Shafali Verma’s basic instinct: Hit it out of the park
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Shafali—the girl who cut her hair short to play cricket with boys, the one with the ‘Sehwag’ touch, the kid who got inspired after watching Sachin Tendulkar play his last Ranji Trophy match (at Lahli, 2013), is the batsman with the highest strike-rate in the Women’s T20 World Cup.

PERTH, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 24: Shafali Verma of India batsduring the ICC Women's T20 Cricket World Cup match between India and Bangladesh at WACA on February 24, 2020 in Perth, Australia.

“Sehwag ki batting bhi humne dekh rakkhi hai yahan (I’ve seen Sehwag’s batting too here)!” Sanjeev Verma can barely contain his excitement. His booming voice echoes through the empty gym area of the Shri Ram Narain Cricket Club (SRNCC) in Rohtak. “Par woh Suresh Raina ne joh swoosh karke slide mari thi na, bilkul mere samne aake ruka (then there was that time when Suresh Raina slid, and came to a stop right in front of me)…”

Words no longer enough, the stocky, broad-shouldered, 43-year-old-man spreads himself, belly down, on top of a table to show just what he means.

Growing up in Rohtak, those are some of Verma’s most cherished memories from those occasions—in this case, both Ranji Trophy matches—where he got to watch cricket at the Chaudhary Bansi Lal Cricket Stadium in Lahli. Roughly 17km from his house, the stadium is the Haryana state team’s home ground and a place frequented by Verma in his youth.

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“I also wanted to play cricket. I was a middle order batsman and a fast bowler. But I had no idea how to go about it,” Verma, who is a goldsmith, says.

It is a regret he has left far behind now, watching his 16-year-old daughter, Shafali, blast her way through the Women’s T20 World Cup in Australia and emerge inarguably as the most exciting find of the tournament.

Shafali—the girl who cut her hair short to play cricket with boys, the one with the ‘Sehwag’ touch, the kid who got inspired after watching Sachin Tendulkar play his last Ranji Trophy match (at Lahli, 2013), the batsman with the highest strike-rate in the Women’s T20 World Cup, the teenager who is slowly becoming a giant among seniors, the one who everyone expects will win the Indian women’s team their maiden World Cup title when they face off against Australia on Sunday in Melbourne. All that, and it still does not capture in words the excitement the youngest member of the Indian squad generates when she walks out to the pitch.

Hard-hitting

It all started with a simple and uncluttered philosophy: “Jitna tu thokegi, utna tera naam hoga (the more you hit, the more fame you’ll get).”

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That’s what Verma would drill into his daughter when she got ready for a round of tennis ball cricket in their mohalla.

“There’s no other way,” Verma says. “In school cricket or even tennis ball tournaments, how long can one play? The matches are of maximum 10 to 15 overs. If somebody has to get noticed, he or she only has a small amount of time to do it.”

For two seasons from 2015 to 2016, Shafali played the National School Game Cricket Championship, Verma says.

“I always told her to keep her strike-rate high. My simple advice was that the selection in the state side or the national side would depend on how quickly you can score. There would be many who can score 100 off 100 balls, but how many can hit 150 off 100 balls? That’s the space I wanted Shafali to take.”

Shafali has taken that space, and how. At the ongoing T20 World Cup, she has scored 161 runs in four matches so far at a strike-rate of 161.00. One can gauge her impact from the fact that the next best batting figures in the team belongs to Jemimah Rodrigues, with 85 runs in four matches. Overall, Shafali sits fourth in the top run-getter’s list behind England’s Nathalie Sciver (202), Heather Knight (193) and Australia’s Beth Mooney (181), but is ahead of all competition on strike-rate.

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“I used to have a major role in Powerplays, but Shafali is getting the quick runs in those first overs now too,” says Smriti Mandhana, one of the best known batters in the Indian team, and Shafali’s opening partner. “She’s made a huge impact and the team has become more balanced thanks to her.”

The International Cricket Council’s (ICC) YouTube page has a montage of Shafali’s shots at the T20 World Cup against Australia and New Zealand. Among the lot, the most impressive are the ones where she struts out of the pitch fearlessly, gets in line of the delivery, and banishes the ball into the stands. The long-on, mid-on and long-off seem to bear the brunt of her carnage.

Smart player

“But did you watch the boundary that Shafali hit against the Sri Lankan spinner? The one where she went across the wicket?” Sanjay Budhwar, who has been sitting quietly so far, joins in the conversation. Budhwar has the experience playing 34 First-class matches, 21 List-A games, and 19 T20s for Haryana. He is one of the coaches who oversaw Shafali’s rapid rise.

The shot Budhwar is referring to has Shafali walking across the wicket as Sri Lanka’s Shashikala Siriwardene bowls a wide-ish delivery; then she goes deep into the crease and hoicks the ball over fine leg.

