Home Interviews Esha Oza, ICC Associate Cricketer of the Year

Esha Oza, ICC Associate Cricketer of the Year

by Freddie

This month it was an absolute honour to get to speak to one of the rising stars of women’s cricket – the 2022 ICC Associate Cricketer of the Year, Esha Oza. She might not yet be a household name for everyone, but she’s the fastest player (from any country) to reach 1,000 runs in T20 internationals, eclipsing stars such as Charlotte Edwards, Sarah Taylor, Stafanie Taylor, Meg Lanning, Beth Mooney and Mithali Raj, she holds the record for the highest score by a UAE international in limited overs cricket, and she only just missed out on achieving the highest individual score in T20 internationals.

“I’m really proud of these feats and especially the fastest to 1,000 runs,” reflected Esha. “If I’m honest though, at the time I didn’t realise I’d broken the record! We were playing Qatar and I’d scored my second hundred. Once I went back to the hotel all these messages started pouring in. People were telling me I was the fastest player to reach 1,000 runs. I was being told I was quicker than all these big names. I was just like ‘wow’ is this real? It was such a good feeling!”

It certainly was real and Esha, who was born in Mumbai, has gone on to become one of the most exciting talents in associate cricket. Not only has she represented the UAE, but she’s been selected for the ICC’s Women ‘s Global Development Squad and you sense it’s only a matter of time before she’s picked up by a well-known franchise.

But where did it all start for this Queen of batting? “The first time I ever watched a game of cricket was the 2011 World Cup. I remember watching the final and seeing Dhoni win the game with a six. That really got me excited for the game. And I thought I really want to play this sport. So that’s how it began for me. I remember when I used to go back to India with my family for the summer break, I used to go and play cricket with my cousins, and I loved it.”

Like many other girls, her rise to the top wasn’t easy. “I should be honest and say that I was originally more into football, but in 2013, I found a cricket academy called Desert Cubs in Dubai. There weren’t many girls playing cricket at the time, so when I went there it was all boys. My parents said to the coaches that I’d like to join and start learning the game. They were honest and said that I’d be playing with the boys as there were no guys’ teams. I was fine with that. And playing with boys definitely helped me develop. Boys are way more competitive, especially when they’re playing against girls! They hate getting out to us and they don’t like it when you’re hitting them for runs. So that competitiveness definitely helped my game develop quicker.”

The more Esha played, the more she was beginning to get noticed and the more doors begun to open. One such door was an opportunity for a masterclass session with the great Sachin Tendulkar.

“That was incredible.  I was in Mumbai playing for the Mumbai State team and there was a camp happening, which I happened to join. And so, I got to interact with him and then for a few sessions I got to bowl to him. That’s something I’ll always remember!”

A year after joining the Desert Cubs Academy, at the age of just 15, Esha was representing the full UAE national side.

“At the time we were only playing against the other GCC countries (Omar, Qatar, and Kuwait). But in 2018 we played our first T20 international which was against the Netherlands in the global qualifiers for the T20 World Cup. That was a big jump for us as it was the first time, we were playing countries from different regions and that was an exciting experience. We played that tournament in the Netherlands, which made it even better. I mean the country, the vibe, the ground, it was a totally different experience for us. For me personally and as a team, it wasn’t that great. A lot was expected of me, and I couldn’t live up to the expectations that I wanted to. But I did really enjoy the experience and as a team, we won two games. One of those wins were for the seventh-place playoff, which we won in the super over after I took a diving catch. That was nice, as it won me the best catch of the tournament award.”

But then came that journey to the fastest 1,000 runs. It was a journey that included a brilliant 158* from 71 balls again Bahrain and a magnificent 67 ball 115 against Qatar. For the record, Esha reached the feat of 1,000 runs in just 31 innings. A phenomenal achievement.

“I really enjoyed that innings against Bahrain. That was one day where I just went out to bat and enjoyed myself. I middled the first ball, and it raced through to the boundary. I just knew it was going to be my day! Everything I hit seemed to go the boundary and I just felt I controlled everything that was happening. I don’t know how that happened. The night before I felt so nervous going to bed, maybe they were just good nerves!”

I asked Esha if those nerves returned when she was in the 90s and getting close to that first ton. “I just remember thinking if I get to a hundred, how should I celebrate? What should I do? Then having celebrated, and went on to 150, I had no idea how I should celebrate that milestone. The things that go through your mind…”

What Esha didn’t realise, was that if the last ball of that innings would have been hit for four, she would’ve have reached the highest T20 international score. “I stepped out towards the ball, and it was wide. But because I stepped out, the umpire didn’t give the wide and I just left it and the game ended there! At the time though I didn’t know. But I did keep hearing my teammates and other supporters all shouting, we need a boundary, we need a boundary. I was just like, okay, I’ll try but I didn’t know why!”

I’m sure it won’t be long until she gets another opportunity to break that record.

Esha’s exploits with the bat saw her named the ICC Associate Player of the Year.  “That was a proud moment. I mean, it’s great to be rewarded for something you’ve worked so hard for. You put in so much hard work over several years and when you get rewarded at international level, you obviously feel very happy. But not just for me, for my family. They’re all so proud of me and they’re happy that they’ve seen me put in the hard yards. They have helped me. They’ve done their bit and all these efforts have been recognised.”

But with success comes added pressure. The pressure of living up to increased expectations. “Expectations are so much higher for me now. I haven’t been at my best yet this year, and I know I can do much better. It’s not easy to keep up with expectations, but it is what it is. I mean it’s always great to be recognised, but with recognition comes the need to get even better.”

