CHENNAI: Last Thursday was just another morning for Renuka Singh Thakur as she went about her routines, training in Una. Except that it wasn’t. When her phone started buzzing around 10 am, the day turned on its head. Wishes started pouring in from all over Himachal Pradesh after the pacer was included in the 15-member squad the BCCI had picked for the upcoming tour of New Zealand and the Women’s ODI World Cup to follow.
Hailing from a small village Parsa, in Rohru, over 325kms from Dharamshala, Renuka lost her father — Kehar Singh, an ardent cricket fan who named his eldest son after Vinod Kambli — at the age of three.
It was her uncle, Bhupinder Singh Thakur, who saw her play in the neighbourhood with the boys and urged the family to send Renuka to the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association's women’s residential academy at Dharamshala, started by the current Youth Affairs and Sports Minister Anurag Singh Thakur.
“If he hadn’t seen me play then, I probably wouldn’t be here,” the 25-year-old told this daily. Despite joining the academy at the age of 15, Renuka needed two years to make her senior debut for Himachal. “I took a couple of years to learn the game better,” she says. Renuka worked along with Pawan Sen at HPCA over the years to hone her skills.
Since then, the pacer has made rapid strides in the domestic circuit. Her 21-wicket season in 2018-19 led to the Challenger Trophy selection that year, followed by an India A call-up to the tour of Australia.
But the big turnaround happened in 2021. Renuka got a job with Northern Railways and was selected to play for the Railways in the Senior One Day Tournament. In August, she earned her maiden T20I call-up and made her India debut in the shortest format in Australia.
Renuka followed it up with some impressive performances in the Senior One Day Trophy — nine wickets in five matches, including a four-fer against Karnataka in the final — and the Senior Challengers, winning both the titles with Railways and India A, respectively. Credting Sen for working with her in the early years, Renuka said, “Pawan Sen taught me a lot and backed me in my early years. For the last couple of years, I have moved to Una and worked with my personal trainer Jarnail Singh. We have put in a lot of effort and it is all showing in my performances now.”
Lauding her growth in the last few years, Nooshin Al Khadeer, former India cricketer and coach of Railways and India A in the 2021 Challengers, said, “When I first saw her in 2018, she looked a little inconsistent. But you can't write off players like that. She was someone who needed to be backed and invested in.”
“She’s very different from other bowlers. Her aggression is her calmness. She understands things, doesn’t get rattled when hit for a boundary, because she knows she can make a comeback,” said Nooshin as she recalled the Senior One Day final in Bengaluru.
Renuka ran through Karnataka’s top-order on a rainy day, taking four wickets in her first four overs. “We have a thing going in our dressing room where I challenge players to score a hundred or take a fifer and then reward them. She took it up as a challenge in the final.”
Renuka’s biggest strength is her confidence and street smartness — both the pacer and Nooshin reiterate that. While that is not to talk less of her skills, Nooshin feels that the pacer’s confidence adds immense value to her skills.
“She has a good inswinger, yorker, is really good in the death overs. She doesn’t go into a shell after a bad game, she is raring to go for the next one. We may discuss and plan things, but she has the skill to do it,” tells Nooshin.
For example, Renuka explains how she set up Karnataka skipper Veda Krishnamurthy in the final. “Main inswinger hoon, aur woh inswing accha khelti hai… Maine decide kiya tha halka outswinger dalun (I bowl good inswing deliveries but she plays them well. So I decided to bowl an outswing delivery),” she says.
And it worked. After taking two wickets with the inswinger, she surprised the veteran batter by going wide of the crease and delivering an outswinger on the very first delivery, which Veda edged to the wicketkeeper.
When asked what kind of a role she might play in the World Cup, the Railways coach said that Renuka could be the surprise package as not many know about her in the international circuit. “New Zealand conditions help the medium-pacer. She swings the ball in, she is consistent, she’s pretty confident of her skills. She is going to make a difference,” Nooshin added.
But Renuka hasn’t thought about any of it yet. It’s just been a couple of days, and the news is still sinking in as she is enjoying the moment with her mother, Sunita Thakur. “She was really happy when she got the news," Renuka said.
"The most special thing for me is my mom’s smile. She wanted to fulfill my father’s dream that at least one of his children should play for India. As a single mother, she has struggled and sacrificed so much for me to get here, and I just want to do something for India that makes her smile and be proud of me. I will try and make most of every opportunity I get and help the team win the World Cup,” she signed off.