Sneha aims to become first cricketer to make India comeback after pregnancy

Once India's youngest T20I debutante, the 25-year-old cricketer returned to domestic cricket during the 2021-22 season eight months after having a baby.

Published: 22nd July 2022 11:42 PM  |   Last Updated: 23rd July 2022 01:00 AM   |  A+A-

Sneha Deepthi Cricket

Indian cricketer Sneha Deepthi. (Special Arrangement)

Express News Service

CHENNAI: In the first week of June 2021, Sneha Deepthi shared a video on her Instagram: clips of her playing for Railways and smacking around the Odisha bowlers in the 2019 Inter-state U-23 T20 tournament, thanking her almighty after almost every six.  The caption read, 'Can't wait to be back on the field..!! I miss the real ME.'                                                                                                                     

For Sneha, batting out in the middle is her “happy place”. Having made her India debut in 2013 alongside Smriti Mandhana — as then India’s youngest T20I debutante — cricket has been central to her life for as long as she can remember. However, after just one series against Bangladesh, she was left out of the Indian squad. Since then, she has toiled away in the domestic circuit with the dream to return to the top.

It had been over two years since Sneha had last played a competitive game. In the intervening period, she got married to her husband Philip Maddirala and also gave birth to her daughter, Kriva Philip. She was only 24; her desire to return to the field stronger than ever.

A year since that nostalgic post that fuelled her cricketing fire, Sneha has made a successful return to the domestic circuit, captaining Andhra in List-A and T20 cricket, and then leading Vizianagaram Royals to the title in the inaugural Andhra Premier League earlier this month.

While that day in June 2021 appears significant to the outside world, Sneha's 'return to play' programme was put in place well before that — almost as soon as she found out about her pregnancy.

“When I got to know that I was pregnant, he (her husband) was like, 'you should come back,” Sneha told this daily. “This one year is your vacation kind of time. Once the baby comes off, within two months, you should start your routines,’ he said. Everybody got mad; even I got mad,” she laughs. 

However, it did not take long for her to understand that her husband was right. After all, she was only 23 at the time and, as the cliche goes, had “plenty of cricket left in her”. With the entire family acting as a support system, Philip ensured that Sneha remained connected to the game well into her pregnancy. He used to give her throwdowns even when she was five months pregnant, taking breaks in between so he could feed her. And the work didn’t stop there. Sneha had to make sacrifices on the food front, denying the many cravings that came with her pregnancy, all to make sure that her return to the field would be harder and longer than it was supposed to be.

But after all that effort, once Kriva was born in February 2021, Sneha was still unsure of whether she wanted to play again. Her body had undergone plenty of changes. For one, she weighed over 95 kgs and also had very little stamina. The road ahead suddenly seemed insurmountable. 

“I was so fat that I thought I would never play again. (But then) I thought, ‘No, this is not me. I cannot sit at home, leave my cricket, leave my batting. That is the real me’. Then I saw all my batting videos. I felt I should be there again playing. I should be there again, hitting those boundaries and sixes.”

Sneha and her family. (Special Arrangement)

In July 2021, Sneha started training in Hyderabad, but she realised that it might not be enough. That’s when the Andhra Cricket Association, her home board, came to her rescue, agreeing to provide her with the facilities to help mount a comeback, including access to the gym and her childhood coach Janapareddy Krishna Rao. That, however, meant she was required to move to Mangalagiri, leaving Kriva with her family in Hyderabad. 

"Even after starting, I couldn’t handle the pain. I was emotionally in a bad state. I thought I would give up. My body used to say No. Then, my daughter’s face would flash, and I'll say, 'No, for my daughter, I should finish my set. I should finish my training'. That is how I pushed myself hard. I am sacrificing a lot. More than me, my daughter is sacrificing a lot. So, I should push myself. I should be a little stronger. Even now, when I remember my daughter, I don’t mind where I am, I just cry. The tears will roll. I will tell myself, 'no, you should be strong'."

Having a supportive family helped a lot. Her husband, her in-laws and everyone around understood what she was going through and encouraged her to pursue her passion. After the first month, she often took breaks from training to see Kriva: taking the evening train to spend one day with her daughter before returning to Mangalagiri.

Through her early training, Sneha had no expectations of playing competitive cricket in 2021. Having been on maternity leave the previous year, she was no longer part of the Railways team, and thus chose to apply for an NOC in order to play for Andhra. That’s when she ticked off her first big milestone in her ‘return to play’ programme.

