‘A shot a ball’ to ‘hitting the gap’ – Shafali’s batting transformation

Shafali Verma powers one through the off-side. © Getty Images

When Shafali Verma was making a name for herself in the domestic circuit, she was known for playing a shot a ball. In the 2018-19 season, of the 1,911 runs she struck across age-groups and formats, 1,486 (301 fours and 47 sixes) came in boundaries.

Right from the start, she had a real ‘presence’ at the crease – her broad, imposing frame, towering over most members of the opposition. The way she tapped her bat hard on the ground, before standing tall in her stance and clearing her front foot to make room to swing her arms made one thing clear: she wanted to pepper the boundary.

Although Shafali’s approach reaped rewards — plenty at that — through the season, her somewhat over-attacking — sometimes reckless — method meant she gave the fielding team plenty of chances on her way to a score. Her season was a case of famine or feast. However, what was most impressive about her dominance was that she was never overawed by her opponents – international players or otherwise. Her mind was made up, ‘blast everyone around the park’ – the bigger the name, the harder the hit!

A little less than five months after her experience playing for Velocity in the Women’s T20 Challenge in Jaipur last May, 15-year-old Shafali was catapulted onto the international stage. Amidst the bright lights and large crowds of Surat in the T20I series against South Africa, Shafali Verma became the youngest Indian to make her T20I debut.

 

Despite an underwhelming debut – she was dismissed for a duck by Shabnim Ismail – the right-hander came hard in the second match and scored a blistering 33-ball 46 with five fours and two sixes. Once again, her ‘shot a ball’ approach meant she offered up several chances, but South Africa had a nightmare in the field that evening.

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A total of 64 runs in four matches at a strike rate of 112.28 and Shafali had showcased enough potential for India to stick with her for their tour of the Caribbean. She clearly had the ability to find the boundary, now it was about learning to get off strike in between.

Come the T20Is against West Indies, Shafali’s brute power saw her overshadow her more illustrious opening partner Smriti Mandhana in the first two games. She blasted consecutive scores of 73 and 69 not out to become the youngest Indian – male or female – to score a half-century in international cricket. Unsurprisingly, she finished the series as the top run-getter with 158 runs, thus sealing her spot for the T20 World Cup to follow.

Shafali’s power and fearless stroke-play aside it was her game sense and understanding of the field that really stood out during that series. Where she had previously tried to hit her way out of a string of dots against South Africa, against West Indies, she had learnt to turn over the strike. She was picking her spots to bludgeon a few boundaries before delicately gliding one down to third man, or through square leg for a single… Within a matter of a month, her shot selection had improved ten-fold.

“I was impressed with the way she worked on her range of shots in the few weeks between the home series against South Africa and the West Indies tour,” WV Raman, head coach of India, told ESPNCricinfo in an interview. “When she played some of the shots in the West Indies, it was a clear indication that during her spare time she starts improving on her range of shots and she executes them fearlessly. What more do you want? As a coach, I see the rate and the way at which the player improves.

 

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Following another hit or miss type of outing for India A against Australia A in the six-match limited overs series last December, Shafali seemed to have understood that her methods needed to be tweaked slightly. She brought that refreshed approach into the Senior Women’s T20 Challenger Trophy in Bhubaneswar in January this year.

Through the course of the tournament Shafali collected a total of 189 runs at an average of 47.25 and strike rate of 156.19, including a match-winning 89 not out in the final against the more fancied India B. However, it wasn’t the number of runs she scored that was impressive, it was the manner in which she got them that caught the eye. A previously somewhat reckless Shafali was suddenly more calculative and smarter about how to dictate the play when the bowlers tried to curb her shots by bowling at her.

When Shikha Pandey tried to hit a hard length and bowl a tight line to her in India C’s opening game, she chose to stay leg side of the ball, make room for herself and flay through the off-side. When Anuja Patil speared the ball in to her, she showed finesse and used the pace to glide it down to third man and steal a few runs. It was game awareness at its best.

When she came up against India A’s spin test, Shafali, known to prefer the ‘stand and deliver’ method early in her innings, showcased the willingness to use her feet to get to the pitch of the ball. She tonked Radha Yadav and Deepti Sharma over mid-off for six by coming down the track and hitting through the line.

Shafali Verma loves to hit straight down the ground. © Getty Images

Shafali Verma loves to hit straight down the ground. © Getty Images

What Shafali showed through the Challenger Trophy was the ability to adapt her game and find ways to score when put under the pump. Early in the tournament, shot-making wasn’t necessarily easy on the two-paced surface, but the right-hander was up to the task every time.

