Mumbai, India – Park Circus, a bustling neighbourhood in the heart of India’s historic eastern metropolis Kolkata, is known as a Muslim ghetto by its inhabitants and the city’s Hindu middle-class populace.
Some of the poorest slums of the city are found here at the cross-section of Kolkata’s central and southern districts in a mix of posh enclaves, malls and restaurants.
In a conservative and marginalised environment, especially for women, it is nothing short of remarkable that one of the neighbourhood’s own, Saika Ishaque, picked up cricket at a young age.
What’s more, the “ziddi” (headstrong) player from Park Circus went on to become one of Indian cricket’s breakout stars and rags-to-riches success stories of the year.
In a fairytale-like year, Saika signed a contract with the Mumbai Indians franchise in the inaugural Women’s Premier League (WPL), completed a title-winning campaign with them and made an impressive debut for India in the recent T20 series against England.
The 28-year-old left-arm spinner now finds herself knocking on the doors of the Test team as India look to build a dominant squad.
— ICC (@ICC) December 6, 2023
‘Rough and tough childhood’
Has it come easy for Saika, though?
Just ask Jhulan Goswami, the legendary fast bowler who is renowned as a poster child of improbable, against-all-odds narratives of triumph in Indian cricket.
“Saika has had a rough and tough childhood,” Goswami told Al Jazeera.
Goswami knows Saika better than most, being her former teammate in the Bengal side and current bowling coach at Mumbai Indians.
“Her family’s financial condition has always been utterly abject. She lost her father at a very young age, and coming from such a place where having two square meals a day or studying or playing is a tall ask, it’s quite incredible to see a girl having come this far and play cricket for India.”
Goswami has watched Saika’s journey unfold from up close.
The 41-year-old remembers a pre-teen Saika lugging a bat almost twice her size for practice sessions at Vivekananda Park in southern Kolkata.
“For an 11- or- 12-year-old, she had a lot of pluck, the kind of X factor you look for in young cricketers. She would come to the nets holding her mother’s hand and always used the masculine gender for Hindi words as if she were a boy: khaunga, jaunga, karunga [I will eat, go, do].”
Such slip-ups are still part of her speech. It is partly down to her upbringing in the bylanes of Park Circus, where most of her childhood friends were boys, a rarity for Muslim women there.
Her childhood was spent playing gully cricket, riding motorcycles and strutting around the neighbourhood with the air of a local gang boss.
— Mumbai Indians (@mipaltan) December 11, 2023
‘I’m here to take wickets’
To all that rizz, add a penchant for dying her hair red, green, purple and other hues.
“She has a ‘bindaas’ [carefree] character,” Harmanpreet Kaur, the India captain, who also leads Mumbai Indians, said on the eve of Saika’s India debut last week.
Echoing Saika’s iconic quip, “I’m a bowler. I’m here to take wickets” from her WPL stint, Harmanpreet added: “She has a wicket-taking mindset.”
Saika ended the T20 series with five wickets, three of which came in the third T20, which India won.
The bold spinner “loves a challenge”, according to England and Mumbai Indians all-rounder Natalie Sciver-Brunt.
“Even in her debut series for India, I saw her attack the stumps and make life difficult for batters.”
Charlotte Edwards, former England captain and incumbent head coach of Mumbai Indians, believes Saika’s personality shines through her bowling.
“She’s a real competitor and certainly a character,” Edwards told Al Jazeera.
“She’s a bit different – look how she’s got the blonde locks now!”
Goswami is credited with bringing Saika to the WPL.
“Ahead of the auction, I asked Jhulan, ‘Who’s the best left-arm spinner who’s not played for India yet?’ And she said it was Saika and sent me a video of hers,” Edwards said.
“I watched it immediately and knew instantly she was a player we wanted.”
It did help that Saika had long been a reliable wicket-taker in domestic cricket, where she has taken 140 wickets and had put in the hard yards in nearly 12 years.
From Park Circus to the big stage
Despite her domestic success, financial challenges – including costs involved in playing the game consistently and the historically limited earning opportunities for female cricketers in India – often threatened to pull Saika away from the sport.
“In many ways, the onus was on us, her Bengal teammates and the Cricket Association of Bengal, to ensure Saika doesn’t become one of the thousands of cricketers we have lost due to the lack of financial security,” Goswami said.
The tall Indian fast-bowling great gave Saika her first cricket kit but plays it down.
“Whoever could chipped in to ensure that Saika finished her schooling and kept her cricket career going. The rest is all down to her own dedication, determination and destiny.”
Saika’s first brush with cricket came on the streets of Park Circus.
Her father, encouraged by his friend, enrolled Saika in a local cricket club where she started out as a fast bowler but occasionally kept wickets too. It was at the insistence of an instructor at Vivekananda Park that the naturally left-handed Saika traded pace for spin.
“What struck me when I first saw her videos and in person was that she was slightly quicker than most left-arm spinners,” Edwards said.
“She had the ability to bowl in the powerplay, and that’s a real strength for left-arm spinners. She was really accurate in terms of what she brought to the table.”
With every wicket Saika took for Mumbai Indians – 15 in 10 matches, making her the only Indian spinner in the top 10 wicket-takers in the league – Edwards remembers turning to Goswami in the dugout to express her wonder.
“I’d tell Jhulan: ‘We’ve got the best left-hand spinner in India for 10 lakh rupees [$12,000] – an absolute steal!,’” Edwards recalled.
“And look, she is playing for India now.”
A fighter armed with a killer instinct
It’s a long way from where Saika found herself only three years ago. Grounded by a long shoulder-injury layoff, she lost her accuracy and rhythm to the extent that she had to be dropped from her state team.
Worried about her rapid decline, former India women’s cricketer and national selector Mithu Mukherjee put her in touch with former Bengal left-arm spinner Shibsagar Singh. Under his watch, Saika gradually rediscovered her bowling mojo and went back to her wicket-taking ways.
“The Saika I have known all these years has had that indomitable spirit: to bounce back and fight tooth and nail to overcome any hardships on and off the field,” Goswami said.
“She’s a fighter, and the adversities she faced from a young age have armed her with a killer instinct.”
Saika’s steady rise in 2023 augurs well for India as they look to build up to next year’s T20 World Cup in Bangladesh.
“The journey has just begun for Saika,” Goswami said.
“Given the ups and downs she has faced, I’d love to see her place a bejewelled crown of pride and prosperity on her mother’s head. And that would be some story, wouldn’t it?”