Shafali Verma, the big-hitting kid on the block

Shafali Verma celebrates a milestone. © Getty Images

Sometimes, strange, life-changing things happen to children in the middle of the night, on the other side of the world.

I woke up at an ungodly hour, on a cold November night, turned on my laptop and hooked it up to a software whose name I will not reveal, so that I could watch the geoblocked stream of India women’s tour to the West Indies. I had missed the first few overs of the first T20I, but when I checked the score, it seemed like I had missed a lot more.

India were 60 for no loss in four overs. It seemed Smriti Mandhana had gotten off to one of her flying starts. But no, she was on 17. It was her partner, 15-year old Shafali Verma who had blitzed her way to 40 off 15. The stream showed a short highlight package of the Powerplay, and it knocked the sleep out of my eyes. Shafali eventually made 73 off 49.

‘How did this kid get this good this fast?’, I thought.

***

When I first saw Shafali, she was very much in the mould of hitter. Looking through the highlights of her 31 ball 34 in the Women’s T20 Challenge 2019, three things struck me: bottom hand, some puppy fat, and a willingness to throw the kitchen sink at the ball.

So while I was pleased when she was included in the Indian team for the first time, I didn’t expect her to get a game. Until I saw her batting for the first time live.

Not hitting, batting.

It was in Surat, in the nets on the eve of her debut. The baby fat had thinned; she looked taller. Her bat swing was straighter. The bottom hand was still there on occasion. But the improvement was stark.

ALSO READ: The growth of Shafali Verma

I quickly understood why. After she had had her time in the nets, she took off her pads and helmet, and strode to the side of the nets with her bat. Throwdowns ensued, but she hit the ball with only her left hand, her top hand. Her bottom hand was behind her back.

Half the power, all the timing.

Shafali’s top hand sits right at the top of the handle of her bat. That means the weight of the bat, loaded near the bottom, is as far away from her as possible. Her top hand not only has to bear that weight as she brings down the bat, but also controls the downswing. You know how lifting a dumbbell is easy, but bringing it down slowly is harder? Try making sure you bring the dumbbell down at the exact same angle, because you can’t afford to close the face of the bat in the downswing.

That’s what Shafali was training her muscles to do.

So between the IPL Women’s T20 Challenge and her India debut, Shafali had clearly been busy. She had identified an area in her game, her bottom hand dominance, and worked out how to weed it out. A month long fitness camp, where the team barely touched a bat or ball, had helped shave a few kilos off her. And access to NCA strength and conditioning had amplified her basic strength, built by homespun techniques like flipping tractor tyres and turning a chaff cutter in her hometown of Rohtak.

***

The next time I saw Shafali live was in the T20 Challenger Trophy in January this year. A poor shot in the first game, a swipe across the line, saw her dismissed for a duck.

Then in the remaining games, she did the dismissing. She scored 189 runs in her next four innings, at a strike rate of 156.7, including 89 off 48 in the final.

What struck me was that hardly a ball went to the fielder. Her high strike rate wasn’t just because she had a shot a ball, but most of those shots went to the boundary. 31 fours and five sixes in 121 balls faced.

The Indian team had had most of December off, and were able to spend time at home. And Shafali had not been idle. She could currently be the most famous person in Rohtak. And so when she needs training, the considerable facilities of the Ram Narain Cricket Academy, including indoor nets, are available to back her. Hours of batting, mostly against boys, some of whom have represented the state, have allowed her to acquire the volumes she needs. 

While she receives coaching at the academy in the afternoons, the mornings are spent facing throwdowns from her father Sanjeev. “We bat for almost one, one and a half hour,” he said. Ahead of the Challenger Trophy, the pair worked on the cut and the pull, as well as balls that target her pads, with an eye on the World Cup. “She faces at least 200 to 250 balls in the morning session. And to get her used to all bowling types, I have learned to bowl pace, off spin, leg spin, even left arm spin.”

ALSO READ: Precocious Shafali Verma aims for consistency

Sanjeev is not ambidextrous, neither did he bowl with his left hand in his own playing days. “Ab leftie bowler kaha se laye? To beti ne hi sikhaya leftie bowling dalna (Where would we get lefty bowlers? So because of my daughter I learned how to do it),” he chuckles. And Shafali’s penchant to pick the gaps has been developed not by open nets, but a deliberate habit of checking the field before every ball.

***

I put out a tweet during this World Cup, asking people if they thought Shafali Verma was a batter or a hitter. More than 63% of my followers, or the ones who voted anyway, said she’s a hitter.

They are right. And they are wrong. 

It’s not mindless bludgeoning at all. It’s intelligent batting, with the shot frequency of a player bred for and on T20. We revel in reminding everyone how young she is, we take glee in pointing out what a talent India have discovered. And we enjoy calling her ‘a kid’ – which she is. And it’s cute that the Indian captain described her as naughty. It fits with image of a cherubic, simplistic cricketer who is succeeding on pure talent. 

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

But she, and her coaches, deserve more credit. After every series she has added to her game, identifying an area that is an issue and eliminating it. Indian coach WV Raman has noticed this. “On the other hand she’s also a very intelligent kid. She’s worked on a few things, whenever she’s had breaks between series. She’s also thinking, she’s doing the right things, I think that’s the best way to learn.”

India have done well to keep her ensconced, protected, away from the attention as much as possible. ‘No distractions’ has been one of the Indian mottos this tournament. Shafali has two player of the match awards, but has not attended a single press conference. She’s still a minor so the team officials are rarely far away from her and fellow 16-year old Richa Ghosh, ensuring no children are left unsupervised. Her Twitter account had 726 followers in the second week of February. It now stands at 18,222, but her social media accounts are clearly agency managed. 

The kid with the heavy bottom hand has come a long way, problem solving her game, and keeping herself one step ahead of oppositions who are studying her. Those muscles she’s been training, she’s now flexing them in Australia. She used to be the kid who batted with a torn pair of gloves, and hid those from her father because the family wasn’t exactly flush with cash. Now she has a kit contract, and her father has flown to Australia to watch her play in a World Cup final. 

She has discovered her next challenge in this tournament: figuring out how to bat outside the powerplay, when there are less gaps, and she has to hit new areas. Maybe the next time we see her, in the IPL T20 Challenge 2020, she will have more answers. Or maybe she will crack that code in the final of the T20 World Cup, in front of 90,000 people, against the World Champions. 

Strange, life-changing things can happen to young children on the other side of the world.