Over the past year Ananya Upendran has journeyed through an incredible learning experience as the cricketer took up the offer to become the Managing Editor of Women’s CricZone and is successfully striking a balance between her two professions.

With over 15 years experience playing domestic cricket in India, Upendran needed a break from her daily routine of cricket practice and matches, so she got into writing and developing interests in various other hobbies as an escape from the monotony.

It has all turned out to be a positive journey so far as her experience of being a player in the game has allowed her to tap into the emotional side of many of the female cricketers that she has had the privilege of interviewing.

As a competitive person by nature, Upendran is taking her role one step at a time and has opened herself up to learning from her peers.

With a growing CV, what area of sport is she still eager to tap into? Celine Abrahams finds out!

Who is Ananya, and where you are speaking to gsport from under these COVID circumstances?

I am currently working as Managing Editor of Women’s CricZone – a media outlet dedicated to the coverage of women’s cricket. I’ve been playing domestic cricket in India for over 15 years – for the state, zone and for India A as well. I continue to pursue that alongside my work at Women’s CricZone.

I’m currently in my hometown of Hyderabad (a city in the southern part of India) due to COVID-19 related travel restrictions, but I work in Pune (in Maharashtra – the West) where Women’s CricZone is based.

 Talk to us more about that (COVID). What does your new normal look like?

Like for everyone else, COVID-19 has meant that I have been spending a bulk of my time indoors, but what I have realised is that I am working longer hours than I did otherwise. It’s strange to think that when sport has come to a standstill, the work hours for a cricket website have increased, but I suppose it means having to put in more effort to create good content without live sport!

On a more personal note, as an athlete, it hasn’t been easy staying indoors most of the time. I’ve had to make sure that I stay fit and get in whatever workouts and skill work that I can with all the work I have been doing of late. It’s been challenging, incredibly stressful, but quite rewarding as well.

Where does your passion for sport come from?

For as long as I can remember sport has been a part of my life. While I wouldn’t say I come from a ‘sporting family’ – in fact it’s quite the opposite – I come from a family of teachers, but we were always encouraged to go out and play. I played many sports when I was young. I did gymnastics, played football, basketball, tennis, did some swimming and running, even karate, before I stumbled upon cricket.

My grandfather (maternal) was the person who introduced me to cricket. He was a huge cricket buff and watched/ kept track of action everywhere. He had these diaries in which he recorded scores and records from all around the world. I began watching and playing cricket with him and my father, and that’s where my association with the game began.

And how was this interest channelled mainly to the game of cricket?

The 2000-2001 Australia tour of India was the series that got me glued to the game. I watched the game intermittently before that, but the excitement around that series was just something else.

After the Tests in Kolkata and Chennai I was hooked and there was no looking back. I suppose from then on, all I wanted as gifts were cricket-related things. I even painted a lot of my t-shirts with names of players on the back because I couldn’t get my hands on any jerseys!

Since I wasn’t aware of a pathway to play for the women’s team (I had only heard of Mithali Raj), I always dreamed of playing for the men’s team! At 12 or 13, it didn’t seem like a hard thing to do!

A couple of years later was when I started formal training, and things really kicked off after that.

How are you enjoying your role as editor of Women’s Criczone?

I took on the role a little over a year ago and it’s been quite a ride. I worked with Yash Lahoti – co-founder and CEO of Women’s CricZone – on the first issue of the Women’s CricZone magazine in May 2019 before accepting a full-time role at the organisation.

We’ve since gone from a three-member team to having 10 people on board. It’s been wonderful to see the organisation grow, and I’ve really enjoyed the experience so far.

“I have learnt so much just by watching them work and do their thing. It’s a real honour to be given this opportunity, and I hope we keep going from strength to strength.” – Indian cricketer and Managing Editor of Women’s CricZone, Ananya Upendran

I think my favourite part has been the opportunity to work with or simply interact with some amazing journalists and media personnel around the world. I have learnt so much just by watching them work and do their thing. It’s a real honour to be given this opportunity, and I hope we keep going from strength to strength.

WCZ seems to be leading the way in the online coverage of women’s cricket. What gives you the edge?

We’ve tried to champion the women’s game and make sure it gets the same type of coverage the men do. While we have a very long way to go to achieve that balance/ level of coverage, I suppose one thing that has worked to our advantage is that we were one of the first platforms to focus entirely on the women’s game. That gave us a bit of a head start.

