THE LONG ROAD BACK
Mansi Joshi makes her national comeback after eight months of injury lay-off. © Getty
It was only her second match since Mansi Joshi had lived a long-cherished dream of representing her country in a World Cup. Bangladesh A were on a limited-overs tour and Joshi had missed the one-day series opener in Hubli, recovering from a week-long viral. She started with a maiden, got the hosts a breakthrough in her second over and was into her third when she experienced a sharp pain in her left knee. Nonetheless, she persisted and bowled a fourth over too. By then though the pain had steadily increased with each delivery she sent down, and incapacitated her. Joshi left the field clutching her knee and fearing the worst.
The MRI scan revealed a cartilage injury, with considerable swelling under the kneecap. After the prescribed two weeks’ rest, the 24-year-old pacer checked into NCA on December 24 to begin rehab under the guidance of former men’s team’s physiotherapist, Ashish Kaushik. Something as basic as walking was difficult then. Kaushik and his team’s immediate focus was on reducing the swelling under the patella. It took about five days of medication before Joshi could walk around pain-free. At the time she didn’t know it will be six months before she can bowl another delivery.
Joshi’s rehab wouldn’t have taken as long if not for the multiple medical setbacks she suffered from time to time. A couple of times she was struck down by fever. Frequent visits to the cooler climes of Dehradun, her hometown, meant she also picked up cold. It seemed harmless at the time but only worsened, and to the extent that Joshi ended up with minor fractures in her ribs as a result of severe coughing. Later, it was a stomach infection that sent her back to the hospital and on a coconut water diet for the first four days of recovery.
In the beginning, every time her rehab had to be stalled, Joshi was riddled by fear and doubts about whether she’d be able to run again, let alone bowling fast. The sleepless nights were spent mindlessly surfing TV channels, listening to Rajesh Khanna songs or watching cartoons to distract herself from the negativity that was building up inside. Some mornings, she broke down in the shower. Being away from home also took its toll.
“I would make some progress on the injury front and then pick up something entirely different that forced me to pause my rehab till I fully recovered from it. That was the most frustrating part of it,” the Haryana cricketer recalls on the sidelines of Women’s T20 Challenger Trophy in Alur. She’s still sporting heavy taping on both her knees, and it’s here to stay for at least few more weeks, but it’s only just a precaution Joshi assures.
“I didn’t want to call someone and hassle them, but many a time I cried in the shower. It’s not easy to suddenly move away from cricket, as cliched as it may sound. My maasi [maternal aunt] would call me to cheer me up every now and then. My whole family, my coach, my close friends, they kept talking positive things to me to keep me from getting depressed.”
The warm reception India Women got upon their arrival from London after the World Cup, where Joshi had played only a handful of games, fuelled her determination to nail a permanent spot for herself in the team by 2018 World T20. From her winnings, Joshi gifted her coach Virender Singh Rautela a car “he had been planning to buy for months” as “gurudakshina” before completely shifting focus to the off-season training even though the Indian team wasn’t due to play an international match for next six months. She worked tirelessly on the feedback from Rautela, and that of the then Indian coach Tushar Arothe. Only for it to be flushed down the drain just 14 overs into her first competitive assignment of the season.
“For about a month-month and a half I was very anxious. I felt frustrated because I had just about made it to the Indian team. I had played well, performance wise it was an upward curve. And then to suddenly be sitting totally out of action, it was quite difficult to digest. It was mentally tough to cope up with… I had done a lot of hard work in the off-season and was fully geared up but it was tough mentally to make peace with the fact that I would be missing the entire domestic season. India’s South Africa tour was barely a month away, and I knew [Australia and] England were touring immediately after, and that kept bothering me – the fact that I’ll probably miss all [the series].”
At NCA, a typical session lasted 30-45 minutes and included about five different exercises for the knee. This was followed by a gym session where the programme designed by the physios focussed on allowing the knee is time to heal and meanwhile strengthening her other muscles, like the upper-body, to avoid rustiness. Not in the right head space and itching to bowl again, Joshi initially found the slow pace of her rehab process mundane. To do the same exercises for days on end “irritated” her.
The expected omission from the squad list for the South Africa tour, India’s first international assignment since finishing runners-up at the World Cup, was the pinch Joshi needed to stop feeling sorry for herself. It was fairly obvious she won’t be able to make it, but something had changed. “I was barely even able to walk, let alone bowling, but it still hurt. It hurt, as well as motivated me.” Her next target was the home series against England, but she overshot her deadline due to yet another unwanted pause in her rehab. “Then I made up my mind. I was adamant that I have to be fit in time before the next season starts. World T20 is my dream and I knew I had only so much time to get back on my feet.
“I know I want to be on that plane to West Indies and I kept repeating this to myself everyday. We fell marginally short of bringing home the one-day cup, so that made me more determined. I felt irritated [by the daily exercises] but I kept pushing myself saying that ‘this is what you have to do if you’ve to be fit to play that World Cup’. And winning it for India is my dream, that’s what motivated me to power through these eight months.”
When Joshi learnt about India’s Sri Lanka tour in September, she saw it as a potential comeback opportunity and set herself a realistic deadline this time – the Challenger Trophy in August, the performances during which would influence what team is picked. Aching to be on the field again, Joshi recalls she would often go to bed with a ball by the side of her pillow at night. Kaushik suggested Gita and Yuvraj Singh’s biography (autobiography?), among some other motivational books and she made it a point to read some every day. “I read up about more players who had gone through long injury lay-offs, I YouTubed their interviews to find out more about how they overcame such setbacks. That helped clear my mind.”