I asked Esha if this expectation has increased her levels of nervousness and the preparation, she puts into her cricket?

“I used to be nervous. I would go to the crease and tell myself to watch the ball. Hit the ball. Don’t get out. You just start talking to yourself. Maybe you start shivering a bit as well, and over think things. But over time you get over it and you get used to it. And now when I go out to bat, I have things sorted in my mind. I know what I must do, and it’s all become natural. In terms of preparation, I used to look a lot at bowlers. Watching them bowl. Looking at their actions. Seeing what they do. What their stock deliveries are. Do they turn it much. What kind of fields do they set. I used to do that a lot. But over time, and more recently I’ve preferred to do that less, because what I’ve learned is players are going to keep on evolving. Every day is not going to be the same. And you never know what your opponents are working on. What they’re planning for you. So, my mindset now is just to watch the ball and take one ball at a time. We played some games recently against the Lancashire Women’s team who’d come out on tour to Dubai, and we were playing against Kate Cross. So, I went on to YouTube to find videos of Kate Cross bowling and I saw her bowl all these good outswing deliveries. I’m like, she bowls pretty good away swingers with the new ball. We played them in a 50 over game and first ball she bowls a ball, it doesn’t swing, hits a spot and spins in like an off spinner and I’m out first ball. So, I don’t think I need to look at videos anymore. I’m just going to watch the ball instead!”

But what recognition does bring is an increase in opportunities. One of which is the brilliant FairBreak Invitational Tournament, a tournament that brings together the best players, coaches, match officials and managers from the women’s game. A total of 90 players from 36 countries spread across six teams.

“You get to play with and against some of the biggest names in the Women’s game. People you’ve sometimes only seen on TV before. For associate cricketers FairBreak is an opportunity to take your game to the next level. To score runs against, or take wickets against, the best players from Australia and England. I didn’t do brilliantly with the bat this year for the Warriors, but my bowling was working really well.”

I forgot to mention that Esha is just as skilled with the ball in hand! A genuine all-rounder.

But the value of FairBreak isn’t just on the field, but off it, sharing dressing rooms and realising these ‘stars’ are just humans. “When you start to interact with these great players, you realise they are just human and the real difference between us is just the amount of training that they do, the amount of experience that they have and the superior coaching and facilities that they have access to. If we had the same resources and played the same number of games, we could reach their levels.”

It’s a fair point.

One hopes the new WPL can be a real opportunity for the stars of associate cricket. “Definitely. This year only one associate cricketer was picked by a franchise, but at least they had a rule that the franchises could pick associate cricketers. I was on the auction list, but I didn’t get picked. But at least that is progress. Just making it to the auction list is a statement and I know if I work hard this year, play well at the next FairBreak, people might look differently at me next year.”

It really is a wonderful time to be part of the women’s game and great to see that doors are starting to open for players of all nationalities.

Away from franchises, the Women’s T20 World Cup remains a big career goal for Esha. She would love it for her UAE side to qualify. But she’s recognises it’s not going to be easy.

“The Women’s World Cup has been a 10-team tournament. So, basically eight teams are always automatically through. We have global qualifiers where all the winners from the regional tournaments battle it out. And then there are two more teams, which are ninth and 10th teams from last year’s World Cup who come in and play. So last year it was Bangladesh, Ireland, and then the others who qualified through the Pathway. We didn’t do that great. It was disappointing because up until the qualifiers, we were going great. We won something like 20 games in a row, but once we went into the qualifiers, we came seventh out of eight. We beat Zimbabwe, who were a higher ranked nation, but not all games went our way. That was a learning. The challenge for us is there’s always at least two standout teams that we must compete against. Half of our players have to go to work. They go to school. They go to college. They’re home by 4:00pm and then have training at six. We’re just doing this because we love to play the game. But when you see players from Bangladesh, they’re contracted, they wake up in the morning, they go and train, they come back, they go back in the evening and have another net session. On top of that, they go to the gym, they work on their strength and conditioning, and their only focus is cricket. So, it’s hard for to compete. It’s not that we can’t get beat these teams, we can. But it’s hard.”

But T20 is an interesting version of the game. Often all it takes is one game changing innings or spell of bowling to win a game. And with Esha in their squad, the UAE have every chance to cause some upsets and who knows, momentum is a wonderful thing. A few wins and the UAE could well find themselves taking one of those qualifying spots for the next World Cup.

But for now, Esha is looking ahead to the Asia Cup. “We’re traveling for the Emerging Teams Asia Cup. This is a tournament where all the ‘A’ sides from the full members teams, so, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, will compete against us, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Thailand. It’s a tournament I’m looking forward to. I really want us to show people that we are a good side. And personally, I just want to go out there and perform well for the team, be it batting, bowling, or fielding. After that we have the World Cup regional qualifiers coming up and then there’s the 3rd edition of the FairBreak which will be in the US in September.”

We can’t wait to follow Esha’s progress.

But I had to ask her in closing, what her long-term aspirations are. “My first goal is the 2025 T20 World Cup in England, which is going to have 12 teams, so that means four more teams, not just two. That makes it a big opportunity for us. I would love to take the UAE to a World Cup.”

And franchise cricket? “That is a goal. But I haven’t kept that too strongly in my mind. I mean, things will happen as they come. I just need to ensure that I keep performing and then what happens, happens. I just need to keep working hard and just keep ensuring that I perform well.”

I have absolutely no doubt she will. Esha is a very determined young cricketer and that determination, coupled with her undoubted ability, will ensure she has a very, very exciting future.

0 comment

Related Articles