How have you equipped yourself with skills to be effective in your role?

A lot of the last year or so has been learning on the job. I don’t think at any point I have really felt certain of what I am doing, but as we’ve built a team and seen how people have responded to our work, I suppose I’ve grown in confidence.

As far as finding a way to be effective in the role, I guess it’s largely been about being open to learning all the time. Having played cricket for so long I know what it means to be part of a good team and how it needs to be built. So, I suppose I’ve just been using a lot of those lessons in this role as well. I’m the first to admit that I don’t know everything – or anything – about the job, and I’m happy to listen to advice wherever I go. But at the end of the day it’s about making my own decisions and making sure we know what needs to be done.

Playing the game and reporting on it – how do you strike a balance and keep the enjoyment factor?

That’s been a huge challenge. For the longest time I always believed that I could never get enough of cricket. I was happy to play, talk, watch, read, write and dream about cricket. It was everything I wanted to do through most of school and all of college. As a player, I’ve always been the first to be at practice and the last to leave the nets. I wanted to learn and know everything I could. It was never enough.

But after I got my first job with Wisden India, I realised that I really did need a break from the game sometimes. I practiced in the mornings, would go to work and spend the next nine hours writing or researching about the game, come back home to a room full of cricket books, work out and repeat the same thing again! It became a bit too much!

Over time though I have developed other interests. I love reading, so I always make sure to carry books with me wherever I go. I read a lot of fiction, so it allows me to dive into another world, which is always nice. Music is another escape I enjoy and long runs as well… So, there are several things I do.

“I guess it’s largely about finding ways to unwind and make sure that when I am on the job – whether that is reporting or playing – I am feeling fresh and ready for the challenge. Too much of anything is not good, and I was lucky to have learnt that quite early in my journalism career!” – Upendran speaks about striking a balance between playing cricket and her journalism career.

I guess it’s largely about finding ways to unwind and make sure that when I am on the job – whether that is reporting or playing – I am feeling fresh and ready for the challenge. Too much of anything is not good, and I was lucky to have learnt that quite early in my journalism career!

How do you see your role in cricket evolving over the next few years?

In all honesty I’m not quite sure. Right now, I’m just taking it a month at a time. I’m still getting used to the demands of my role at Women’s CricZone, so I’m not looking too far into the future.

But playing and writing aside, something I am deeply passionate about is player development – whether that’s coaching, mentoring or in a more analytical (performance analysis) role, I’m not sure. But that is an area I would like to explore.

Do you borrow some tactics from the game when executing your role as Editor of WCZ?

I think being part of different teams through my career, I understand what makes a successful team. There is no one way to build a good team, and there is no one way to handle different personalities – those are some of the lessons I learnt through my time as a player.

“Having been in the Indian system for so long, I know what that looks like, the challenges players at different levels face, and can figure out ways that we, as an organisation, can help players (people) at the lower rungs of the game who normally don’t get as much coverage.” – Upendran points out the upper hand she has being a player and writer.

Aside from that, I understand the tactical and technical aspects of the game which helps when it comes to covering the sport. Having been in the Indian system for so long, I know what that looks like, the challenges players at different levels face, and can figure out ways that we, as an organisation, can help players (people) at the lower rungs of the game who normally don’t get as much coverage.

The one challenge you have overcome and what did you learn from the experience?

As a player, I have faced several hurdles along the way – whether it is being dropped, being overlooked for selection, poor performance or something else. But what each experience has taught me is that I can pick myself up and keep trying to get better – no one or nothing can stop that journey. Sport teaches you the power of perseverance, and it’s a value I carry with me always.

In my role at Women’s CricZone, one of the biggest challenges we have faced is putting together a strong team. I have discovered that it is difficult to find people who are both passionate about the game and able to write about it. When you do find people with that ability, it is important to hold on tight!

Second, as someone who has been involved with the game, and played with most of (if not all) the players in the Indian set up, I have found it quite challenging to report without bias. Having pre-existing relationships with people involved in the game and then having to critically analyse a performance is quite tough. It’s a delicate balance.

What stands out as your greatest highlight to date?

As a player, nothing was bigger than being able to represent India A. Although it wasn’t the ultimate dream, it was just one step away from where I dreamed of being as a kid, so it’s hard to go past that sense of accomplishment.

