India vs South Africa: Chennai's Hemalatha set for homecoming

When the then 17-year-old told her family that she wanted to play cricket shortly after finishing high school, little did they imagine this day would come.
D Hemalatha during a training session at Chepauk on the eve of the first T20I between India and South Africa
D Hemalatha during a training session at Chepauk on the eve of the first T20I between India and South Africa(Photo | PTI)

CHENNAI: Dayalan Hemalatha is yet to play an international match at the MA Chidambaram Stadium, Chennai. In fact, when this iconic venue hosted India women prior to the recent Test against South Africa (2007), the city’s very own cricketer was in school. Pursuing the game she loved as a passion and profession wasn’t even in her wildest dreams. It all could change for the 29-year-old when India take the field against South Africa in the first T20I at the venue on Friday.

Understandably, Hemalatha’s household in Nesapakkam is buzzing. After all, when the then 17-year-old told her family that she wanted to play cricket shortly after finishing high school, little did they imagine this day would come. At that point, she had never played leather ball cricket. All Hemalatha did through her school days was play cricket on the streets with the boys. So, when she tried to convince her family to allow her to participate in the U-19 selection trials, they were understandably hesitant.

“She went with a tennis ball bat, not knowing the equipment required. And there a coach saw her bat and suggested that she join an academy. We don’t even know who he was. We joined the SS Cricket Academy and that is where it all began,” recalls P Karthick, one of Hemalatha’s brothers.
From there, Hemalatha made rapid strides, but it was a hard toil. She used to wake up at 4.30 in the morning, take a bus for practice, come back at 9 AM, and then rest for a couple of hours. Later, she would go to the gym and skill training before returning home late in the evening.

The next day, she would follow the same schedule all over again. “Hema was very determined at that age. She had decided this is what she is going to pursue. She joined college through sports quota and worked day in and out for this,” says her mother D Jayanthi.

It was not just about the training though. Financially, too, it was not easy. Coming from a joint family, K Dhamodaran, the family elder and her father, K Dayalan’s brother, was the go-to person for Hema and everyone else. From buying a new bat to ensuring everything she needed, he was like her godfather. For training, she would take her father to bowl on the terrace and in the park with the kids. And wherever she needed to go for practice or matches, it was her brother Karthick who would accompany Hemalatha.

All those years of hard work were eventually rewarded when she made her India debut in 2018 against Sri Lanka. However, one other wish of hers remained — a job in Railways. While the women’s game has grown leaps and bounds in the past few years, it was not the same even a few years ago. Hemalatha was looking for a job in Southern Railways, which would give her financial stability while also allowing her to represent Railways in the domestic circuit. “It was a massive thing. First, she got an offer in Hyderabad but did not go because she had to be in Chennai with her parents. On her 25th birthday, she was in tears because it was not happening. And then, the offer eventually came,” says Karthick.

While Hemalatha had already played for India, joining Railways in 2020-21 proved to be a vital move for her. There, she will be rubbing shoulders and sharing a dressing room with the best players in the country, including the then India captain Mithali Raj. “Her father was a big Mithali fan. Every time she played a match, the first question he used to ask was what Mithali akka had to say. We even went to Chennai airport and met her. She spoke to us and said we needn’t worry and Hemalatha would be taken care of. Mithali helped her a lot both mentally and technically to take her game forward,” says Jayanthi.

The other person who has played a crucial role for Hemalatha at Railways is Nooshin Al Khadeer. "Sometimes it's tough for players who have already played for India and then the comebacks are always tough," the former India international told this daily. "When you are playing for the first time, it's always easy because there's a straight road. So we had these conversations which were like when you want to make a comeback, the scoring of runs have to be more than what you have done when you were trying to make a debut.

And it should be impactful in terms of those crucial innings and what time it is coming against which team it is coming. I think we've been very clear and she knew what her role was and she did quite well. And then that one crucial innings of that WPL where she had a very good partnership with Beth Mooney. It happened at the right time again. So I think she ticked all the boxes for that," she added.

Despite Hemalatha continuing to pile on runs in the domestic tournaments for Railways under Mithali and Nooshin, she was in and out of the Indian team. Come the Women’s Premier League, Hemalatha showed what everyone in the cricketing fraternity knew she was capable of. She was one of the silver linings for Gujarat Giants, and for the 29-year-old’s family, it was an unforgettable experience.

There was a time when Hemalatha’s entire family wished to see her play on television. It finally came true during the WPL. “For the first time, we had travelled there to watch our Hema play,” says her other brother D Prabhu. “We have seen some local matches here. We have never seen her play for India. For her to fly us in and take care of us, we were more tense than she would have been when she was in the middle,” he recalls.

Hemalatha might have 11 ODIs and 19 T20Is next to her name till now, but her 20th match in the shortest format will remain extremely special for her. For it will be the first time her family comes to the ground to watch her play for the country. “I thought I would quietly go and watch in Bengaluru, but she didn’t want me to. To watch our daughter play in our city at this venue is going to be very very special. We are all very proud and it’s not just about us, but also a matter of pride in our place, city and Tamil Nadu,” says Dhamodaran.

It is often said that it takes a village to raise a world-class athlete. In Hemalatha’s case, every member of her family had played their part and so have many others. And when she takes the field on Friday at her home ground, every one of them would be smiling wherever they are.

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