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“That’s different. That’s in fact very different. That’s extraordinary,” the commentator says, awed by how much time Shafali seems to have to get into position and execute a shot like that.

“She has an astounding ability to pick up a bowler early,” Budhwar says. “All good batsmen have one quality and that is to gauge the bowler early. They have that extra second to plan and execute the response. Shafali was born with that talent.”

If Shafali’s abilities were innate, it was under coaches like Budhwar at the SRNCC that she honed it. Established in 1980, by former Haryana Ranji coach Ashwani Kumar, the academy started inducting women trainees in 2008. Shafali joined in 2016.

Built just outside the main town on the Rohtak-Jhajjar highway, there was no landmark to locate the academy till recently. Now a large photograph of Shafali adorns the outside wall as well as the main entrance of the academy. Still, it leaves you unprepared for the scale of things inside—four nets, a physio room, video analysts at work, and a massive indoor facility with bowling machines. This is where Shafali’s raw talent was shaped into a lethal weapon.

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“Within the first two weeks of her coming to our academy we understood that she was different,” Budhwar says. “Generally we induct a kid in the under-12 or 13 category first. We make the boys and girls train together. There we saw that Shafali’s reflexes were much quicker than other kids. We shifted her to the U-15- to U-17 group immediately, where she played for a year. After that she was shifted to the elite group where the boys from Ranji Trophy play.”

Training with the elite group left a big impact on Shafali’s game. After her 34-ball 46 against New Zealand that earned her the Player of the Match trophy, she said it again as she gave credit to her father and the ‘boys’ of her academy.

“Here she plays with bowlers who can generate 130-135kmph speed. At the World Cup she is facing bowlers who deliver at 120-125kmph at the max. So she will always be at an advantage,” Budhwar says.

One of the boys Shafali often trains with is right-arm medium pacer Aman Kumar. He has represented Haryana in various age-group tournaments and will be at a Royal Challengers Bangalore training camp ahead of this season’s Indian Premier League.

“Frankly speaking, playing with her does not make us feel that we are bowling against a girl. She picks the length better than most of the players in our camp. There is much power in her shots,” says Aman.

Power-packed

Along with her fearless attitude, another aspect that her academy coaches vouch for is her hand-eye coordination and hence comes the Virender Sehwag-reference.

Former India captain Diana Edulji was one of the first to say that she found similarities between Shafali and Sehwag’s batting. Sehwag, who redefined the role of an opener in the Indian batting line-up with his cavalier, all-guns-blazing approach, has tweeted about Shafali too, calling her a ‘special player’ and a ‘rockstar’.

“Her hand-eye coordination is great,” Budhwar says. “It complements her ability to measure a bowler’s intention on which areas she is going to bowl. Along with it is her natural power.”

Indeed one prominent theme that ran through all four of her World Cup innings is how cleanly she hit the ball, no matter how unconventional the shot. She is sparkling off the front foot, and nimble in getting under the ball for the big heaves. It’s the hand-eye coordination that gets her in position; it’s the muscle power that sends the ball into the stands.

When asked about the secret to her power, Verma hides his face in embarrassment. Budhwar winks at him as says, “Maybe it runs in the family!”

“Body mein bahut jaan hai uski,” says Sandeep Singh, who has also coached Shafali. “She is much stronger than the girls of her age. During the strength and conditioning exercises, her repetitions and intensity of a particular routine is much more than any other trainee. Her forearms and shoulders are strong.”

Take that strength, add that talent, and then give it all room to breathe.

“We never told her to curb her natural instinct,” Buhdwars says. “A batsman can get out for zero when trying to attack a bowler. But it’s the attitude of that particular player and those around her that determine how he or she would take it. We always told her to play to her strength even if she got out early.”

Her exploits at the national level saw her make debut for India against South Africa at home in September, 2019. She was 15 then and the youngest to play for the Indian women’s T20 team ever.

In only her second match, Shafali struck a 33-ball 46. That performance earned her a place in the West Indies tour, where she scored two half-centuries. Her 49-ball 73 in the first game of the five-T20 series at 15 years and 285 days made her the second youngest woman to score a T20I half century. The Indian team had an opener who could win games almost single-handedly. As with her family and her coaches, her team management has given Shafali the freedom to play her game.

“Shafali is someone who loves to play big shots, and we don’t want to stop her. She should continue doing the same and she should continue enjoying her game,” India captain Harmanpreet Kaur said, after India topped their group with four wins.

Shafali top-scored for India in three of those four wins—39 (vs Bangladesh), 46 (vs New Zealand) and 47 (vs Sri Lanka)—but her father wants more.

“She needs to make a bigger score,” he says. “Only the final is left. Just wait and watch. She will hit a 50-ball 100.” Verma’s face lights up again. He knows if that happens he will have a story to tell that will far surpass the memories of Sehwag and Raina at the Lahli ground.

 

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