'Keep calm and no need to do anything special' - How Saika Ishaque bossed the WPL last year

Saika Ishaque on how she made her way into the WPL (5:04)

The left-arm spinner talks about her childhood in Kolkata, playing for Mumbai Indians, and debuting for India (5:04)

One day as a teen, Saika Ishaque decided to not turn up at her cricket academy anymore. "It was a boys' academy and nobody there knew I was a girl," she says. "I had short hair. But the day they found out, I felt so embarrassed, I stopped going the next day."

Ishaque grew up playing cricket with boys on the streets of Park Circus in Kolkata. Her father introduced her to the game at an early age, taking her to cricket grounds with a bat that was nearly bigger than her. He died when was she was only nine, but she continued in the game thanks to the support of her mother, her uncle Ismail, and a friend of her father's who enrolled her in that boys' academy.

When Ishaque hesitated to return to training, her father's friend took her to a girls academy, where she came face to face knee with a very tall India player. When she was asked to stand next to her, she didn't even come up to her waist, she says. "This is Jhulan Goswami, India player," someone told her.

"Oh, women also play for India?" Ishaque remembers wondering. "I only knew about the likes of Sachin [Tendulkar] and all. I didn't even know girls played [professionally]. It felt like I used to only reach [Jhulan's] knee. She was so tall. I thought, 'Who is this?'"

Today Ishaque, a left-arm spinner, is playing her second season of the WPL for Mumbai Indians, where Goswami is her bowling coach and team mentor. She was one of the breakout players of the inaugural season, taking 4 for 11 on debut and finishing with 15 wickets at an economy of seven from ten matches.

During her academy days, Ishaque's first love was wicketkeeping, followed by fast bowling, but a coach insisted she try spin as a lefty. Though she was reluctant at first, she did well as a spinner, swiftly progressing to Bengal's Under-19 and senior teams, where she met another India player, one who became her role model.

"When I played for the senior [Bengal] side, I saw Gouher Sultana bowl. She played so much for India. She inspired me as a kid and then I got to play with her. She's from Hyderabad but she played for Bengal for a few years. She inspired me to bowl left-arm spin and I also learnt a lot from her. Since childhood I've been following her."

Sultana played 87 matches for India between 2008 and 2014, and now at 35, she's returning to top-level cricket in the tournament that propelled Ishaque to the global limelight last year. They will potentially face off against each other in the WPL when Sultana's UP Warriorz meet Mumbai on February 28, and again on March 7.

While playing for Bengal together, Ishaque saw Sultana bowl with the new ball, sometimes even in 50-over matches. Ishaque did the same for Mumbai Indians last year, sending down 15 overs for six wickets, the most overs bowled and wickets taken by a spinner in powerplays in the 2023 WPL.

"There are very few spinners who are given the ball in powerplays, and when Mumbai trusted me for that job, I knew I had to repay that faith.

"I first try to pick up wickets or at least stop the flow of runs. I used to tell myself to stick to my strength no matter what the batsman did, because if I stick to my plans, she will make some mistake or the other."

Ishaque counts quite a few big names among her victims last season, starting with Sophie Devine in her second game. When she came on to bowl the third over, Devine smashed her for a four first ball.

"Once you do well, the next time you have to perform either as well or even better. There was no option of doing even slightly worse.

"When she [Devine] hit my first ball for four, I thought, 'Why are you stressing me out first ball'?" Ishaque laughs. "If someone hits my first ball, it starts playing on my mind.

"She was shuffling quite a bit even before I would deliver the ball. Once, I stopped in my stride and it made her angry. I stopped again and she was furious. I think she threw her wicket away in anger."

In Isahque's second over, Devine hit her for another four, to cover, but she was caught next ball when she failed to clear midwicket. Ishaque ended her powerplay spell with 2 for 13 from two overs and finished the game with 2 for 26.

As the tournament went on, Ishaque also got the wickets of Meg Lanning, Alyssa Healy and Shafali Verma. The secret to dismissing such dangerous batters, she says, was to not do anything special.

"I tried to keep myself calm and tried to do the same things that had brought me to the WPL. I had been practising for these kinds of days, so on match day also I tried to do the same thing. No need to do anything special."

For this steady head on her shoulders, Ishaque credits her coach Shibsagar Singh, a former left-arm spinner from Bengal. In 2018, Ishaque injured her bowling shoulder and when she returned after a long layoff, she found she couldn't land the ball where she wanted to. One of her academy coaches suggested she talk to Shibsagar for advice.

"When he asked me what the main problem was, I didn't know what to say. He asked me to send him a clip of my bowling and, on seeing it, he gave me some pointers.

"For a month or two we kept in touch on the phone about technical things. Gradually I started bowling like how I used to before my injury. I got back in the Bengal squad thanks to him, and he was the first person I went to after my matches to tell him that his suggestions had worked."

Shibsagar, however, wanted to challenger her further. He got her to face male players from Bengal's Ranji side, asking the batters to attack her while instructing her to "stop them if you can". He even helped out her family when they had financial problems before Ishaque landed her Rs 10 lakh (US$ 12,000 approx) WPL contract.

"Sir told me just one thing: 'You focus on the game, I'll take care of all your problems at home.' That one thing he said will stay with me forever. Now I always know that there's someone in this world who will take care of things so that I can just play. He didn't just say it, he did it too. For that I'll always be grateful to him."

A few months later Ishaque rocked the WPL with her stellar display. She carried that form into the 2023-24 domestic season, topping the wickets chart in the Senior Women's T20 Trophy for Bengal. She was in Lucknow for the zonal games in November when her phone chimed, letting her know she had been added to the India team's WhatsApp group.

"I couldn't believe it. I thought, 'Is it really true?' I called Jhulu di first thing, then I called Shibu sir. He said, 'I told you, just work hard because there's nobody else like you'. Then I called home to tell my mother and sister."

Ishaque capped an outstanding year, making her ODI and T20I debuts and also being picked in the Test squad. It hasn't been an easy journey to get here, but with determination, skill and a little help along the way, she is now living her dreams.

With stats inputs from Sampath Bandarupalli