“Play with that Dunky smile we all love.” Sophia Dunkley, England’s first black women Test cricketer, got this advice from her teammate Georgia Elwiss during the cap presentation ceremony. And Dunkley always plays with a smile on her face, even when she dropped Smriti Mandhana at short-cover that smile didn’t vanish. She made a marvellously well-compiled fifty on debut while playing with that smile. Players like Dunkley bring a sense of joy and smile to the faces of those watching. But this story is not about her, this is about her fellow debutante Shafali Verma from the opposition in the one-off Test between England and India.
Verma grabbed the limelight from the 22-year-old Dunkley when she smiled, grinned, and chewed gum on her way to a smashing start to Test cricket with a magnificent 96 before walking away with a wry grin. The 17-year-old Verma is Indian cricket’s new wonder child and is expected to do extraordinary things with the bat. She most probably will fulfil those expectations in the coming years or she may not, it’s difficult to predict.
But one thing we know for certain at the moment is that Verma loves to bat... Well, all batters do. However, there’s something pure about the way Verma goes about her batting. It isn’t similar to Meg Lanning’s clinical approach or elegant like Verma’s fellow opener Smriti Mandhana. While other Indians were standing on the field for 121.2 overs and reflecting on their existence, Verma probably gave out the vibe of ‘having made me field for so many overs, they'd better be bowling at least half of it to me’. That’s not to say she didn’t care about her fielding; she did dive around at point region even in the closing stages of Day 1, having also spent the day under the lid as a reluctant close catcher. But Verma knows she is out there to bat and they let her get to it at the first possible opportunity.
There was some talk about letting Verma ease into Test cricket by having her bat in the middle-order on debut but neither Verma nor her team had any doubt where she belonged. So, it was no surprise when she came out to open the batting with Mandhana. England’s veteran Katherine Brunt and canny Anya Shrubsole didn’t let the youngster have it easy as they bowled an excellent opening spell. They tested the right-hander outside the off-stump as well as on the stumps.
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Verma started her innings with a streaky boundary, edging one Shrubsole outswinger through gully, and her last boundary was a steer through third man, when she stayed leg-side to a Kate Cross delivery and used her T20I wits to good effect. Between these two boundaries, Verma showed there’s more method to her madness and more madness to her method than just going berserk from the start.
“I think it was difficult to start, England were bowling well and I thought that I needed to respect them at the start and give myself time and it felt good to build an innings,” Verma said with a smile at the post-match media interaction.
She did build the innings but her methods were unique and her own. While her senior partner Mandhana opted to stay on the back foot for most of the time and drove or pulled with the England bowlers keeping the length short, Verma was getting on the front foot even on Brunt’s short-pitched deliveries leaving the experienced pacer unimpressed. So far in her international career, one weakness Verma has visibly shown is against the short stuff and Thursday (June 17) was no different. But it wasn’t a ‘deer caught in the headlights’ situation. She chose which balls to go after, albeit with varying degrees of success, and sometimes even ducked under the deliveries, despite the pitch not offering the hosts much bounce.
Verma was seen sharing a laugh with Mandhana whenever she missed out on a loose delivery or even when mistimed some of those shots. One of the most amusing moments of the day came when she missed a Brunt delivery after backing away. It was the third time in the over that she had attempted to do so, the second one after Tea. The ball evaded Verma, the stumps, and the wicket-keeper Amy Jones. She kept smiling at her opening partner like she has seen it all before.
“We had this discussion that if we stay at the crease and build a partnership it will benefit the team. So, we just supported each other and said we will play our natural game when we get loose balls and otherwise, we will stay at the crease,” Verma added.
“We were talking about how we will smash the loose balls to the boundary once we stay at the wicket for some time. But when at the start we missed out on some full tosses while trying to play straight we broke into laughter.”
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Verma defended the ball when she had to, Verma smashed the balls when she felt like. She launched Sophie Ecclestone over mid-on for a maximum, she thumped Kate Cross down the ground on her way to the nineties, all with a smile on her face. The hundred was in sight but it never came as she got out playing how she played all day. But she walked away knowing that she did well for herself and her side.
“If a person gets out in the 90s, they will obviously be disappointed. I also felt bad but if you see it this innings will give me more confidence and I will try to convert these into hundreds and then keep contributing for the team,” Verma concluded.
Her disappointment came more from the fact that she won’t be able to bat any longer in this innings like she did in all those practice sessions back home – against fellow women cricketers, Under-19 players, Ranji Trophy bowlers – where she would clear her guard and bat again after a dismissal.
Verma batted 152 balls and scored 96 runs off them and got out in the 49th over. She was disappointed that she didn’t get to make them bowl all the overs she had to field. Whenever the next challenge arrives, she will be ready to take guard again and enjoy playing with that smile of hers.