CHENNAI: As Ashleigh Gardner caught the skier from Poonam Yadav and the roar of 86,174 fans engulfed the Melbourne Cricket Ground on the evening of March 8, 2020, Shafali Verma, who had just turned 16, was in tears. She was inconsolable. To the extent that the likes Radha Yadav, Harmanpeet Kaur, and Smriti Mandhana had to assuage her.
The swashbuckling opener was India’s leading run-scorer — 163 runs at 158.25 strike rate, the highest by anyone who had scored over 10 runs — in that T20 World Cup but couldn't deliver on the most important day.
In the two years since, Verma’s career graph has seen plenty of ups and downs.
When India were back on the field after an extended break against South Africa, she made her presence felt in the T20Is after being ignored for the ODIs. After a tough home series loss to South Africa, India took the plunge to include the teenager in the ODI squad for their tour of England. She began the tour superbly, bossing the Test match with scores of 96 and 63.
However, after her ODI debut in England, Verma has blown hot and cold, averaging 21.66 from 12 ODIs with two half-centuries. First, she was found wanting against the short ball from Katherine Brunt, and then, teams combined it with a slower delivery to follow in The Hundred.
But the teenager did not let it affect her. Much like she did before the Test match, Verma went back to Haryana, spent time with the state men’s team, and worked on her technique against short balls. However, even in the Australia tour and the Women’s Big Bash League that followed, she couldn’t perform consistently despite some good knocks.
Although her numbers don't reflect consistency at the highest level, Verma's aggressive strokeplay has had an impact against every opposition she has faced. Established international stars spoke highly of the teenager almost every time they came up against her team. And that did not happen without reason.
Former India men’s cricketer Ajay Ratra, who has followed the teenage sensation closely, feels that Verma has proven her ability across formats to the surprise of many. He said that irrespective of what was being said about her, even at a very young age, Verma has clarity about her shots and the brand of cricket she wants to play.
“With experience, any player grows, and she is no different. She was just 15 when she made her debut, but she always had the clarity about the strokes or the brand of attacking cricket she wanted to play. Even when the formats changed, she has improved her defence and worked on her shots as well. People didn't think that she could do well in Tests, but she has shown that she can be compact,” Ratra told this daily.
For Ratra, what stands out in the opener is the will to put in the hard yards of preparation. “In practice, she gives herself challenging situations…. To survive at this level you have to prepare well. You might have extraordinary talent, but you have to change your game a bit and prepare according to the conditions and format. And with time, she is growing, and it is showing in the results as well.”
In the New Zealand series, the 18-year-old was the senior opener in Smriti Mandhana’s absence. Although Verma looked a lot more compact with her strokes, trying to play the long innings, she ended up with just one fifty in five innings. A couple of ducks followed in the World Cup warm-ups and in the opening game of the main event. Verma lost her place in the XI to the in-form Yastika Bhatia, who hasn’t done much wrong since. That said, it should not be the end of the tournament for Verma.
As every member of the team has reiterated in the press conferences, she could come back at some point in time. “See, she's someone who has done a really good job for the team… I know she's not getting that game-time, but she is always very important for us, just a matter of one game. Whenever she gets and she gets those runs for herself and then you know, things will be easy for her,”said Harmanpreet Kaur earlier this week.
“Everybody's talking to her; the type of practices she's looking for, we are able to give all the things…. that's what as a player you need when you are going through a rough patch. You need your teammate to support you or your staff to support you and that's what we have been doing for her,” said Harmanpreet Kaur earlier this week.
Ratra, too, feels the same. “She might be from a small town, but has digested the success, which is not an easy thing to do. It’s been a setback as she is not playing much in the World Cup, but just like in life, she’ll learn and do well whenever she gets a chance.”
India are currently placed third in the points table and need at least two wins from three matches to make it to the semi-finals. Their next game is against Australia, who have steamrolled every opponent so far. With short straight boundaries and batting-friendly conditions in Eden Park, Auckland, it is probably the perfect time for India to bring the swashbuckling opener back into the mix.
Former England captain and broadcaster Nasser Hussain said as much. “I’d go to Shafali Verma. To beat Australia, you don’t need good; you need exceptional. And she can provide you with exceptional. Maybe not her day, she might not get any, but you can’t plod along. You need above par (against Australia), and she can provide that,” he said on Wednesday.
Although it was five years ago, as history has shown with Kaur’s 171 in the semi-final, to beat Australia in the World Cup, teams need to play out of their skin. And they have become only stronger since.
Which is why, India has all the more reason to bring in Verma, who could potentially take the attack to them on Saturday and dominate the rest of the tournament, just like she did in 2020.
For she is India’s wildcard primed to make an impact at the big stage.