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Kanika Ahuja: Swaying into the WPL spotlight

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Kanika Ahuja had just helped the Royal Challengers Bangalore chase down a tricky score of 136 when she walked into the post-game press conference and had to ask, “Do I sit there?” It’s clear that this is her first ever press conference. She laughs the whole time, rocks a little in her chair between questions, and can’t wipe the smile off her face. She’s finished what she set out to do, after all.

“Bas, RCB ko ek match jeetana tha [just wanted to win one game for RCB].”

In the Women’s Premier League of 2023, RCB won the game with a score of 46 off 30 balls. After bowling well enough to stop a UP Warriorz lineup that wasn’t working, RCB was in a bit of trouble at 43/3 a ball after the powerplay. By the end of the ninth over, they were 60/4. That means that three of their most experienced overseas players and their captain, Smriti Mandhana, are back in the hut for a must-win match to keep their slim chance of qualifying alive. On a sticky pitch, it was up to the young middle-order batter to lead the team to victory. Ahuja got to work from the first ball. He pulled Devika Vaidya’s half-tracker on the leg side to deep midwicket for four.

Ahuja was both careful and aggressive. She respected the good balls but also took calculated risks and played to her strengths, like when she stepped out and asked Deepti Sharma to hit a ball over the covers when the offside field was inside the ring. The Patiala native was very aware of the game as she chose her targets and waited for loose balls, like the full-toss from part-time offspinner Grace Harris that she slog-swept to the midwicket fence. The next ball’s hit had a jagged edge that Alyssa Healy behind the stumps did not catch, which made the Australian very upset.

In the 12th over, when there was no one at fine leg, the 20-year-old shuffled in twice to scoop length balls from Rajeshwari Gayakwad and bring the equation down to a very manageable run-per-ball. In between the two fours, she gave the left-armer the charge with a perfectly timed drive over the covers. In the next round, Ahuja stepped down to Vaidya and played with the turn to throw one into the cow-corner posters for her only six.

She didn’t get what would have been her first fifty, but she brought back the chase that UPW had stopped halfway through, so she could leave with “no regrets.” When Shreyanka Patil got the winning runs, the camera moved to a happy RCB dugout for a change, where the small all-rounder stood in front and said a small prayer with the same confident smile on her face.

“Today, the target was a little below par, so I could take my time getting ready on the wicket and then wait for loose balls. I could only think, We have to win tonight “Ahuja would later tell the media.

Former RCB men’s captain Virat Kohli went to Mumbai before India’s first ODI against Australia, which will take place in the city later this week. While there, he met with the first group of RCB women and gave them a pep talk “It’s not a burden to play for the team, but a pleasure. It’s not something many people get to do “- made sense to her.

She got sick the day before RCB had to play Delhi Capitals and had to watch from the sidelines as RCB came the closest to winning a WPL 2023 game, only to lose in a nail-biting last over. When it came down to it, Ahuja took the lead.

“Humare dimag mein bas yehi tha ke aaj bas jeetna nahin hai, aaj unko maarna hai. [We made up our minds that, we shouldn’t win today, but beat them convincingly]. We had nothing to lose, we just wanted to win by hook or by crook.”

Ahuja was picked over Patil, another hard-hitting uncapped all-rounder, for RCB’s 18-person squad. On the first day of the tournament, Ahuja got a golden duck, but the next day, he was the face of the lower-middle order fightback that helped the team beat Mumbai Indians with 155 runs. She didn’t take long to get comfortable. She swept Amelia Kerr for four runs and then went back down the track to the legspinner for a six over covers.

“After that knock of 12-ball 22 [13 balls], Smriti [Mandhana] di and everyone else told me that your intent was very good to see, and that I played well but I shouldn’t be satisfied with just this much. I was quite happy then but also regretted getting out the way I did.”

Even though she had low returns, RCB liked what they saw from her in high-pressure situations. They believed in Ahuja so much that they put her ahead of Heather Knight, Erin Burns, and Richa Ghosh at No. 4 in their next game, when they wanted to keep the momentum from Sophie Devine and Ellyse Perry’s partnership in their last game against the Warriors.

In fact, RCB had already picked out the big hitter early on in the scouting process, before they even knew they were getting a team. The left-hander is a fan of SuryaKumar Yadav and has modeled her 360-degree batting style after watching his videos. She is known for her middle-order fireworks, which recently made the news because of a belligerent triple ton she hit (305 off 122 balls, 11 sixes, and 45 fours) in a one-day inter-district competition in Punjab. Her hard-hitting skills got the attention of the Mumbai Indians, which started a small bidding war at the auction table. Ahuja ended up selling for 3.5 times her base price of INR 10 Lakh.

Ahuja used to roller skate, but now she plays cricket. At first, her family wasn’t sure if they should support her passion for the sport, so she had to borrow a bat from a neighbor. Ahuja’s father, like any caring parent, wanted her to pay attention to school, but a mother’s heart is always with her child. “There was a time when she was the one who always helped me, even though it was just to get rid of me because if I stayed at home I’d either eat her brains or fly kites on the terrace all day,” she jokes, before giving the match-winning knock to her sick mother. “She’s feeling a little sick, so I’m playing my best because she’s watching me. I’d like to give this to my mom, “She says this with a grin.

“She played the conditions very well, she played our bowlers very well,” Harris, who top-scored with a 46 herself for the Warriorz, told the media after the five-wicket defeat.

“She saw pace on a couple of times and ramped us and I thought that was very clever if her strength wasn’t necessarily hitting down the ground. I haven’t seen much of her but she’s got a good bat swing and [she is a] little left-hander so she can get under the ball. We expected her to really have a crack at the boundaries and I thought she played very smart. She hit to her areas and stuck to her strengths for the whole innings. Good on her! She was good,” she added.

Not only is it rare for the national team to have a middle-order hitter, but the fact that Ahuja is left-handed gives her an extra edge. She could be the answer to the Indian team’s search for a “finishing partner” for Richa Ghosh, who played an uncharacteristically calm second fiddle in that 60-run partnership to help steer RCB to safer shores. The Indian team has been looking for new players, and her name is sure to come up if she steps up for a team led by the national vice-captain.

“Of course, like every player who takes up the game, I also want to play for India. I’ve got this platform of WPL to showcase my skills and if I keep getting better here, I’ll hopefully get to play for India too.”

Her match-winning hit against what was probably the best spin bowler in the competition is already better than what the stage saw of Ahuja when it first saw her less than two weeks ago. For now, it gives RCB the slimmest chance of making it to the knockout rounds, which also depends on other teams helping them out. But win or lose from here on out, the team has already given a huge vote of confidence to the success of WPL by finding and supporting talented people like Ahuja and Shreyanka Patil.

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