Archana Devi, the promising 18-year-old Indian off-spinner, played a crucial role in her team's ICC Women's U19 T20 World Cup 2023 triumph, as she took two wickets and a spectacular catch in the final against England on Sunday, 29 January.
Her journey to this stage, however, is beyond spectacular.
That, romanticizing and believing that dreams are a universally accessible phenomenon, is an act of insouciance. It is often said that ‘a single dream is more powerful than a thousand realities,’ but for many, reality stands in the way of dreams.
For Archana Devi reality took its most raucous form.
Long before she experienced the delight of South Africa, Devi had to endure the dim and drab of Ratai Purwa – a tiny village in Uttar Pradesh’s Bangarmau, where she hails from. Growing up in a slum by the Ganges, at a dilapidated mud house, harbouring dreams was almost a crime.
The problems were only compounded when Archana lost her father at a tender age, while in 2017, her younger brother passed away from a snake bite. The family was left with all but one earning member – her mother, who would work at others’ farms to make ends meet.
To dream about playing an expensive sport like cricket, was nowhere near the periphery of a family whose immediate objective was to have something on the plate. But fortunately for Archana, and on a broader perspective, for Indian women’s cricket, the youngster had a couple of messiahs.
The Journey to Kanpur
Poonam Gupta, Archana’s teacher at her government-run school, once dreamt of donning the prestigious blue shirt, and signing the national anthem in front of thousands. She also attended cricket coaching, but unfortunately, not every dream is meant to be realised.
Yet, she is now reliving her dream through her student. After seeing Archana is naturally athletic, and could do well with the ball when asked to, she took the youngster to her coach, Kapil Dev Pandey.
Reminiscing the beginning of the prodigy’s journey, Pandey told The Quint in an exclusive chat “Poonam brought Archana to my academy some seven years ago. She informed how the kid lost her father at a tender age, and the family was plagued with financial difficulties.”
Archana’s mother never stopped her from chasing after her dreams, but barring moral support, there was not much either she, or her elder brother could offer, with the latter also struggling to find a job to support her sister.
With no money to either pay the academy fees, or buy kits, the onus was on the coach and the teacher to not let the child’s dreams have an unceremonious conclusion.
Pandey, who also happens to be the coach of Indian spinner Kuldeep Yadav, recollected “Seeing her financial struggles, we decided to make some arrangements from our end, cause we simply could not let the child be on her own and go back to her village.”
“We rented a place nearby, so that she does not have to commute daily from her village. With the help of a few friends, and then the Kanpur Cricket Association, her daily ration was also taken care of. We waived the coaching fee, while for the cricket gear, we approached Kuldeep for help. He was already an established cricketer, so he would send everything that she needed,” the coach informs.
Second Big Challenge: Transformation Into an Off-Spinner
With the personal difficulties sorted, the next step was to ensure a thriving professional career. While she was decent enough as a medium pacer, Pandey thought her road to the Indian team will be considerably smoother, should she somehow master the art of off-spin.
“The kid started as a medium pacer, but I had noticed a few problems and asked her to learn off-spin instead. It is a dying art these days, but any good spinner still holds the ability to dismiss the best batters of the world. I tried something different with Kuldeep, with his left-arm wrist spin, and it turned out to be a successful operation. Hence, the plan for similar for Archana – to stand apart from the crowd,” he justified.
Taking No Time in Making an Impression
After establishing herself in the Uttar Pradesh women’s team, Archana kept knocking on the national selectors’ doors, before one such knock was finally answered and she got a chance to represent her nation in the series against New Zealand U19, in November 2022.
Having already fought, and won a million battles before her debut, she could not let the ultimate battle go in vain. With the dreaded destitutions fuelling her fire, she was India’s most effective bowler with three wickets, including the wicket of the opposition’s leading run-scorer, Isabella Gaze.
Then came a flight to Pretoria, for a series against South Africa, and the outcome was similar. Archana scalped three wickets in the first match itself, before adding another wicket and 5 runs to her name in the next fixture.
Her coach, pride evident in his tone, remains confident ahead of the event. He concludes “There was a friendly game happening in Unnao, where Archana fainted while fielding. After diagnosis, the doctor informed us that she had not eaten before the game. Imagine a kid playing matches in the gruelling heat, without the means to afford food. It is really special that with her dedication and perseverance, she has made it to this level. Now, there must be no looking back.”