Shafali's quest to become the best version of herself
Her spot in India’s T20I starting XI is no longer assured but that doesn't mean she's idling her time away.
Shafali Verma’s 55 of 44 balls against Bangladesh, in India’s penultimate group stage match at the Women’s Asia Cup, was an innings that had a few sub-plots. Shafali was left out of the Indian XI in the previous match against Pakistan, with India preferring Sabbineni Meghana to partner Smriti Mandhana. While it is true that India had been experimenting throughout this tournament, it is also true that Shafali’s spot in India’s T20I starting XI is no longer assured, given the talent that India possesses.
Her knock against Bangladesh, batting first, contained more than a few hoicks across the line, especially against pace, which might be described as textbook T20 shots. She is still figuring out ODIs, and the right tempo for that format. The recent series against England, she returned scores of 1, 8 and 0, being dismissed in the exact same fashion by the same bowler: Kate cross getting in-seamers to bowl her between bat and pad.
But her short career has demonstrated that she is a player worth the patience. Let’s not forget that she is just 18 and already has a Test high score of 96, in England. So she has the technical base to play those not-so-technical shots. And her potential for middle overs acceleration if she bats through a Powerplay, as she did on Saturday, can be game defining. The aggression we saw when she debuted as a chubby 15-year-old has not changed. But some growing up has since occurred. And some slimming down.
“T20 leagues have taught me that fitness is really important as a player, agar bada khelna hai to. It’s something I saw, how much they work on it. That’s something I’m now working on,” she said in an interview during the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. Shafali has visibly lost weight over the last year, coinciding with an improvement in her fielding. While she’s still not as agile as the top Indian fielders, she is no longer a liability. And she’s looking to take it up a notch.
Since the ODI World Cup, where she was not a certain starter in India’s XI, she has now begun working with a personal trainer, to complement the changes she has made in her diet. “I’m a vegetarian, always have been. They said I used to eat too much protein, too much paneer. Paneer has fats, so now I don’t eat that and I eat more fruits and look to get my protein from green vegetables. I’ve given up eating roti also and am eating more rice.”
Perhaps the biggest change to Shafali Verma’s game though is that she’s now looking to contribute in three departments, not just two. There were a few surprised onlookers when Shafali bowled in India’s second and third game at Birmingham, returning figures of 1 for 8 in two overs against Pakistan. But those who have been following the Indian team closely would have seen this coming. Shafali bowled 21 overs in the last domestic T20 season, as well as a handful of overs across formats in India’s tour of Sri Lanka.
“It’s something I only started doing in domestic cricket. I used to bowl in the nets, and since I was the captain in domestic cricket, I tried it out in the match as well. I felt that kuch alag hona chahiye (there should be something different). Then I spoke to Harry di about it. She gave me confidence that 'yes, you might need to bowl'. So I started bowling in the nets in the Indian team also.” Shafali bowls a mix of off and leg spin, and although neither turn much, she provides the team a useful option to slip in a few overs in T20Is. And against Bangladesh in the Asia Cup, she bowled her full four overs for the first time in her career, returning figures of 2-10.
While Shafali has always been brutal against the full ball, whether against pace or spin, she also seems to be better prepared for the harder, shorter lengths that teams have used against her. She has been seen spending extra time in the nets with the throwdowns specialist, working on the short ball, either ducking or committing to a pull. "I've gotten better at recognising that this one I’m confident, this ball I can 100% hit, those are the ones I hit."
Shafali played for the Birmingham Phoenix in last season's Hundred but did not feature as an overseas signing in any T20 Leagues this season. Whenever a Women’s IPL comes around, she will certainly be a top draw, but right now her focus is international. India will host Australia for five T20Is in December, where plans for the T20 World Cup in Feb 2023 will be finetuned, and Shafali can cement her claim at the top of the order. And soon after that, Shafali could lead India in the first-ever U19 T20 World Cup in January 2023.