Joshi read extensively about Dale Steyn and his many trysts with injuries recently to draw inspiration from how the South African carried himself through it. During the process, she stumbled upon the Instagram feed of her idol. “And he’s fishing! And surfing, and chilling. In Bali, in Africa and everywhere he went, basically. That uplifted my morale big time! I told myself, ‘yes, it has happened, it can’t be changed and it’s okay’. See, this was the first of its kind major injury phase in my life and quite naturally, I was unnecessarily stressed out a lot. But slowly as the recovery graph kept going up, and when I read stories like these, I could see myself being happy again. At peace with it all.”
Powar’s words of encourgement were the biggest vindication of Joshi’s arduous journey. © Cricbuzz
It was a refreshing change of pace for Joshi who now instead of locking herself up indoors and sulking, had now started utilising the rest of her day better. “I’ve seen so many movies in this time, even the ones I probably shouldn’t have!” she chuckles. During her morning and evening walks she noticed she wasn’t any different to a local fruit vendor or daily-wage worker she crossed on her route everyday. “Mehnat toh sabhi kar rahe hain, yaar, [everybody I came across was working very hard no matter what the circumstances]. Your inspiration doesn’t necessarily have to be someone rich or famous, after all.”
Walking down Bangalore’s MG Road one day, Joshi met a small girl – third or fourth grader, she estimates – who came begging. She instead took her shopping for clothes and books, while the girl seemed puzzled and excited in equal measure. “She wasn’t wearing any shoes, so first thing I bought a couple of sandals for her.” Joshi can’t recall the exact number of kids she’s helped this way during her time in Bangalore. “I can’t see kids barefoot, I feel very bad. I do this in Dehradun also. Whenever I came across any, it just felt like the least I could do those underprivileged kids.”
There was a lot of me-time too, to introspect, and diary writing increased significantly as a result. “Things like how do I bowl, what do I do wrong when I bowl a loosener, my batting, my diet. I feel when you’re injured or recovering, you get a lot of time to look within oneself. I know my body better now – the exercises that suit me and the ones that don’t; what food suits me and what doesn’t. After this injury phase I can confidently say that not only am I more polished as a cricketer but also as a human being. This phase has taught me patience. I’m a very calm person now.”
Wriddhiman Saha and Mohammad Shami would frequently bump into Joshi at the NCA and encouraged to surrender herself completely to training as the only way of emerging out of this quicker. Tad late, but she tried her hand at meditation too. In Subroto Banerjee, who was around for the Under-23 team’s camp, Joshi found another mentor who gave her a little pep talk after observing her routine for a few days. “He said, ‘I’ve seen the fighter in you, who wants to keep fighting and doesn’t want to give up’. That gave me a lot of confidence… I was very lucky that every person I met had a positive influence on me.”
Kaushik would sit her down every time fresh MRI results came and made her understand her progress. Tracy Fernandes, Indian team’s physio, had also kept in touch throughout to monitor the recovery. So did some of her national teammates “every time I uploaded a photo from there as my WhatsApp status”.
With June came the day she’d most eagerly awaited. “I lied down on the ground for a bit before I went for that first run. I had woken up so full of energy that morning and I was looking forward to that running session. It felt so liberating. I felt very blessed to be able to run again, to be able to just stand on my feet again and not feel any pain. That first run gave me immense confidence. I wasn’t sure if I’ll get through it without any discomfort but I must say I exceeded my expectations.”
Around the same time, she called back home to have her kit couriered to Bangalore; Kaushik had given the green signal to start bowling again. While she didn’t hold back her excitement, her grandmother couldn’t help but shed a tear of joy. She vividly remembers it was a two over-stint in the indoor nets, albeit with a significantly reduced run up as a part of precaution. Joshi gradually resumed bowling with her normal run-up in a month’s time from there, before being set free on July 14 – well in time for Indian team’s camp annual NCA camp. Even though her relieving date was told to her a week in advance, there was no big celebration. “Just a big sigh of relief, that’s it.”
Back at NCA, she also underwent the Yo-Yo Test with her old teammates, and found the 15.1 benchmark “fairly easy”. However, the biggest vindication of her painstaking journey came a fortnight later after an intra-squad game when Ramesh Powar applauded Joshi for her attitude and remarked in a team meeting that “it doesn’t seem like this girl hasn’t bowled in eight months”. Joshi says it’s down to the fact that once she builds her confidence back, she never lets anything break her. “Even though I was far from bowling an over all those months, I was mentally visualising myself playing cricket every single day. And that helped me immensely when I set foot on the field for the first time since that injury. I had played it over in my head every day that it helped a lot, practically. Just because it was very important for me to have that belief in myself and my abilities, that I can emerge out of this stronger and better. After the initial period, I kept myself mentally very strong.”
Joshi will be making her much-anticipated comeback during the September tour of Sri Lanka, where she’s been picked in both the limited-overs squads, but the long-term goal remains being a permanent feature of India’s playing eleven with the world event only two months away now. And even though a vacancy has been created there, in the wake of Jhulan Goswami’s T20I retirement, Joshi isn’t taking anything for granted. The tedious injury spell is a thing of past, she insists, while the learnings from that lay-off are not. “What I’ve learnt from this is that it’s very important to keep yourself stable in times like these when you’re sitting out. Negativity can pull you down drastically. An important part [of the comeback journey] is being positive and having that self-belief, whether you’re a cricketer or not. At one point I used to curse this phase as a bad time, but now I can say that these eight months have made me wiser. No time is ever wasted.”