In a ramshackle household in Uttar Pradesh’s Katghar, by the banks of river Yamuna, six people celebrated news from abroad. For the majority of their lives, their realm was restricted to the locality. Now, however, they are more interested in updates from the far-flung South Africa, as they heard India have won the ICC Women's U19 T20 World Cup 2023.
Already harbouring seven members, the single-room house with a tin roof could not harbour aspirations for much of its existence. Now, however, the circumstance is different, for the pride of the locality, Falak Naz is a world champion.
Falak’s father, Nasir Ahmad works as a peon in a school. With her mother being a homemaker, and ailing grandparents to care for, her elder brother had to give up his aspirations of higher studies to work at a local cycle repair shop.
It also meant that Falak’s academics never came to an abrupt conclusion like her brother’s, but the effervescent, vivacious kid was more appealed by the grass than the pages of her books.
The Journey to Prayagraj
That, there were no girls to provide her company in her ordeal, with sports not particularly being considered a ‘thing for women’ in her locality, proved to be too insignificant an impediment for Falak, who would rather challenge the boys than curb her dreams.
Yet, her father was determined to help her daughter shoot from the stars, beyond the clutches of the slums where he spent his entire life. In Ahmed’s dilapidated household, compromise was the norm to trudge along with time, but when it came to her daughter’s ambitions, he was ready to move the mountains. To facilitate the kid’s growth as a cricketer, he took Falak to a new school – Dr Kailash Nath Katju Inter-College.
There were a couple of reasons behind the journey from Katghar to Prayagraj – firstly, her new school was among the rare ones in the locality to have a girls’ cricket team, but to make things better, the sports teacher of the school and former cricketer, Ajay Yadav had just opened an academy for girls.
Desire, Hunger and the Drive to Success
With society doing its share by hurling enough obstacles in the way of these kids’ dreams, Yadav tried to do his part by eliminating perhaps the biggest obstacle, that is, financial obligation in the form of coaching fees.
Speaking to The Quint, the coach reminisced his first interaction with Falak, as he now proudly goes on informing everyone how his student is representing the nation.
“Falak was 12 when she came to me. Our academy was still in its blooming stage, as we had started operations only three months prior. The technical aspects of her game were rudimentary, she was not aware of the intricacies of the game. When the umpire would signal a wide or a no ball, she would stare at him with a puzzled look on her face, not comprehending what mistake she committed," he says.
Yet, amid a lack of knowledge about the game, what Falak had in abundance was an indomitable will. Yadav adds “But you ask her to bowl and hit the stumps, and she would do it effortlessly. Surprisingly enough, we had a tournament to play soon after she joined and despite not being well-trained, she played a crucial role in making us champions.”
Rubbing Shoulders With the Boys
It took all but one competitive tournament for Yadav to discern that keeping the pacer restricted to the girls’ team would only hinder her growth, for she was meant for much bigger things.
“After that tournament, it was clear to me that keeping her restricted to school-level cricket would only mean a massive waste of talent and opportunity. But how do we help her grow when in our region, there simply wasn’t a girl better at the game? So we took a call and asked her to play specifically against the boys,” he says.
Recollecting what drove the 18-year-old from Katghar to South Africa, her coach says “Falak is a tireless worker – leisure was just not for her. She would play three games per day, and all of those matches will be against boys. In only one year, she had the chance to play in a BCCI-organised tournament.”
Returning From an Injury, With a New Skill in the Bag
Yet, Falak's story is not a fairytale devoid of unforeseen complications. Exactly when it seemed that her path to the senior team was paved with flowers, when she was already on the radar of the national selectors, the youngster sustained a career-threatening injury.
But miraculously enough, instead of letting it curb her development, she ended up utilising it to learn a new trade.
Yadav tells us “Things went wrong when she suffered an injury after that tournament. For someone who knew nothing but cricket, it was tough to sit on the sidelines. It takes time to regain rhythm and pace after an injury, but with Falak not being the most patient, I advised her to learn leg spin instead. Now, though she remains a medium pacer, she can also bowl leg-spin if needed.”
Having donned the precious blue, albeit at the U19 level, Falak now remains determined of replicating her idol, Jhulan Goswami’s achievements. Her coach informs “Jhulan Goswami has always been her biggest inspiration. She would say ‘Mujhe Jhulan didi ki tarah banna hai' (I want to be like Jhulan didi). But many of her friends call her ‘lady Bhuvneshwar Kumar’ owing to a similar action.”
The road, however, will be interminable. The journey, however, will be arduous. The deterrents, however, will be unyielding. But beyond all of that lies the shimmering victory line, and having achieved victories in battles aplenty since her childhood, Falak Naz is prepared not to let the fire burn down, and the desire wear out.