From T20 super star to Test opener: How Shafali Verma stamped her authority in the longer format
Shafali Verma © Getty Images
'Shafali Verma showed glimpses of Virender Sehwag'. 'Shafali, so much reminds us of Viru, doesn't she?'. These were comments from cricket broadcaster Harsha Bogle and India men's team fielding coach R Sridhar after the teenager's 96 in the first innings of the one-off Test against England.
Ever since Verma broke into international cricket, far too many comparisons have been drawn between her and former India men's cricketer Virender Sehwag. Now, whether these comparisons hold true or not is a discussion for another day. However, since the Indian contingent left for England, whether the teenager would be able to replicate Sehwag's success in the swing-friendly conditions against England's seamers was a constant topic of discussion among fans and experts.
Ahead of the Test, although both the Indian captain and the vice-captain hinted at Verma's debut, the suggestions to open with a 'more technically equipped' Jemimah Rodrigues were doing rounds on social media.
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Now, Rodrigues is as good as they come, and she might soon make her Test debut as well. But this isn't about her. It is about how 17-year-old Verma smashed all the talk about her technique, not just with the runs she scored, but also solidity and poise with which she played England's seamers.
If one has followed her career since her international debut against South Africa in 2019, it is easy to spot a stark difference in Verma's shot selection and approach between her T20I knocks and the two innings in the Bristol Test match.
In T20Is, the most important aspect of her game is maximising the field restrictions by going over the inner circle in the first six overs. Her power down the ground - hitting the bowlers over the top between mid-on and mid-off - has been her trademark so far. Most of Verma's runs have come off the front foot, bludgeoning the ball in the direction of the sightscreen.
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In the 2020 T20 World Cup, Verma scored more than 30 runs in three out of five innings. Across those three matches, she made a cumulative total of 132 runs from 85 balls, of which, 70 runs were between the mid-on and mid-off regions, according to the wagon wheel data from ESPNCricinfo. Verma scored only 26 runs between the cover and backward point regions - a crucial scoring area for any batter in the longer format.
Wagon wheel data in Cricket South Africa's website for Verma's innings from the series in March 2021 and the video highlights of the South Africa series in October 2019 from the BCCI website indicate similar scoring patterns in those matches as well.
Taking nothing away from her ability to hit sixes down the ground, ahead of India's tour to England, Verma's international career bore little evidence to indicate that she can score freely through the off-side against fast bowlers, especially in a seam-friendly environment. In fact, during the recently concluded South Africa series, Verma seemed to clear the front leg and back away more often than not against Shabnim Ismail, even when the length was fuller. While it could be because of the nature of the T20I format, the youngster did not employ similar tactics against the other medium pacers that often.
Ismail is arguably the fastest pacer going around, and the England seamers might not be as quick as her. Yet, in conditions that provide sideways movement, they are as lethal - if not more - as the South African speedster. It is for that reason that Verma's scoring patterns in international cricket and her lack of footwork against seamers made many doubt whether she could be successful in Test cricket.
Verma, though, had other ideas, preparing adequately for every challenge would come up against in England. And her scoring pattern in the Test match against England, particularly in the second innings, was something she had not previously displayed at the international level.
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In her maiden Test innings of 96, her first boundary came via an edge to the third-man boundary off a front-foot push, playing away from the body with back leg in the air. Verma scored 18 runs between cover to backward-point, and only one boundary came off a cover drive. She amassed 36 runs between mid-on and mid-off; most of which came from lofted shots off both the seamers and spinners. But it was the 17 runs she scored through the third-man region that stood out.
Often in limited-overs cricket, teams have brought the wicket-keeper up to the stumps for Verma to restrict her from playing those front foot lofts off seamers. This time, when Amy Jones came up to the stumps, Verma was ready for it.
Whenever the seamers tried to attack the stumps with Jones standing up, Verma stood her ground and dabbed or tapped the ball as late as possible through the gully or third-slip region. While it might have been a strike-rotating option in white-ball cricket, here she was getting boundaries for it.
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Verma's second innings was even better. She scored 22 of her 55 runs on Day 3 between cover and backward-point. Verma unleashed a flurry of cover drives early on against Katherine Brunt and Anya Shrubsole.
Starting on a leg-stump guard, she shuffled to middle-stump just before the ball was delivered, then taking a big stride towards the ball before punching it through cover; high-elbow, easy on the eye, and just checking her drives. There was no fancy flourish. It was pristine timing. Something one might not have seen much of from her in international cricket.
India skipper Mithali Raj said that Verma's fifty in the second innings was better than her first knock. "The 96 she scored was a good knock, but the fifty came with a little more sorted head and a little more experience. The sweetly timed drives; it was beautiful to watch her," she said in the post-match press conference.
Since March 2020, Verma featured in only two T20 matches and three T20Is in the lead up to the England tour. She was not able to participate in the senior one-day tournament as she was a part of the Indian contingent in the bio-bubble for the South Africa series.
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However, she practised with the Haryana men's team to get used to the pace and swing that could be on offer in England. Speaking about her practise sessions, India men's cricketer Mohit Sharma told ESPNCricinfo that the 17-year-old handled the new ball with ease.
"It didn't matter to her if the pacers were clocking 135kph or higher, or what the stature or skillsets of the bowlers were. In all of those five-six matches, she confidently survived a good 15-18 overs, opening the batting," Sharma said.
He felt that her achievements from those practise matches were not just about scoring runs. Verma was preparing for every challenge she would have to face in the Test match. And she performed as well as anyone could have.
Apart from all the records she broke during her innings, Verma showed the world that she is capable of playing in an orthodox fashion - the way people expect one to play the longer format. That does not mean she will bat the same way in every Test innings from hereon. For all we know, a freakish innings could be around the corner. All that matters is that as and when the situation demands, she knows that she could do put down her foot and play 'traditional' Test cricket.
Shafali Verma began her Test debut with the reputation of a T20-tonker. Over the course of four days, she proved that there is a method to her madness. And as Mithali said after the match, Verma is likely to go from strength to strength, becoming a vital cog in the Indian batting line-up across formats in the years to come.