I want to create my own identity: precocious Shafali Verma aims for consistency

Shafali Verma at Ram Narain Cricket Club in Rohtak. © Priya Nagi/Women's CricZone

Gond ke laddoo is a winter sweet in North India. Usually, the older women in the family— mothers and grandmothers— take up the task to prepare this healthy sweet that is enjoyed with a glass of milk through the season. “Right now it is winter, so I enjoy gond ke laddoo with milk,” Shafali Verma, India’s 15-year-old batting sensation, tells Women’s CricZone, as we sit down for a chat at the Ram Narain Cricket Club, an academy in Rohtak, on a late winter afternoon.

Those who had seen Shafali during the Women’s T20 Challenge— big built and seemingly yet to lose her ‘baby fat’— may have been taken aback when she— much leaner and clearly, fitter— made her international debut in Surat. The transformation began shortly after the youngster caught the country’s imagination, when she was called in to join a fitness camp at the National Cricket Academy (NCA) with the Indian team. During that camp in June, India head coach WV Raman made sure fitness (and only fitness) was the players’ sole focus. The strenuous training and dietary restrictions— she had to cut down on her beloved paneer bhurji— meant Shafali’s chubby cheeks slowly disappeared as the strict NCA regime came into force. 

“When we reached NCA, Raman Sir told us that no one’s going to pick up a bat or ball. Our kit bags used to be at the hotel and we were not allowed to carry them (to the ground). They just focused on fitness. I used to get frustrated as I wanted to pick up my bat, but what had been instructed was followed,” Shafali, India’s youngest T20I player, recalls. 

“When I got the chance to play in the Women’s T20 Challenge, I wanted to make the most of it so that I could earn an India call-up. I saw the foreigners bat for the first time during the event. I had seen them on TV, but when I saw them live it gave me exposure and helped me improve my game. Danielle Wyatt (England batter) told me to just play my game and keep working hard.” 

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A few years ago, during an Under-12 tournament, Sahil, Shafali’s older brother, fell sick. Shafali, then only ten, took his place in the game and went on to win the player of the match award. 

“When my brother fell ill, my father told me to go play. Although I was a bit hesitant, I put on my brother’s shirt, played and was adjudged player of the match.” 

That most didn’t realise it was Shafali and not Sahil bludgeoning the bowlers around the park was down to the similarity of their looks and haircut. Had it been a little earlier, long-haired Shafali, would have stood out from the crowd.

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“Actually, I wanted to get (a) boy cut (when I was younger), but my father initially refused,” she explains.

Often, the boys refused to let Shafali play with them because they thought a girl would get hurt. “When I got the haircut they didn’t recognise me and thought I was a boy and allowed me to play. I batted well and they said this boy plays well. In the end, they got to know I was the same girl who had long hair.”

The teen prodigy, who started playing for Haryana in 2013, represented her state at the U-16, U-19, U-23, and senior-levels before she earned her India call-up in September 2019. 

During the 2018-19 season, while playing U-23 games Shafali had to miss her Class X Board exams. When asked whether she likes to study, the 15-year-old said with a chuckle, “I used to like studying, but now cricket is everything. I like Hindi and Mathematics. I missed my Class X board exams, but now I think I’ll have to complete them.” 

The Rohtak-born player earned her first international cap on the back of some exceptional performances in the 2018-19 domestic season for Haryana. Following that, veteran player Mithali Raj announced her T20I retirement ahead of the home series against South Africa, opening up a spot for the youngster. Shafali has since played nine T20Is and amassed 222 runs with a highest score of 73 off just 49 balls against West Indies. Her exciting style coupled with the blistering tempo she tends to set, have drawn comparisons across men’s and women’s cricket, but the teenager stressed on wanting to create her own identity. 

“When I got the India call-up, Mithu di (Mithali) had retired from T20Is. Initially, I wanted to make sure the team didn’t feel her absence. But now I want to create my own place in the team and not be someone’s replacement,” she said. “I want to work hard so that I get to play ODIs as well. I consider all the matches as practice games. I don’t play a match considering it as an international match. I know (that) if I think too much it will put pressure on me.” 

Shafali opened for India in shirt number 17— previously donned by skipper Harmanpreet Kaur, before she changed it to seven. The teenager initially wanted jersey number 10— following in the footsteps of her idol Sachin Tendulkar— but it was already taken by her teammate Mansi Joshi. The 15-year-old grew up watching Tendulkar’s batting videos, which, in fact, inspired her to play cricket.

“Becoming a cricketer was mine as well as my father’s dream. He used to show me Sachin Sir’s batting videos. When he (Tendulkar) used to get out we used to switch off our TV,” she says.

“I became interested (in the game) after watching his batting and told my father I want to play. I saw the crowd that turned up for his last Ranji match (at Bansi Lal Stadium in Lahli). I asked my father, ‘Does one have to play in front of a packed crowd?’ He said yes. Whenever he played a shot, the crowd would chant his name. I made up my mind that I too want to bat like him so that crowds come to watch me. When I returned home I realised that I would have to pull up my socks and practice better, so I moved from tennis-ball cricket to leather ball.” 

