Keeping the Game & Grace

From a challenging childhood to being a name in Indian women’s cricket, Nukala Sunitha Anand’s journey has been that of hard work, grit, and perseverance. On the eve of Navaratri 2014, in the calm and serene Art of Living International Ashram, Sunitha talks about cricket, spirituality, and the inspiration Sri Sri personifies to her.

Q: How did you develop a love for the game of cherry and willow (read: cricket)?

I was born in Razole, an East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh. Cricket was a household affair for us. My father was an avid cricket lover and we used to watch cricket together. I also developed a liking for cricket and started coaching for the game. My school, Keyes High School, provided me my first cricketing lessons. When I was 11, my dad passed away, bringing my coaching to a halt. Despite everybody telling me to pursue studies, I pursued cricket, as it was my dad’s dream to see me become a cricketer. My mom gave me a lot of support even though she was herself in a lot of trauma, and I never looked back from there. It only doubled my commitment and passion towards the game. My teammate and India captain Mithali Raj’s dad, Dorai Raj, who incidentally is my first coach, supported me to continue improving my game. He treated me like his own daughter and helped me with my fees, kit, and uniform. He would always say “I am there for you,” providing that gigantic strength.

Q: How did you rise up the ladder of women’s cricket in India?

I was representing my school initially as a specialist wicketkeeper-batsman and then went on to play state-level cricket. Post 2006, I played with the Hyderabad women’s team. I performed consistently and well in the national arena. The national selectors were looking for a wicketkeeper for the India Team and picked me. I made my debut in the 2011-12 season for India. I represented India in West Indies and England (overseas); Australia (home series); the Asia Cup, where we emerged champions; and the recently concluded T20 World Cup.

Q: When did Art of Living and meeting Sri Sri happen?

When I was playing my nationals, I came to know about the course through my friend’s mother. My friend’s mom urged me to participate in the program, saying that it would help me achieve my goal. I did my YES!+ course with Tapan Vaidya in Hyderabad. I was simply blown away by the profound experience of the course. The Sudarshan Kriya, which is taught in the course, was a fantastic experience that made me experience tears of happiness. I was very curious to know about the person who designed the Sudarshan Kriya and asked my teacher. That was my first tryst with Sri Sri. I went on to do the advanced-level programs like the Silence Program, DSN, and Sahaj Samadhi. There was a marked changed in both my professional and personal life.

Q: How did the spiritual boost you received with the Art of Living courses and practices translate into cricketing excellence on the field?

As a wicket-keeper, I play a crucial role in the team's performance. I hold the key responsibility of holding the team together on the field by cheering up the players, especially the bowlers. There would be high-adrenaline moments when we would be required to control the scoring rate, pick up a wicket, or score quick runs. I would observe that I could maintain my composure through these situations and did not lose my cool. I could handle these situations with an increased ease. Post my courses, I performed very well in the following season with a lot of consistency and scored brownie points with the selectors.

Q: The game of cricket requires one to be physically agile and mentally tough and focus at the same time. Sometimes, environmental factors like tough cricketing conditions, indifferent crowds, and crunch situations do throw a spanner in the works. How do you sail through these?

I should be ever grateful to all the techniques I have learned on the course. They help me to be focused and relaxed at the same time. Being aware of my breath helps me to be alert on the field. In high-pressure situations too, I am able to focus and maintain myself. Sometimes, when the captain would be tensed herself and players unable to focus, I would still be able to cheer them up and peg their enthusiasm. My mind has much more acceptance for the world now, which helps me be at ease with whatever I do while playing. This strong mind has helped me rise up to every challenge and pedal out.

Q: You are a wicketkeeper. During matches, especially the limited-format ones, you keep behind wickets for 50 overs and then are sometimes required to walk in early and bat for 35–40 overs. This requires you to have incredible stamina and endurance in spite of having a limited diet. How do you manage these demands of the game?

In my case, there were many occasions when I had to come back and bat for a long time after grueling fielding sessions because we used to have two-day games too. I turned a complete vegetarian 4 years back. Many questions arose from all sides, especially my trainer and my physio, who countered my decision, saying I needed more strength and couldn’t turn vegetarian. In spite of this conflict, I remained a strict vegetarian and that has helped me grow more flexible on the physical front and keep my stamina optimal. Healthy vegetarian food helps me play for a long time. In addition to that, I am regular with my practice of yoga, Sudarshan Kriya, and meditation. That has helped me keep away tiredness and endure on the field for long periods of time. It came in handy for my T20 games too, which are much shorter and where you are supposed to be 200% on the field for the 200 minutes of the game.

