The India players run to the pitch to celebrate their win
© Getty Images

I Was There

When an India team with eight debutants beat a top England side

In 2014, a team of mostly greenhorns took on England Women in a Test, and won. Seven years later, the key players in that game look back

Interviews by Annesha Ghosh and Shashank Kishore  |  

Between 2012 and 2014, India Women were on a downward spiral, a shadow of the team that had made back-to-back T20 World Cup semi-finals in 2009 and 2010. Players were shunted in and out, coaches (of whom none were specialists) came and went, and camps were often arranged hastily. Women's cricket in India was still a few years away from becoming professional.

England, on the other hand, had been awarded full-time contracts for the first time in May 2014. They had finished runners-up in the T20 World Cup twice in a row, but along with the professionalism came heightened expectation, not just from the outside but from within the group too.

Against this backdrop, 15 India players went to England for a four-match tour, beginning with a one-off Test in Wormsley in August 2014, their first in over eight years. Mithali Raj, the captain, Jhulan Goswami, and Karuna Jain were the only holdovers from their last Test, in Taunton in 2006. Few gave them a chance.

India handed out as many as eight debut caps. Among them, allrounder Shikha Pandey, a qualified engineer employed as a flight lieutenant with the Indian Air Force, wasn't part of the original squad but made it as a late replacement.

Shikha Pandey, India seam-bowling allrounder: I hadn't been picked despite doing well in the selection games, so I went back to work at my Air Force base. Three days before the team's departure, I got a call from the BCCI asking me to report to the British embassy the next day in New Delhi for my fast-track visa appointment. Before I could process the news, I was on the road to Delhi.

Once my visa was issued, I went to Mumbai first and then made a quick dash home to Goa to sort out my cricket gear and essentials. I only returned to Mumbai to join the team a few hours before our departure. All this happened in the space of two days, so it was a roller-coaster ride, but I was excited to just be back with the team. By the time I boarded the flight to London, I was sleepless, exhausted, and excited all at once.

Captain Mithali Raj, Jhulan Goswami and Karuna Jain were the only three India players in the line-up who'd played a Test before

Captain Mithali Raj, Jhulan Goswami and Karuna Jain were the only three India players in the line-up who'd played a Test before © Getty Images

Lydia Greenway, England batter: As an England player, it was a taste of what was to come with professional cricket. In a funny way, people in England thought because you are now paid to do what you do, that change would translate immediately onto the pitch. I remember when [former captain] Clare Connor came up to Loughborough, she sat us down in the room and had this PowerPoint presentation. We were all just looking at each other. The realisation that we were going to be professional cricketers was unbelievable.

Once that understanding sunk in, we realised we had that much more time to practise our skills, develop our technique, get better, and just be able to rest and recover, because we never had that opportunity. We were working full-time, and we were expected to train like full-time athletes as well. So just to be able to manage all these aspects was great and exciting.

The buzz around the England team in the media was palpable. The Indian team, however, didn't have much press.

Greenway: On the outside, there was big expectation from the media. All of us were getting asked to do interviews. People were sort of asking us, "Well, what can we expect? How good are you going to be?" We ourselves didn't know that. The Test didn't unfold the way we wanted it to, but I suppose it was our first real taste of professional sport and the scrutiny that became part of our team from that point onwards.

Pandey: There was hardly anyone talking about us. I would read one-off reports of us being in England. In England, you pay for papers delivered to you [in the team hotel] - we didn't know that was how it worked. After three days [of picking the papers up and looking for news around the Test], we were asked to pay, unlike in India where newspapers are complimentary at hotels. We stopped looking then. But yes, I wouldn't say we got the kind of coverage we expected from the media.

At Wormsley, Raj elected to bowl, but the green-tinged deck meant she was forced to play quick bowlers rather than a spin-based attack. One of them, Niranjana Nagarajan, got the ball hooping around and picked up four of five England wickets before lunch on day one.

Niranjana Nagarajan's four strikes left England at 49 for 5 before lunch on the first day

Niranjana Nagarajan's four strikes left England at 49 for 5 before lunch on the first day © Getty Images

Pandey: Initially, I was at fine leg and couldn't see how much the ball was moving. But when I was fielding at mid-on and mid-off, I could see Ninja [Nagarajan] literally make the ball talk. I was enjoying it so much that the thought of bowling didn't even occur to me. I was mesmerised by the kind of control she had. Even when Jhulu di [Goswami] was bowling, I'd only heard from seniors and former players on how she could hit the same length-line with an 8-1 field and set batters up. Seeing her show that control in real-time was mind-blowing. When we watch Test cricket, we think of set-ups. I could see it in real life here. I was just floating in the moment.

