“Whenever she asked for money for cricket, I would tease her by asking why she was wasting her time in cricket. She used to say, ‘aap dekhna, India khelungi (One day, I will play for India),” Pooja Vastrakar’s father Bandhan Ram once told The Indian Express.
On Sunday morning, in Hangzhou China, Pooja, who wasn’t even in the original squad for the Games, stunned Bangladesh with a double strike in the first over of the game, enroute a four-fer, to propel India women into the final of the Asian Games.
Bandhan Ram had long stopped being surprised by anything his youngest daughter did. Not her performances, not her unbinding love for the game, and or for the matter, her expenses.
He wasn’t too chuffed when Pooja bought him a Rs 15 lakh car before going for the last T20 World Cup. He called it a “waste of money”. In February, after his 23-year-old daughter was picked by Mumbai Indians for a staggering price tag of Rs 1.9 crore in the inaugural Women’s Premier League (WPL) auction, the 72-year-old said he wanted his daughter to put all the auction money into a “fixed deposit” rather than splurge it.’
“Bahut paise waste karti hai. Mai chahta hun ki ye saare paise ka FD kar le (She wastes a lot of money. I want her to open a fixed deposit account with all the money),” Bandhan Ram had told this newspaper.
A retired BSNL employee, Bandhan Ram never thought that his daughter will go on to play for India some day, and that her passion for cricket would fetch her this amount of money.
“Since the age of four, she has been into cricket. I never thought that she would go on to play for India one day. But she always knew it,” recalled Bandhan Ram.
Pooja is the youngest among seven siblings (five daughters and two sons), and has always been the favourite of her father.
Pooja was introduced to sport by her elder sister Usha, who was into athletics and narrated her sister’s tryst with cricket.
“Till eight or nine, she used to play cricket in the gully with the boys. Then Ashutosh sir (Srivastava) watched her playing on a ground, came to our home and told my father to let her join his academy. A year later, when my mother passed away, she stopped going to the academy. I got to know about it and literally dragged her to the academy. From there onwards, she never missed a single practice session. I am happy that she is pursuing her passion. We are very proud of her achievements,” said Usha.
Pooja’s coach Ashutosh Srivastava, who lives in Shahdol, a small town in Madhya Pradesh’s Rewa district, recalled how he mistook her for a boy after seeing her hitting sixes off bowlers double her size.
“I saw her playing at the municipal ground in Shahdol. I saw a kid smacking sixes in tennis ball cricket. I asked one of the kids, who is this boy, the reply was, ‘sir ye toh ladki hai.’ I was amazed by her power-hitting,” said Ashutosh.
After getting her into his academy, Srivastava never let her train with the girls and made Pooja play with the boys.
She was way too good for the girls of her age. I put her in the boy’s U-14 team and in a couple of weeks, she turned out the best among the boys of her age group as well,” he said.
“I hardly did anything for her. Initially, it was Ashutosh sir, who helped her out. Then when she was picked for the Madhya Pradesh Under-19 team, she started earning money and never asked anything from me. She even helped with money during her sister’s marriage,” said Pooja’s father. Now she is helping India win a medal at the Asian Games.