In the final, when Pandey chose to attack the youngster’s pads— following her as she backed away— Shafali took an over to find a solution. Having been struck on the pad three times in the first over, the right-hander changed her approach in Pandey’s second over. Instead of looking to create room and glide past point or cover, she got in line of the ball and hit over or through the leg-side with the swing. It was a tactic that gave her four boundaries in that over – not all pretty, but certainly effective. It was less a showcase of brute strength, and more one of batting smarts. Shafali was learning to adapt.

The only time during the tournament that Shafali looked genuinely uncomfortable was when she was faced with a bouncer barrage. Pooja Vastrakar targeted the teenager’s helmet with some well-directed short-pitched deliveries. Her instinct was to swing hard and hope for the best. She was lucky to get away unscathed.

It is a tactic she is aware both Australia and New Zealand will certainly use against her during the World Cup.

“I know I have to work a lot on playing the short ball ahead of the World Cup,” she said after her knock in the final. “It was nice to get experience playing in Australia (for India A) and I am excited by the prospect of playing there again.”

“I know the fast bowlers will target me with short bowling, but I will make sure I have an answer.”

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Trent Woodhill, most famously Steve Smith’s batting coach, has often spoken of batting as ‘problem solving’. At 16, Shafali has already understood that theory – she is simply working out answers to the questions posed by the opposition bowlers.

Most recently, through the T20I tri-series as well, Shafali displayed a fearlessness that few would have thought possible on such a big stage.

The audacity she showed against some of the best bowlers in the world – walking down the pitch to smack them straight (and long) over their heads went against every Indian fibre in her body! She did it against the spinners. She did it against the pacers. She did it when she was well set. And she even did it to get off the mark! She basically treated the bowlers with utter disdain – not an iota of doubt in her movements. She was in charge, and how!

Although she still faces some problems against the short ball, Shafali’s success in the tri-series will give her a great deal of confidence going in to the World Cup. She will no doubt play a key role at the top of the order. Her success could potentially paper over, what looks like, a rather soft lower-middle order – one that is desperately searching for runs.

Shafali Verma tucks a delivery off her hip. © Getty Images

Shafali Verma tucks a delivery off her hip. © Getty Images

On air, Lisa Sthalekar, former Australia allrounder, called Shafali a ‘new generation Indian batter’ – one who likes to hit straight down the ground rather than use her wrists to deflect the ball square of the wicket. It is a method that sees her clear the straight boundary with absolute ease – sometimes even flat batting sixes over the bowler’s head.

“I have worked on my range hitting a lot,” she tells Women’s CricZone. “I know I can clear the boundary if I want to – I just need to maintain a steady base. That is what I am working on – not trying to over-hit, but just keep my shape.”

“Even though people say I am really strong, my batting is also about timing. I just try to meet the ball with the middle of my bat. If I hit it well it will cross the boundary. It’s not always a power game with me. Bas gap mein marna hai. (I’m just looking to hit the gap).”

When she got called up to the Indian team, Shafali felt the need to make sure India “did not feel the absence” of Mithali Raj.  “But now I want to create my own place in the team and not be someone’s replacement,” she said in a previous interview.

She is now slowly but surely creating an identity of her own. In Shafali, India have a batter who can shape the way an entire generation of young players bat – much like her skipper Harmanpreet Kaur did when she burst on to the scene back in 2009. Although still young in her international career, the right-hander has done enough to earn the tag of one of the most dangerous batters in the T20I format.

While coach Raman insists that his young charge must be left to enjoy her game and learn at her own pace, one thing has been made clear by the 16-year-old: she is ready and more than willing to learn every day. Her fearless attitude means she is happy to take on the challenge of international cricket and continue to develop her game at a rapid rate. Although she is aware that every opposition will come hard at her, she believes she is ready to face them all.

“I am excited to be part of the World Cup. It is a dream come true. Hopefully I can put in some performances and help my team win. That is the aim.”

Although her intent remains the same – to dominate the opposition – Shafali’s methods have changed over the last year or so. There is no more blind swinging at the start. It is a calculated onslaught — a combination of field awareness, clarity, placement and skill. The brute force is only an added advantage.

She is no longer the 15-year-old who wanted to play a shot a ball. She is now a 16-year-old, with the air of a ‘veteran’ who has ‘been there, done that’, and is no doubt going to play a key role in India’s campaign this time around.

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