In an empty Wankhede Stadium on a hot January morning in Mumbai, a lanky right-handed teenager hits Jhulan Goswami for boundaries. Not once, but a few times. The rest of the bowlers, many of them from the senior Indian women’s cricket team, meet with the same treatment. And while her batting partners, mostly boys from Mumbai’s Under-16 team, keep losing their wickets, there’s no stopping the 17-year-old who is playing in an India jersey.

Tushar Arothe, the head coach who took the women’s team to the World Cup final last year, has to take a call eventually. “Jemi!" he shouts from the boundary ropes, signalling that she should return. It’s a practice game, featuring a mix of Indian women players and boys from Mumbai’s U-16 team, and the coach wants the rest of his players to get a chance to bat before the women’s team heads to South Africa for a limited-overs tour starting 5 February.

“111 not out, from 103 balls," announces the scorer.

“Well played, Jemi," Arothe applauds, as the young player walks back, helmet in one hand, bat in the other, revealing a toothy smile.

Jemimah Rodrigues’ form has earned her an India call. Rodrigues captains Mumbai’s Under-19, Under-23 and senior sides. The current season has seen her score heaps of runs in age-group and senior cricket, the best of which was the unbeaten 202 off 163 balls against Saurashtra in an Under-19 tournament in November. With 1,013 runs, she was the highest run-getter in the tournament.

A young Rodrigues with Dhanraj Pillay during a domestic hockey tournament.
A young Rodrigues with Dhanraj Pillay during a domestic hockey tournament.

That 202 not-out knock earned her an India A call that very month, followed by a chance to play the Challenger Trophy this month, and then, an India call.

Things have moved at lightning speed for the Bandra girl in the last few months, but neither Rodrigues nor her family appears overwhelmed. “Yes, I think I am growing up very fast," Rodrigues says. “I realize my life is not like that of any ordinary teenager. I hardly attended school, always missed family vacations. But it’s paying off, my parents’ and my sacrifices, and I know this is just the start."

There have been so many times when Jem has come to the airport, handed me her bag, I have given her another bag, and she’s gone back inside the airport to catch another flight.- Ivan Rodrigues

Her parents, Lavita and Ivan, who run a science and math coaching centre for school students, know their daughter will be spending time away from them. “The last two years have been so busy for us," says Ivan, who also coaches his daughter. “There have been so many times when Jem has come to the airport, handed me her bag, I have given her another bag, and she’s gone back inside the airport to catch another flight."

“But she calls me every day, so I know she’s okay," he says.

Rodrigues is a natural athlete. Even a decade ago, when former India coach Joaquim Carvalho spotted her in the corner of a school field dribbling a hockey ball and found the “little boy" (she had very short hair then) incredibly gifted. Rodrigues has represented Mumbai in Under-19 hockey too, playing as a centre forward. “I still love both, and I hope I can represent India in both," she says. “It’s just that there came a time when I was playing a lot more cricket, because the tournaments were more, and I started doing well, so cricket took priority. But I actually miss hockey, and would love to play it whenever possible."

Rodrigues with her parents Ivan and Lavita.
Rodrigues with her parents Ivan and Lavita.

Ahead of her debut foreign tour, Rodrigues is upbeat. She’s clearly comfortable hanging out with the country’s best players, and was perhaps awestruck only when she was invited to Sachin Tendulkar’s residence and spent an hour there. “It was quite unbelievable talking with Sachin sir. And there were so many people who had appointments with him, and he was getting so many calls, but he kept telling people he’ll be there soon, and still sat and chatted with me," she recalls.

But the time to be star-struck is over. Rodrigues realizes, as do the other players, the significance of the South Africa tour. The women in blue are slotted to play three One Day matches and five T20s there. This will be their first international tournament after the World Cup. “Yes, we’ve had a long break, but I see that as a good thing," says captain Mithali Raj. “We had a hectic build-up to the World Cup and plenty of engagements after it. Many of us were carrying niggles. So this recovery time was essential."

The tour is expected to be a litmus test of sorts for the team, much like it has been for their male counterparts. The players have been made to train on pitches that had extra bounce, like those in South Africa, and practise during hot afternoons in Mumbai for a week, as the weather is expected to be harsher when they travel. “If we do well in South Africa, people are going to follow us and our performances," says Arothe. “And that will ensure the grounds are somewhat full when we play our international series at home during summer."

Going by her current form, it will be difficult to keep the 17-year-old Coldplay fan, who has also packed her guitar for South Africa, outside the playing eleven. It’s a significant tour and Rodrigues wants to make it count.

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