At the suggestion of ACA director Venugopal Rao, a nervous Sneha participated in the inter-district zonals in September 2021. Only after getting through the first game, she realised cricket was still her happy place. She had literally, and figuratively, returned home.

Named captain of Andhra for the 2021-22 season, Sneha’s one-day tournament was rather disappointing. However, a few months later, in a must-win T20 match against Rajasthan in Pondicherry, she turned her fortunes around. 

With the opportunity to finally stamp her authority on the season, Sneha stood tall while batters around her struggled. Unfortunately for her though, she barely got any rest the day before the game. Having been away from home for over 20 days, Kriva was clearly missing her: “She was constantly calling me Amma, Amma and crying a lot. That day, I felt like she was sacrificing a lot, and I had to do something. At least for my baby, I should do something,” she recalls.

On the evening of April 22, before she even realised, Sneha was out in the middle after Andhra lost their first wicket in the second over. A couple of overs later, their key batter, CH Jhansi Lakshmi, too, got out. If ever there was a moment for the skipper to step up, this was it. She duly went after the Rajasthan bowlers, carting them over and around the boundary with an exhilarating exhibition of strokeplay. She reached her half-century with a trademark loft for a six. 

Then the celebration came out. She raised her bat, thanked her almighty, and motioned as if rocking a baby, à la Pakistan captain Bismah Maroof during the World Cup. That was for Kriva. 

“Instantly, it happened. I didn’t plan anything. The way I play, I am too aggressive. From ball one, I start hitting whatever is in my zone. When I completed my fifty, my first thought was my daughter. It just came out. I didn’t know about the Pakistan captain as I didn’t watch any matches. That innings was very special to me because we were in a tough situation. And if I had got out, I don’t think we would have reached a good total.”

She scored a 40-ball 70, a knock that featured five fours and six sixes, taking Andhra to 128/8. They lost the game to Rajasthan off the last ball and were eventually eliminated in the group stage. But, overall, it was a much better display than the senior one-dayers - for Sneha and her team. 

With time to reflect on what has been a whirlwind year and a half, Sneha believes that female athletes who want to have children should be provided with all the systemic assistance possible. She adds that women should be encouraged to return to the field of play after having children.

“Yes, for a mother leaving a baby is a big thing, but if you have a career, you should do it. When a father is doing this, even a mother has a right to do this. You should give them support because they need it. You should normalise these things. Only then girls would go ahead with marriages and have babies and then would come back. Even the families should allow the daughters and daughters-in-law to play after having a baby. Once these recognitions come up, they (players) will also take these things.”

While BCCI are yet to officially announce their centrally contracted list of cricketers for 2021-22, among the 19 players, who were contracted between October 2020 and September 2021, none are yet married. In fact, the last woman to make a comeback after pregnancy and play at the top level was Neha Tanwar, who represented India A in 2017, three years after having a baby.

While Cricket Australia, New Zealand Cricket and Pakistan Cricket Board have official parental policies, the Indian cricket body is yet to come up to speed. Sneha feels that having an official policy in place would make a lot of things easier for the players. “When we only focus on cricket, we leave personal life. Like every cricketer, I said no to marriage, but my father convinced me. Not everybody's family will support it. If the association or BCCI supports them, they will also push themselves. They will take a break for a year or two and then will come back. Age should not be a criterion. Even today, 30 is so normal. Men don’t miss their professional life after kids, then why not women. This is what you call feminism — giving equal rights and opportunities to play cricket.” 

Cricket has been intertwined with Sneha's journey for the better part of her life. She played for India, got married, had a baby, and has made a comeback in domestic cricket. Yet, she is just 25. And, she wants to do a lot more than playing domestic cricket. While she might not be someone who plans for the future, somewhere deep inside her heart, the flame to represent India again is still burning.

“Till now, nobody has played for India after having a baby. I want to be the first woman to do this," Sneha says with resolve. "That is how in India, things will change. As a mother, if you play, by seeing me, a lot of girls will take it up as a career. If I do this (make a comeback), I might inspire them to take up this sport. I definitely want to make a comeback for India."

“That is why I have done all the sacrifices. My baby has made a lot of sacrifices. I am not around when she is doing a few things for the first time. So, all this emotional sacrifice will only make sense if I give it my all. Playing for India is a fruit. I don't expect the fruit, but I will definitely want to put all my effort in so that I will get the results someday. Then, my daughter will be proud of the sacrifices I made. For my daughter and a lot of girls, I really want to come back. I should be a living example for my daughter. Playing for India or not, if I make a comeback for the country, the impact will be bigger. I will give my best shot.”



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