Jenny Gunn, England fast-bowling allrounder: To have that many new players in their side was a massive challenge. In the international game, you normally have footage of opposition players from around the world, which allows you to have a fair look at what you're going to face. India fielding eight debutants - I don't think it will happen again (smiles). Sometimes, when you're making a debut and there's no previous footage of yours, you just go out there and play your best cricket, and many of their players just did that.

It was overcast as India went out to bat after bowling England out for 92 inside 42 overs. The ball was seaming around, and time in the middle was of the essence. Smriti Mandhana, all of 17, and fellow left-hander Thirush Kamini, set India up with a solid 40-run opening stand, before the England bowlers wreaked havoc, reducing India to 64 for 6.

Gunn was the wrecker-in-chief, dismissing the cream of India's batting, not with pace or extravagant Zswing but with simple wicket-to-wicket bowling and minor deviation off the surface. Among her prized scalps was Raj for 4.

Gunn: We identified she [Mithali] was trying to play early, pushing at the ball. She is a big driver of the ball, so you've got to make her play early on, and with my bowling on that day, I got to move the ball around a bit. We brought a short catcher into her eyeline, hoping she couldn't push at the ball. I was very lucky to bowl with Sarah Taylor as the wicketkeeper who stood up to the stumps for me all the time because when the ball is moving, it's brilliant to have a keeper who can do great things. She would keep the batter back in the crease, which creates doubt, and a bit of a problem for the batter.

Jenny Gunn took 5 for 19, her only Test five-for, in a Player-of-the-Match performance

Jenny Gunn took 5 for 19, her only Test five-for, in a Player-of-the-Match performance © Getty Images

As one batter after another fell, Sudha Shah, the India head coach, asked Pandey to get ready to walk out as nightwatcher, but a heavy downpour meant that idea was shelved. Nagarajan hung around with Goswami to stitch together a 31-run seventh-wicket stand, which brought India level with England. They eventually eked out a 22-run lead, getting bowled out for 114.

Niranjana Nagarajan: Jhulan di was applying herself and she'd literally talk to me every two or three balls. The message was simple: "One ball at a time, hang in there, don't play airy [aerial] shots. Forget about what they're telling you."

Greenway: Jenny does the simple things very, very well, and I remember that being a big part of her five-for. When you've got a bowler who's that reliable and consistent, in the longer format of the game in particular, more often than not you're going to have success, and Jen had that success. She is a brilliant person as well. When you see a good friend perform as well as she did with the ball and the bat... everyone in the change room was so pleased for her.

Sonia Odedra, England fast bowler: I would have taken a wicket any which way. It was a special game, my debut. Growing up, my dad would support India, I'd root for England, so there was a lot of friendly banter. I couldn't contribute much with the bat, so when I got the wicket [of Pandey], it was a relief to know I [made it] to the scoreboard. It remains my only wicket [in international cricket], so it will always be special.

England began the second innings aggressively after they lost opener Heather Knight second ball. Lauren Winfield and Sarah Taylor looked to drive the game forward, though wickets fell. Goswami changed the complexion of the game, along with fellow quick bowler Shubhlakshmi Sharma. Goswami picked up four wickets, while Sharma removed Taylor and Natalie Sciver with two searing yorkers.

Gunn: Goswami's height is a big factor to consider when facing her. She is very tall and she hits those hard lengths, so that was a challenge. She would just run in all day and bowl that nagging length with a bit of movement. She had a bit more pace than I did, so that made her an even bigger challenge, because if the ball's moving at pace, you can't leave it. Goswami didn't let you do that. The number of wickets she got goes to show that she probably had so many of us in two minds whether to play the ball or leave it. She took good advantage of that.

Thirush Kamini:

Thirush Kamini: "Wormsley's grass banks gave me a mental picture of what watching men's Tests in say, the '70s or '80s must have been like" © Getty Images

Pandey: The third day of the Test was on August 15, India's Independence Day. We were fired up. We hoisted a flag. We were determined to keep fighting. The wicket had eased out a little, but there was still some seam movement. Taylor batted really well; Lauren [Winfield-Hill] was superb. We knew every run they scored will only make our target that much bigger.

Gunn walked in to bat with England struggling on 84 for 6, leading by only 62. In a stonewalling innings against a fired-up attack, she batted close to four hours for her 62 not out. Her partnership with Taylor, who made the next best score, 40, was instrumental in England getting to 202. India were set a target of 181.

Gunn: It was an odd one, because I was surprised I had my pads on; I just wanted to rest up, but that was not the case. I was probably in the wrong frame of mind when I went out to bat in the evening. I blocked quite a bit, rather than rotating strike. I felt a lot of pressure just trying not to get out. So I didn't even think about scoring, which was probably the wrong mindset to go in with. We played it through the evening, had a fresh start the next morning, and I felt a bit more comfortable with my scoring shots and was having a bit of fun. I was a bit gutted when Sarah was out. I thought we had just started to build that partnership and could kick on.