Then nine-years old, Shafali, mesmerised by the Master Blaster’s batting, used to stand outside Tendulkar’s guesthouse in the hope of catching a glimpse of him. Years later, on her first overseas tour, when much of the nation was asleep, Shafali, at 15 years and 285 days, broke Tendulkar’s longstanding 30-year-old record (16 years and 214 days) to become the youngest Indian to register an international fifty. 

She achieved the feat during the first T20I against West Indies. “I felt good on breaking his record, but I want to create my own identity,” she reiterated.

In the Caribbean, Shafali combined with Smriti Mandhana for a record 143-run stand. It was an association with elements of fearless strokeplay— provided by Shafali— and technical proficiency— courtesy, Mandhana— that saw the youngster fulfill one of her dreams: “to open for India and score big once.”

That tour was a confidence booster for the aggressive opener after she had missed her maiden fifty at home when she was bowled for 46 by South Africa’s Tumi Sekhukhune in only her second game. “I felt very bad (that I couldn’t register my fifty), but then I was like it’s okay I’ll do better in the next match. My teammates keep motivating me whether I score or I am unable to score. Everyone says you’ll get many chances and you’ll do better in the next match.” 

Shafali Verma hits out against Australia A. © Getty Images
Shafali Verma hits out against Australia A. © Getty Images

When asked whether she has spoken to her senior teammates about shot selection, the teenager said, “I have had conversations with Harry di (Harmanpreet), Mithu di, and Smriti di. They all said the more I practice the better my shot selection will become. They advised me to hit the ball from the sweet spot (of the bat). Harry di says don’t go too technical and just practice hitting on both off and leg side. And Mithu di told me never to change your game, work hard as you need to improve a lot and don’t think about the score as it will happen on its own.” 

Shafali’s ability to clear the boundaries at an early age is noteworthy. In her international career so far, she has hammered 10 sixes, even tonking the likes of Shakera Selman and Hayley Matthews over the ropes. However, within her own team, there is an old horse that she is yet to beat: Jhulan Goswami has not yet allowed the youngster to break free. “I can play everyone in the India team except Jhulu di. There is a bit of difficulty while facing her in the nets. When I am unable to play her she says ‘kya hua maar ke dikha na ab‘ (What happened why you are not able to hit now?)” 

After a successful tour to the Caribbean, Shafali was named in the India A squad for their tour of Australia, consisting of three one-day matches and three T20s against Australia A. The tour provided a number of hopefuls and fringe players an opportunity to make a mark ahead of the T20 World Cup in Australian conditions. Shafali herself had a decent outing in the 50-over games, scoring 124, 46, and 9, but the T20s gave her a reality check as she was cheaply dismissed in all three matches. However, despite the failures, her positive attitude meant she got straight down to work upon her return to India— back into the academy nets to correct her mistakes. 

“I loved my century on Australian soil,” she smiles. “I think I could have scored 150, but I missed it. I enjoyed the Australia tour as I learnt about different pitches. When you watch on TV, you don’t get to know that much. Australian pitches are really nice. I realised that I have to work on my back foot as well.” 

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Ram Narain Cricket Club started in 1991 and opened its door for girls in 2009. Under the watchful eyes of Ashwini Kumar, former Ranji Trophy cricketer, Shafali’s batting has improved since she joined the academy in 2015. Initially, a couple of girls joined and soon the batch was full. Equipped with indoor as well as outdoor nets, the academy has specialized physiotherapists and video analysts as well. 

“Shafali took admission here four years back,” Bijender Sharma, a coach at the academy, said. “We had initially put her in the girls’ group, but when we saw she can do something different then we added her to the elite group which includes our fast bowlers who play Ranji Trophy, U-19, and U-16. Right now we have 25 girls out of which 23 represent the state— including domestic player Sheetal Rana— at U-16, U-19, U-23, and senior level. We have two sessions— from April to November players practice outdoors, and from December to March they train indoors.” 

With Shafali’s attacking approach at the top— she strikes at 142.30— it seems India have certainly found a suitable partner for Mandhana to open in the shortest format. The teenager, who got some exposure to Australian conditions, has a good chance to make to the India squad for the forthcoming 2020 ICC Women’s T20 World Cup. But prior to that a litmus test— the tri-series against England and Australia in Australia— awaits and before that, lies the three-team Senior Women’s T20 Challenger Trophy. 

“I hope my name comes up for the T20 World Cup. I just want to consistently perform and become a good batter for India. World Cup is my goal, but I focus on what is next right now and that is Challengers, then let’s see what happens for tri-series,” Shafali said, adding, “I’m happy to play under her (Veda Krishnamurthy) in the upcoming Challengers. I don’t mind playing under anyone. She is very nice. I scored in the first two games against Australia A but then I wasn’t able to. So she used to motivate me.”

With batting having historically been India’s Achilles heel over the years, Shafali’s emergence gives the nation hope ahead of a big tournament. But as the teenager searches for her own space at the international level, one would be well advised to give her room to make mistakes and develop. After all, much like the year 2020, she is still young and bursting with energy, hopes and dreams.

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