Dhoni fan Kiran Navgire hopes to be a big hit in the Women's T20 Challenge

Kiran Navgire is all smiles Kiran Navgire

Kiran Navgire's WhatsApp status tells you something about her cricketing philosophy: "Cricket god MSD" followed by four kiss emojis.

"I only ever wanted to play cricket because I dreamt of hitting sixes like Dhoni," says the hard-hitting 27-year-old allrounder from Maharashtra. "A lot changed for our country, and me personally, when MS Dhoni hit that six to win the [2011] World Cup."

Eleven years on, Navgire is grabbing eyeballs herself with her batting feats. In the recently concluded Senior Women's T20 League, the annual Indian domestic 20-over competition, where she turned out for Nagaland as a guest player, Navgire hit 35 sixes, the most ever in a single season of the tournament for which stats are available. She also hit a chart-topping 54 fours and 525 runs, and became the first Indian to make a 150-plus score in a women's T20, when she smashed a 76-ball 162 against Arunachal Pradesh. She also took seven wickets, including a four-for, with her part-time offspin.

Now Navgire is on the cusp of making her maiden appearance in the Women's T20 Challenge. In the three-team competition that is now in it's fourth year and is thought of as precursor to a full-fledged IPL-style women's league in India, she has been named in the Velocity squad, under the leadership of India allrounder Deepti Sharma, and alongside overseas stars Laura Wolvaardt and Kate Cross.

"I was watching Kiran at the nets for the first time the other day and found that she is such a terrific power-hitter, like Shafali [Verma]," said Deepti after Velocity's second training session at the MCA Stadium in Pune, where the tournament runs from May 23 to 28.

"I've mostly seen her hit sixes these past few days at practice. When you see her bat, there's a sense of inevitability around the ball landing in the stands or out of the ground," Deepti said. "The kind of shots she plays, with that kind of power in them, you can hardly tell if it's a man or a woman who's played the shot."

Navgire grew up in Mire, a village in Maharashtra's Solapur district, nearly 200km south-east of Pune, and she says much of her strength comes from helping out on her family's farm as a child and from the variety of sports she played growing up.

"The cricket scene is nearly non-existent in Mire, but kho-kho, kabbadi, and athletics are quite big," says Navgire. "My father has always been very passionate about athletics in particular, and I remember him telling me once, 'Give athletics a try, for my sake.' I used to be a sporty kid growing up, so I got into athletics in the fifth standard in school."

The javelin throw, shot put and 100-metre sprint were her disciplines of choice. She broke into the Maharashtra state athletics team in 2009-10 and has medalled more than 110 times across the district, state, and national levels.

A newspaper article about her bagging a national gold in the javelin throw for the second time, in 2012-13, caught the eye of Savita Hora, a a social worker from Mire, who then got in touch with the Shardabai Pawar Women's College in Baramati (halfway between Mire and Pune) asking them to enrol Navgire for a bachelor's degree and give her free boarding at the college hostel.

While Navgire represented the college in athletic events, she also decided to trial for their cricket team and was soon playing at the university level.

"My coach used to send me in at Nos. 8-9, so I didn't think much of myself as a batter," Navgire remembers. "But I loved hitting sixes, so I'd always be on the lookout for opportunities to bat higher and bat longer."

Despite having no formal training in the game at the time, Navgire went on to represent Pune University from 2013-14 through the 2015-16 seasons.

"Funnily, my cricket career would have ended there had I listened to my cricket coach at college," Navgire says. Every time she asked him how to progress beyond the university level in cricket, he would claim there was no women's domestic set-up in India.

"It was in 2017, at 23, when I was too old qualify for any age-group tournaments that I found out on a trip to Pune that Sir [her college coach] was wrong."

Navgire was playing an invitational tournament at Azam Campus, an organisation that provides opportunities to the economically weaker sections of the society through education and sport, when her powerful batting caught the attention of Gulzar Shaikh, the director of sports there.

On his advice, Navgire moved from Ahmednagar, where she had begun a two-year course in physical education, to Pune and started to train formally in cricket for the first time, at Azam Campus.

She made 429 runs in five matches at an annual tournament organised by the Pune District Cricket Association (PDCA), which she says was a turning point in her early cricket career.

"The PDCA chairman was impressed with my style of play, so he sent me to the Maharashtra senior state selection matches, but I was a bit overwhelmed when I got there because I had never played at that level, let alone in the presence of seasoned Maharashtra and India players like Anuja Patil and Devika Vaidya. My performance suffered and I didn't make the cut." She returned to Pune, determined to improve her game and mindset.

The following year the selection trials for Maharashtra took place at the Azam Campus ground in Pune and a promising showing with the bat - "I hit sixes and fours from the get-go" - got Navgire shortlisted for the pool of 30. The matches also proved pivotal in helping her identify loopholes in her game.

"For the longest time, my approach was about scoring in sixes and fours. I didn't have the confidence to take ones and twos," she says. "But over time, I worked on rotating the strike. I have tried to ensure I don't become one-dimensional or too predictable for bowlers."

Navgire credits her first personal coach, Jonty Gilbile, whom she met in 2017, for having "incorporated the batting sense" she says she now has. "He guided me to become a front-line batter, asking me to combine my six-hitting strength with the intent of pinching singles."

By 2018, Navgire began to believe that there were bigger things on the horizon for her. She remembers receiving the best-batter award at a local club tournament in Pune from former India international Devika Palshikar, now her coach at Velocity. "She is a widely respected ex-cricketer and coach. My confidence went up big time when I got that award from Devika ma'am. I felt, 'Kuch na kuch ho jaega mere life mein ab.'" [Something will surely happen in my life now.]

Navgire is excited about making the step up to the Women's T20 Challenge while still getting to remain in Pune, which has been home to her since 2017.

"It's a matter of honour for all Punekars and my personal good fortune that the Women's T20 Challenge is taking place in Pune," Navgire says. "This is the city where I played that invitation tournament that changed my life, this is the city where I met Gulzar sir, and have had so many formative experiences in as a person and cricketer. I have played on the pitches several times, so I will to make the most of my familiarity with the conditions."

She understands that the quality of bowling is likely to be better than anything she has faced in the recent past. "The prospect of going up against world-class bowlers is exciting and daunting at once. It would be a rare chance for an uncapped player like me to face bowlers of such high calibre like [Sophie] Ecclestone, [Alana] King, Salma [Khatun]."

What might top her checklist on match days? The plan, she says, is simple: "Dhoni sir ke tarah thande dimaag se end tak khelna hai and ek six toh marungi jis bowler ko hi face kyun na karoon." [Like Dhoni sir, I'll play with a calm mindset till the end and I'll hit at least one six against whichever bowler I face].