Mandhana and Kamini began India's chase with a solid 76-run stand. Mandhana played some flowing drives off Anya Shrubsole and Gunn in her maiden Test fifty. Kamini was the stark opposite, looking to blunt the bowling and play the waiting game. It set the innings up nicely.

Thirush Kamini, India batter: My conversations with Smriti were focused on countering the bowling and setting a strong base. We had the learnings from the first innings to rely on. We knew who the bowlers were we could take on, who could be better seen out. That way we were able to establish a good understanding and even though our experience levels were different, both being left-handers helped us make sound technical adjustments, blunting angles or dealing with the rough patches on the pitch because they were common to us. That aided our partnership in a big way.

Smriti Mandhana's maiden Test fifty gave India a solid head-start in the chase

Smriti Mandhana's maiden Test fifty gave India a solid head-start in the chase © Getty Images

Gunn: A couple of early wickets and we would have been in the game. The openers just put a dampener on that and made it a lot more challenging for us. Their approach made us change our game. We had to break that partnership and break it soon, but that didn't happen. They just batted and batted better than the first innings and really deserved to win. In Mandhana, you could see signs of a special batter and to think she was just 16 or 17 years old at the time shows the depth of talent India have got and how they tend to grow into world-class players over time, having been thrown into it early.

Both openers fell in quick succession and, before long, India were in trouble at 115 for 4, needing another 67. Raj was batting at one end, but who would support her at the other? Pandey did go out as a nightwatcher this time around, and she fulfilled the role, remaining unbeaten at stumps.

Gunn: I thought I had Mithali Raj lbw quite early on in her innings, but it wasn't given. I thought it was quite close (laughs) and it's one of those decisions you think as a bowler could have changed the game, but it was given not out. You don't get a lot of chances against Mithali Raj, do you? After that, they took the game away from us.

Pandey: We began the [fourth and final] day needing 50-odd, and it was tense. The plan was to just occupy the crease and take our time. I won't say the wicket had eased out; a few balls were still doing a little off the pitch, but Mithali guided me through. As the runs started being wiped off, people in our dressing room got edgy and superstitious. I found out much later that Ninja stood near a window next to the washroom all morning, because that is where she was the previous evening when we put together a partnership and remained unbeaten. She didn't want to break that.

As Pandey hit the winning runs - a four off Sciver - the entire team ran out onto the field. Sushma Verma, the reserve wicketkeeper, borrowed a flag from one of the fans and ran onto the field, waving it in jubilation. The group of players, many of whom had just played their first Test, had stunned a team full of world-beaters.

Pandey: We took a group photo with the flag. Sush was our official photographer, carrying her DSLR. She took a lot of pics. People were dancing in the group, with Harry [Harmanpreet Kaur] and Sush leading the celebration. The dressing room wasn't all that big, but at that time nothing else mattered and we had a wonderful evening. For me, it was satisfaction more than anything else.

Shikha Pandey took India home with a four off Nat Sciver

Shikha Pandey took India home with a four off Nat Sciver © Getty Images

Gunn: It was probably one of the biggest crowds we've had for a women's Test match in England. It's good to be playing in front of friends but they also sometimes take the mickey out of you and that sort of keeps you going, to be fair. Sometimes you get a bit of stick from the crowd. We wanted more people to watch our matches at the stadium and that Test match showed that Test cricket can be exciting.

Kamini: Wormsley's grass banks gave me a mental picture of what watching men's Tests in, say, the '70s or '80s must have been like when grounds didn't have proper seating arrangements. And getting to the ground required a bit of effort because it is located somewhat in the interior, so it was good to see people come in every day to follow the game. It showed their interest in the teams and the match, and surprisingly they were quite neutral. That was a new and memorable thing for me to experience as a player from the visiting side. You could see them invested in a good spell of bowling or a steady showing with the bat, no matter which team you belonged to.

Several of them asked for autographs. There were these four or five tents put up for players and match officials to eat under, and we could see people hanging around, most of them staying back after day's play for autographs. The players were accessible, there were limited barricades, so we could see and hear them as much as they could see and hear us.

Pandey: I called my dad, and his first words were: "Well done, you're a real cricketer." For him, Test cricket was the ultimate, and it's something he had impressed upon me as a child. Here, I had not just played a Test but been part of a historic win, even hitting the winning runs. He was so happy.

Nagarajan: My dad didn't tell me that (laughs). But yes, he was extremely happy. If you ask me, to play a Test was my ultimate dream. We didn't even have Test numbers on the jersey until then, but I still have that kit, the stump and every little bit of memorabilia from that match. It meant the world to me in a very special way.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. Annesha Ghosh is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo.