Praful Naik, 61, still remembers the day in 2012 when he spotted India’s left-arm spinner at the ongoing T20 World Cup in Australia, Radha Yadav, play tennis ball cricket in the building compound of Kandivali, a Mumbai suburb. The one-time club cricketer turned coach was there to see his niece but what caught his eye was Radha, just 11 then, charging towards a boy who was stubbornly holding on to the bat despite getting out, and grabbing his collar.
Naik, who learnt the finer points of the game from Mumbai’s legendary coach the late Ramakant Achrekar, was impressed by the girl’s passion for the game and also her skills with both bat and ball. He would ask Radha to take him to his father, a vegetable seller. Naik was doing a Achrekar. He wanted to take charge of the girl with a spark and for that he wanted parental approval. Initially, the father was reluctant but what saw him change his mind was Naik’s pitch about cricket having the potential to get her daughter permanent employment. “I knew that they couldn’t afford this sport. The family of five — Radha’s parents and her two brothers — lived in a very small house. I told the father that if nothing else cricket can get Radha a job in the Railways. This clicked and he straightaway said yes and since that day he gave full responsibility of his daughter,” Naik recalls.
On Saturday, at Melbourne, Radha’s spell of 4-0-23-4 helped India restrict Sri Lanka to 113/9 in the final league game of the T20 World Cup. Later Shafali Verma’s 37-ball 47 that had 7 fours and 1 six saw India registering an easy seven-wicket win with 32 balls to spare. With their place in the semi-final already confirmed, the Lankan scalp saw India top the group with an all-win record.
Interestingly, spin was not Radha’s first choice. As a child playing gully cricket, she had a long run-up, loved to run in fast and bowl quick. However, Naik immediately after taking Radha under his wings asked her to shorten the run-up. Later, he suggested her to try left-arm spin. The switch from pace to spin is proving to be a game-changer for Radha.
While Radha was growing up, the profile of the women’s game in India was growing. In Mumbai, with the clubs wanting to give the girls competitive games, started to organise mixed games in the under-16 category. Radha was now pitted against Mumbai’s best young talent. In age-cricket, she has matched her wits against the city’s batting prodigies — India opener Prithvi Shaw and Mumbai Ranji star Sarfaraz Khan.
In 2015, Radha found herself at a crossroad. The part-time coach Naik, who used to work as a captain at Hotel Centaur, was retiring. Tired of Mumbai’s hectic life, he wanted to move to Baroda, along with her daughter, Radha’s best friend and a budding cricketer. Suddenly, Radha’s cricketing dream seemed over. Naik wasn’t going to be around when she needed his coach and mentor the most.
That’s when the Yadavs took a life-changing call. “Her father said, she is your daughter, please take her along,” Naik explained. But things weren’t that simple. The coach first checked with Baroda cricket body if Radha could switch states. He was told that all that was needed was an address proof. “And for that I had to be Radha’s legal guardian and so me and his father signed a legal document,” recalls Naik. Now, Naik was much more than a coach to Radha.
Moving base from Mumbai to Baroda proved to be a blessing in disguise for Radha. She went to lead Baroda under 19 and the senior team and later went onto play for India. Her graceful action, teasing loop and precise break made Radha an asset to any team she played. Her ability to hold back the ball and force the batters to play a false shot played a big role in she giving India important breakthroughs in Melbourne today.
Naik says her action is natural but adds that he did take his student to former India cricketer Mohinder Amarnath for a second opinion. “He (Amarnath) said don’t worry the girl will do well. Lot of hard work has gone in the making of Radha. We used to do endless sessions of spot bowling, we taught her how to use the bowling crease and vary the pace. We played in rains with rubber balls which are hard to control,” Naik revealed. As Radha grew in stature, she got BCCI’s central contract. Life for his family too changed. The father no longer sells vegetables. He manages a shop that’s called the Radha General store.