Sobhana Asha levels up to awesome for RCB

Five-star Asha too good for UP's inexperienced batting (3:06)

The big talking points from RCB's tense victory against UP Warriorz (3:06)

It's been quite the wait for Sobhana Asha. After more than a decade of hard work on the domestic circuit, changing teams and perspectives, learning and unlearning, the 32-year-old legspinner proved she was ready for the big stage in Royal Challengers Bangalore's opening game of the WPL 2024 season.

In front of a loud full house at the Chinnaswamy Stadium, Asha put years of experience into use in a tough situation, taking five wickets to bowl RCB to a tense two-run victory against UP Warriorz. She is the first Indian to take a five-wicket haul in the WPL, and her performance meant RCB did not have to wait six games for their first points, like they did last season.

In 2023, Asha wasn't certain of a place in RCB's starting XI. She played five of their eight matches and took five wickets with an economy rate of 8.35. Despite an average season, the team persisted with her and it paid off.

In a bowling line-up comprising international players like Renuka Singh, Shreyanka Patil, Sophie Molineux, Georgia Wareham and Ellyse Perry, Asha was the only uncapped player but her captain Smriti Mandhana was quick to point out her wealth of experience. "This is only her second season in WPL, but we can't forget that she is quite experienced," Mandhana said of Asha after the game. "She has been in the domestic circuit for a very long time. I am happy that she is getting her due for her talent."

A fair bit has happened in Asha's life over the last couple of years. "A lot of struggle, a lot of hard work and finally, the victory is sweet," a visibly emotional Asha said about her journey while receiving the Player of the Match award.

Hailing from Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, she played for Railways for a decade without being able to level up her life. She moved to Puducherry for the 2022-23 season and she was asked to lead a young team. It was then that the RCB scouts spotted her and signed her for INR 10 lakh at the player auction. Between the first WPL season and this one, Asha lost the captaincy at Puducherry, shed a few kilograms to be fitter, and also got a chance to work with former India legspinner L Sivaramakrishnan in Chennai.

She came into this season in good form having taken 16 wickets in seven games during the Senior Women's One-Day Trophy in Vadodara last month.

Asha began her second WPL season defending a target of 158. After getting hit for a six in her first over - the seventh in UP's chase - she bounced back with two wickets in her next over. She had the debutant Vrinda Dinesh stumped and beat Tahlia McGrath on the sweep and finished her first spell with 2 for 20 in three overs.

No more wickets had fallen by the time Asha returned for her final over. Grace Harris and Shweta Sehrawat had put on a half-century stand and UP needed only 32 off 24 balls with seven wickets in hand. Asha said after the game that she had been "ready to be smashed" by Harris, but instead she changed the game in the space of six balls.

She began her final over with a length delivery pitching outside off, dragging Sehrawat down the track. Sehrawat responded the way the legspinner wanted and lofted the ball towards Mandhana, who took a low catch at extra cover. The dangerous 77-run partnership off 46 balls was broken.

The big-hitting Kiran Navgire overturned an lbw decision next ball via the DRS and then gave the strike back to Harris. Asha said later she had "visualised" how she wanted Harris to play. The third delivery was pace-off on middle stump, Harris swung across the line too early, and Asha hit the top of off stump.

"(Bowling with control) That is one of my strengths," she said. "Grace was going against the turn, and I knew if I pulled the length back and slowed it up, she might go across the line and get a top edge or get bowled. I was ready to get smashed, but I was sure I would get her (out)."

Two wickets in four balls, both well-set batters gone, but Asha wasn't yet. She finished her spell by flighting the ball outside off and beating Navgire's wild swing to leave her stranded outside her crease when Richa Ghosh completed the stumping.

Two runs and three wickets in Asha's fourth over had swung the game RCB's way, and though UP smashed 14 off the 18th over, Wareham and Molienux delivered at the death to seal a two-run victory.

"I am not thinking about my five wickets," Asha said, savouring the occasion. "We just won our first game at home. Nothing's bigger than that. I am happy that I contributed to the victory of the team that too at Chinnaswamy ground.

"I knew that the situation would be something like this and I visualised, did my homework as well. I was ready."

After a decade of perseverance on the domestic circuit, she was indeed ready.