, and eventually got bought by Mumbai for INR 15 lakh.

Sajana's first act on the field on Friday night was the stuff of nightmares: she dropped a sitter at point with Alice Capsey on 72. Shabnim Ismail, the bowler, vented her frustration.

Her shot at redemption came in the final act of the game. Sajana had no time for sighters. With five to get off the last ball, she swung, and smacked it straight out of the middle.

"She's like the Kieron Pollard of our women's team," Yastika Bhatia said after the match. "She has that role [of a finisher]. Credit to her. She has got an inspiring story. She has come from a humble background and we're very happy and proud. Her family would be really proud she hit that six."

Sajana's six showcased what the WPL can offer in India. In one ball, Sajana went from being an unknown woman cricketer who'd toiled for a decade to the person who ensured the WPL's champions began their title defence with a thrilling victory on an evening of high drama and glamour.