How the next generation of Thai women's cricket is being shaped in Pune
Nattakan Chantam and Nattaya Boochatham, two of Thailand's best-known women cricketers, go down in a bow in unison, greeting me with warm smiles as we sit down for a chat at Pune's PYC Hindu Gymkhana. The gesture is an ice-breaker - any language barrier is thrown out of the window right away.
"India trip finishing, tired now," says Chantam and the two laugh as we sit down with a cup of tea. Harshal Pathak, the Thailand women head coach, pats them on their backs and says, "Well done."
The team are close to finishing a month-long batting camp in Pune, part of Pathak's intensive programme to get them ready for the biggest moment of their careers - Thailand's maiden T20 women's World Cup, in Australia next February.
While this trip was restricted to the core group of batters, the full team will return in December for a camp, followed by a set of practice matches against various state teams in India. For the moment, Chantam and Boochatham have a bit more expertise and lots of happy memories to take back home.
We sit in the plush PYC lobby, overlooking the majestic gymkhana grounds with their old-world charm. Pune's monsoon calls for steaming cups of tea and plenty of hot snacks. Chantam, 23, nicknamed Jeans, is bubbling with the enthusiasm and eagerness of a young cricketer enjoying the local cuisine in a foreign country. "I enjoy paani puri and aloo tikki," she says, before sheepishly looking at the coach. I ask Pathak in jest if he has objections to the opinions expressed. "As long as you hit sixes, it's all good," he laughs. "Butter chicken and butter naan too," Chantam says, "but now coach says, 'No naan', so we eat chapatti."
Boochatham, nicknamed Fon, is the vice-captain. At 32, she's the senior statesman, and obsessed with cricket. She was so mad at missing Harmanpreet Kaur's epic 171 not out in the World Cup semi-final against Australia that she ensured she had a cable connection set up at home in time for the World Cup final.
Here in India, she watched Virat Kohli's majestic unbeaten 254 during the recent Pune Test. "She kept asking questions, she was very inquisitive," Pathak says. "We were sitting together along with Harshad Khadiwale, the Maharashtra opener. The three of us were chatting away non-stop. For the girls, seeing four slips was a culture shock. They saw Kagiso Rabada let it rip. Kohli playing the pull to a bouncer thrilled them.
"Every now and then, I'd ask them: what would you do if you were captain? What field would you set? And every time she would have an answer."
For a month, both players were engaged in an intense routine far removed from their life back home, where Chantam loves playing softball in the afternoon or just sleeping in. Boochatham is the more adventurous; she enjoys snorkelling, scuba-diving, whale-watching, and spending time on the beach. "Here, we haven't had much time, it's cricket, cricket, cricket," she says contentedly.
Back home too, it is much the same. When not engaged with the national team, Boochatham goes from school to school, across provinces, trying to teach young kids the basics of the game with a plastic ball, and with the hard ball for those who take the next step. This has led her to being a contracted coach too, during the off season: she is a player, vice-captain, offspinner, middle-order batter and talent scout, all in one.
For now, she is happy to be taught, and the lessons learnt in Pune, from centre-wicket practice, match simulation, facing quick bowlers in the range of 130kph, and playing with the Under-19 boys' teams has been enlightening.
In Pathak they have a friend and mentor whom they affectionately address as "Coach". At the same gymkhana grounds many years ago, Pathak trained a young Harmanpreet to become a complete batsman that she is today. He has been involved in coaching for over a decade, with the age-group structure in Maharashtra. He was assistant coach when Maharashtra last made the Ranji Trophy final in 2014-15.
Pathak took over as coach of the Thailand women's team in November 2018, when Venkatapathy Raju, the former India spinner, recommended him to the Cricket Association of Thailand. A trip to Bangkok satisfied Pathak of the potential, and the facilities on offer, and he took up the role.
"On the first day of the camp last year, I told them, 'We're not having nets. It will only be centre wicket practice,'" Pathak says. "That's largely a method I've followed. Here in Pune, every day I challenged Jeans and Fon. We had specific targets for ten overs, and slowly we increased the number of runs they have to score. It's a battle: there's something to play for, rather than aimlessly hitting balls at the nets."
These match-simulation drills were their start to the girls' days in Pune. They were followed by a short break, after which Pathak would put them in an open net, and pair them up with Maharashtra and India Under-19 cricketers. Among the regular visitors were Khadiwale, a Ranji Trophy veteran, and Jay Pande, the Maharashtra batsman.
"I'd give them targets like 30 off 12 balls, give them fields - only four fielders inside the ring, three outside on one side," Pathak says. "If they don't bowl to the field and the batsman hits to the open leg side, the bowler has to fetch it. This was just a way of trying to get them bowl to the fields."
The pair would regularly be confronted with brisk pace, 130 clicks and upwards. They struggled, but are better off for the experience. Pathak kept reminding them Ellyse Perry and Shabnim Ismail wouldn't lob gentle deliveries at them.
"I have bruises on my knee despite wearing batting pads," Chantam says. "First day, I was scared, because I was hit thrice. I had only played 90kph speeds, so I had to develop quick hands to time the ball. First day, I couldn't put bat to ball. Now I am more confident."
One intense match simulation and open net later, they would break for lunch. Afternoon naps were out of the question, because that time was for spoken-English classes. It wasn't forced upon them, but something the pair willingly wanted to put their time to. They would spend three hours with a private tutor, and return late afternoon for an hour's rest before hitting the gym.
Rainy evenings in Pune left them with one final session at the indoor nets, before going to bed at 9pm. The programme was so rigorous and time-bound that a week into the trip, they didn't need alarms to wake up for the light yoga sessions that kicked the day off.
"Off the field, we encourage them to do a lot of yoga, meditation and visualisation," Pathak says. "Calm minds make better decisions, and batting is about decision-making. You're facing the fast bowlers, you're facing your fears. You have to react in a split-second. And that decision will determine your success. They're taught breathing techniques to help them retain their calmness. The mantra is 'positive off the field, aggressive on the field'."
Weekends were reserved for matches with the boys' team. The girls would be on opposing sides, often leading. Pathak would walk around the boundary, observing their mannerisms and tactics, and chip in if needed. "I'll ask them why they've set one particular type of field. If they convinced me, I'd be okay with that," Pathak says. "They should know why they're doing it.
"Tactically both of them, and the rest of the team has grown leaps and bounds."
The intense routine took a toll on the girls' minds at times, and Pathak received helpful inputs from his wife, Shweta Mishra, a former opening batter for Madhya Pradesh, who now coaches Pondicherry's Under-19 and Under-23 sides. "Sometimes, she'd chip in and tell me if I've been harsh with my training routines, to understand the mindset of the players," Pathak says. "Sometimes, she would offer them tips and suggestions, make them feel comfortable, talk to them, hear them out.
"At the end of the day, you don't just coach them to be better players but better people too. For me, this experience of coaching Thailand has been about understanding what players feel good about, what makes them tick, what their training routines are like on a match day, how much pressure to put them under, how to put them in situations where they'll find a way for themselves."
Pathak is clear in his vision. "We have to practise our methods at higher intensity - batting against higher speeds, facing up to better spinners, bowl against tougher batters, where there's little margin for error. Right now, these girls are at the proficiency of an Under-16 men's team. I want to take it to the Under-19 men's team. How far they've come is credit to their hard work and commitment. Now it's about ensuring they become household names in their country and inspire the next generation of kids."