Her heart swells with pride when she speaks of leading the Indian team to a silver medal finish in the Asian Women’s Sevens Trophy in Laos last year. It was a momentous occasion for the captain Neha Pardeshi but she wears the achievement lightly, preferring instead to build on that feat and help spread rugby’s popularity among women around the country.
She is a born leader, you may tell yourself several times during a conversation with her. During a candid chat in Chandigarh recently where she took part in a sports literature festival, Neha Pardeshi shared her thoughts on leadership, balancing her modesty with splendid examples of the culture she helped instil in the squad.
To begin with, one of the first things Neha Pardeshi had to do was defuse the potentially tense situation that her friend and former skipper Vahbiz Bharucha’s return to the team after a spell out due to injury caused. If you saw them cheerfully advocating women’s rugby, you would hardly believe that there could ever have been any stress between them.
“People could see it from the sidelines that things were not the most comfortable. When the coach pointed it out to me, I knew I had to take the initiative and make things easy for all of us. Vahbiz was an integral part of the team and I had to speak my heart out to her during the camp in Mumbai. We figured out over the couple of hours that we had to do it together,” Neha Pardeshi recalled.
“All players know their roles in the squad and as captain, my job is to ensure that each of my team-mates completes her respective responsibilities as identified by the coach. I keep stressing that we are playing a team sport and that there is no room for solo play on the field. We have to stand by one another,” she said, her intense visage reflecting the words that flow from her heart.
The dapper woman, who overcame her angst at not being selected to the State handball junior team despite being among the better players by moving to rugby, recalled jumping on Vahbiz Bharucha after India sealed its first win in the semi-finals of the Asian Championship “It was a memorable win for us, based on strategic play,” she said.
It was memorable in more ways than one. The dynamics within the Indian team had changed too. From a predominantly Pune and Delhi-sourced squad, the squad included a number of players from Odisha – more specifically from the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences, Bhubaneswar. Given their differing social backgrounds, the situation came with its set of challenges for the captain.
“We now had players from a different State, speaking a different language, hailing from different cultural backgrounds,” Neha Pardeshi said. “We had to make several adjustments, starting with making Hindi the language the team would use to communicate with one another. Even here, the Odia girls speak Hindi with a different twang to us.
“Then again, I insisted that we speak in Hindi. They made an effort and we made an effort. We realised that in a sport like ours, silence was never going to be of any help. We have to talk all the time, what with the game demanding that we pass the ball back. Trust would be built only by communication,” said the 24-year old Punekar.
Now, Neha Pardeshi herself made no claims of being a pioneering force but what she did with the women’s rugby team is not very dissimilar to Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi’s achievement with the Indian cricket team in the 1960s, unifying the national side and instilling a sense of unity in the dressing room by removing all barriers.
Then again, she had always loved crossing hurdles. After not making it to the State handball team, she took to track and field sport, specifically hurdling, and fencing before deciding on rugby as her preferred choice. She picked up the game so well that she was rewarded with a spot in the Indian team that played the Asian Games in 2010 when rugby was a demonstration sport.
She also overcame her fear of heights by climbing a mountain. But all this was only in keeping with the importance sport had in her life from an early stage when winning a race in the school’s inter-house competition fetched her pumpkins as reward.
“In my early years, my father would drop in school an hour early so that I could take part in skating. And though there was a time when we did not speak with one another, he now tells me to pursue my passion for rugby even if it means that I have to give up my job in the year of the Asian Games,” she said, thanking her employers for being considerate and accommodating.
“I cannot ever forget how sport helped me tremendously just as my 12th Standard examinations were on hand. Being on ground enabled me deal with emotional pressures that were building up. But I overcame all hurdles thanks to rugby,” she says, confirming that rugby is synonymous with her life.
“I have learnt a great deal from all sport that I have played but the most from rugby. I am the person I am, thanks to the sport. Discipline, solidarity, confidence… and a lot more are the result of the years spent in sport. The transition from being a very introverted person to being a confident girl has happened only because of rugby,” she said.
Neha Pardeshi now effortlessly and proudly wears the mantle of an ambassador for the sport that she loves with all her heart, chipping in by coaching younger players over weekends and speaking about rugby with passion and conviction. She may not be blessed with height but she makes up for that with speed, intelligence and teamwork to ensure that her stature is towering, indeed.