That aside, I think just being able to meet and interact with so many incredible players – both domestic and international – through my time as a player and reporter has been the best thing about this entire experience. I remember some of my early interviews very fondly – meeting women like Suzie Bates, Mignon du Preez and Sarah Taylor, all of whom are/were my heroes. It’s been a great ride.

Who are the women in sport that inspire you?

There are so many incredible female role models around the world. Within the cricket space I deeply admire Mignon du Preez and Sana Mir. While they are incredible players themselves, what I admire them for is the way they conduct themselves as people.

Although I only met Mignon once, it was under circumstances, that I don’t think she would have wanted to – South Africa had just been knocked out of the 2016 T20 World Cup, she was struggling with form, and it was months before she stepped down as captain (so there was obviously plenty of stuff on her plate). But she was gracious enough to sit down and have a chat (albeit for an interview) and spoke quite candidly about her struggles through that tournament and everything she needed to work on as captain and a player. At the time, I was having a hard time on the field too, and every word she said resonated with exactly what I was feeling. She accepted responsibility for what went wrong but was able to see the positives in what was obviously a difficult situation. She is such a generous human being, and I have always admired her.

Sana on the other hand is someone who (to quote a fellow scribe) “makes you want to be a better person.” Every time I watch her and hear her speak; I am filled with positivity. She is one of the few athletes from the sub-continent who has used her platform to address various social issues, and I think that is extremely inspiring.

“There are things I admire about everyone I see – players, broadcasters, administrators, support staff, officials, volunteers. I think there is so much to learn from everyone involved in sport and that’s the most exciting thing.” – Upendran on drawing inspiration from various women in sport.

I could list a whole host of women here…There are things I admire about everyone I see – players, broadcasters, administrators, support staff, officials, volunteers. I think there is so much to learn from everyone involved in sport and that’s the most exciting thing.

How would you describe the state of global women’s sport and which country do you think is getting it right?

Global women’s sport is on the rise. It’s gaining a dedicated audience of its own. I think governing bodies across sports around the world have begun to market the game(s) much better. They are investing at the top and mid-levels and creating effective plans for the grassroots as well – and that is clearly reaping benefits. There are more children watching games which is wonderful news.

As far as cricket is concerned, I think it’s hard to go past the work Australia has done over the last 5-7 years. They are now at a stage where domestic players are contracted, and their national team is reaping the benefits of an extraordinarily strong system. I think England too are looking for ways to climb the ladder by introducing domestic retainers.

Overall, though, I think we still have a long way to go to get anywhere near where the men are. This is only the beginning of the revolution – a lot more work needs to be put in now.

What is India doing right that other countries can learn from?

Over the last three to five years one of the big changes in India has been that more girls are participating in sport – and not just cricket. The success of athletes like PV Sindhu, Saina Nehwal, Sania Mirza, Deepa Karmakar, and so many others has seen interest in sports like badminton and tennis soar as well. Parents are now more willing to support their daughters taking up sport because they see a potential career. That is a huge step forward.

In cricket now, there are plenty of six to ten-year olds wanting to play the game, and that is only good news – it means the sport (or sport in general) is in good health.

In some states there has been a lot of emphasis on improving infrastructure in a lot of sports. While a lot still needs to be done, things are certainly moving in the right direction.

How can we bring global women in sport closer together?

There’s a lot to be learnt about women’s experiences across sport and it would be good to have a forum where they could interact and bring visibility to cross-cutting issues. Maybe there could be more networking events – and not just during tournaments.

What do you know now about yourself that you wish you knew when you started off in media?

At the start I was always terrified of making mistakes, but I’ve learnt over time that it’s not the end of the world. Most people will forgive a spelling or punctuation error – they have better things to do than pick at your copy! My mistakes are what have allowed me to improve with each passing day.

What advice do you have to young women who are still finding their way?

The most important thing that I have learnt so far is that it’s incredibly important to enjoy what you do in any walk of life. If you find something you are passionate about, plan, be prepared to put in the hard yards and stick to it.

Most dreams take time; do the work, trust that you are on the right path, and be patient. Every step – even a baby step – is progress!

 

 

Photo 1 Caption: Over the past year Ananya Upendran has journeyed through an incredible learning experience as the cricketer took up the offer to become the Managing Editor of Women’s CricZone and is successfully striking a balance between her two professions. Photo: Ananya Upendran (Instagram)