Q: How do you blend your spiritual practice instructions into your cricketing practices and your fitness schedules? How do you achieve a balance?

I start my day with Sudarshan Kriya; then I go for my fitness sessions in the morning. Post that, I do Suryanamaskars and Padmasadhana. During state camps, we have evening sessions too, where we spend time in the nets; post these evening session, I spend time doing another round of Padmasadhana, mudra pranayama, and a session of meditation. For the last 3 months, I have been doing 108 Suryanamaskars every day, which have brought a marked change to my physical stamina.

Q: What does your diet consist of?

As I have mentioned earlier, I am a complete vegetarian. My diet consists of 60% carbohydrates – it gives me the stamina to play long. But my diet varies according to my weight. Sometimes, if I am putting on too much weight, I shift from a high-protein diet and prefer more carbohydrates. Carbohydrates help you to keep up your stamina through the day. I have cut down on my rice consumption and prefer daliya (cracked wheat) and oats. I prefer phulkas to rotis. I start my day with a mix of oats and muesli and my diet includes sprouts too. I like ragi (finger millet) a lot – it provides a balance to my diet.

Q: As a wicketkeeper, you are required to run up to the wicket 6 times an over and several hundred times in the innings to pass throws. How do you suit your breathing patterns to this?

I am eased out during the bowler’s run up, but when the bowler takes the last stride, I take an Ujjayi breath and sit down. If the ball comes to me, I take it or run up to take the throws. Once I hand the ball back, I take a few Ujjayi breaths to calm myself down and get back for the next delivery. The Ujjayi breath has helped me a lot to energize and relax at the same time. In T20 matches, sometimes we keep right behind the wickets for pacers too, to capitalize on stumping opportunities; in such situations, there are leg-side stumping chances too. Ujjayi breathing helps me stay alert and be razor sharp.

Q: Any interesting accounts to share from your games when this knowledge and techniques came in handy?

There was this one match we were playing in Goa. It was an uneven ground near the beach—we were playing at Panjim Gymkhana. We had already lost a match and were in a knockout situation there. The batting team needed 6 runs in the last over. The bowler was running up and my 6th sense started telling me that she is going to bowl a wide. My gut feeling was so strong that I moved leg-side and kept because a wide down the leg side would ensure winning runs as the field was kept close to stop the singles and twos. So I stood leg side. My captain always has confidence in me and allows me to take my own keeping calls. As I had sensed, the bowler bowled a wide and I took the ball behind, saving us at least 5 runs. We eventually ended up winning that match!

Q: Any other, if you can recollect?

Recently, during the India camp, I was playing against Mithali’s team. There were some wonderful dismissals I made in the form of caught-behinds and stumpings standing right behind the wickets, including the prized wicket of Mithali herself. They were really memorable because apart from the other wickets, I got a star batsman out in a challenging manner, which is really exciting.
In another incident, just before an India series, we were playing a practice match in Mysore. This was once again against Mithali's team and she was the one batting. I took her catch behind the wickets. It was a grey dismissal, as my team wasn’t sure I had taken the catch. I was sure of it, though. The umpire declared a not out. But Mithali started walking towards the pavilion as she had seen me take a clean catch. It was a very memorable moment.

Q: Sporting careers are often marked by graphs of highs and lows. Success and failure is a part and parcel of the game. How do you live up to the expectations given that India is a place of intense competition?

In the season before I made my international debut, something had gone wrong. My confidence had hit rock bottom and I started behaving like a beginner. I couldn’t take easy balls behind the wickets and my focus was clearly blurring. I performed badly in the first selection match. I walked to the captain and the coach and told them I had decided to hang my boots. I was clearly going into a shell. But they argued with me, saying I needed to continue playing and believe in myself. Everybody in the team talked to me and made me believe in myself. They even asked me to field instead of keeping. They insisted I come back to the second selection match. That is when Gurudev's knowledge came to my rescue. The points I learned in the Art of Living courses came back to me and I kept telling myself I could do it. I returned with confidence and performed exceedingly well in the next match and then that turned out to be my trump card. I made it to the international arena. What could have been the curtains to my career took me to the next level.