Shafali Verma: Batting with a licence to thrill
Smriti Mandhana, an unequivocal star of the Indian cricket team, missed out on the match against Bangladesh because she was unwell. But the Indian team didn’t really miss her services as an opener on Monday, because Mandhana’s 16-year-old partner at the top of the order, Shafali Verma, more than made up for the star’s absence.
So much so that in the coming games of the T20 World Cup, Verma would have put the fear of her prowess in other opposition teams as well.
The Rohtak girl has single-handedly brought to women’s cricket what Virender Sehwag did for the men’s game all those years ago -- fearlessness in her strokeplay. And the prospect of what Verma and a fit Mandhana can do together is worth anticipating.
On Monday at the WACA in Perth, Player of the Match Verma scored a 17-ball 39 against Bangladesh, aided with four incredible sixes. The next highest score in India’s innings was 34 by Jemimah Rodrigues, and she took 37 balls to score those runs. No one else from India crossed a score of 20. For years, India has looked up to Mandhana to provide effective starts. Now they depend equally on Verma, who has fast blossomed into the most dangerous batsman of this World Cup.
“Shafali is amazing. At 16, I hadn’t even started training to become a cricketer,” medium-pacer Shikha Pandey said after the match at Perth. “I’m very pleased to have such young fearless players in our team. It’s amazing to see them doing what they did for us.”
“She is like Virender Sehwag,” added Ashwini Sharma, Verma’s coach. “She sees the ball and goes after the ball. She is not scared to go for big hits. With experienced batters like Smriti, Harmanpreet, Jemimah, Veda, Deepti in the ranks, Shafali is the icing on the cake.” Mandhana’s immediate recovery from illness, however, is key to the side as she continues to remain the backbone of India’s batting. At 23, the girl from Mumbai has already played 72 T20s and 51 ODIs for India.
“Smriti needs to bat through 15-16 overs at least in order to put India in a winning situation during the T20 World Cup. She has been just extraordinary for the side in the recent years,” said Jaya Sharma, former India opener.
Following the openers is India’s No.3 Rodrigues, who has the clever ability to build an innings by pacing it according to the situation. The Mumbai girl is already among the runs, with 26 against Australia and the second highest score of 34 against Bangladesh.
Next on India’s batting order is captain Harmanpreet Kaur, and her form with the bat has been a cause for concern in the recent past. At the World Cup so far Kaur has scored 2 and 8, and the scores don’t get much better even if you include her run at the tri-series in Australia before the big tournament began.
But the team management will be hoping that Kaur’s current form is simply a phase and one that will eventually pass; for when she gets going -- like the girl from Moga did at the 50-over World Cup in England in 2017 -- Kaur can set the tournament on fire, as witnessed during her 115-ball knock of 171 against Australia to take India to the final.
Former India captain Diana Edulji, who has long been a vocal supporter of Kaur’s talent, believes that the burden of leadership is weighing her down. “It seems captaincy is having an effect on Harman’s batting. She should re-think and quit captaincy in order to play her natural attacking game,” said Edulji.
The incumbent captain could well be credited with introducing regular six-hitting to women’s cricket. Before her debut in 2009, India’s batting revolved around copybook batters like Mithali Raj and Anjum Chopra. And Kaur’s career became that much more illustrious in Surat a few months ago, when she became the first Indian to play 100 T20Is.
“At the moment, Harman is the most experienced player in the Indian team. She has won so many matches for India. It is a matter of one knock and that will bring her back to her aggressive best,” said Chopra. “Harman, along with Veda Krishnamurthy, are crucial for India when it comes to finishing matches.”
True. Krishnamurty has remained unbeaten in both of India’s World Cup matches so far, and it was in the second game against Bangladesh where her four boundaries helped the team past the par score. “Veda is a classy cricketer. Her experience and understanding of the game makes her an important cog,” said coach Sukhwinder Bawa, who has trained Krishnamurty in the past. “She bolsters the middle-order and India’s batting success will depend on its middle-order in the World Cup.”
In India’s campaign opener against Australia, though, it was leg-spinner Poonam Yadav who won India the game with the ball. While her four wickets was the turning point, a crucial and unbeaten innings of 49 runs -- left-handed Deepti Sharma’s contribution—went largely unnoticed. It was that knock by the Sharma that eventually gave Yadav something to bowl at.
But let’s not forget the small but significant contribution of 16-year-old Richa Ghosh either, who was playing only her second T20I in the game against Bangladesh. Ghosh hit two successive boundaries during her knock of 10 runs, after having come into the team to replace the unwell Mandhana. It is learnt that Mandhana insisted that Ghosh get a chance in her absence.
Ghosh, like Verma, is known for her attacking play. It remains to be seen whether she gets another opportunity once Mandhana returns. But the teenager does enjoy a big reputation back home and will be a handy replacement in case of further injuries.