Rohtak is not known for cricket. But ever since Shafali Verma made her international debut in the T20 format last month, it has been in the headlines for the right reasons.
The 15-year-old recently became the youngest Indian to hit a fifty in international cricket, against the West Indies, surpassing her idol Sachin Tendulkar's record. Two fifties in six matches certainly speaks volumes about her potential.
Father Sanjeev Verma has been a major contributor in the teen's success story. Hailing from a place that hardly has any girls-only academy, Sanjeev started taking his daughter to the cricket ground when she was seven. A player himself who couldn't make it to the state side, Sanjeev wanted his children — a son and two daughters — to pursue cricket.
In a cricket-mad country, girls training with boys is not unheard of. Even the legendary Mithali Raj began her career that way. But Shafali not only practised with boys, she also played as one. With a tom-boyish hairdo, it is still hard to tell if she is a boy or girl unless one knows her.
"It was September 2013 when Shail, her elder brother, was sick and couldn't play in a local tournament in Panipat," says Sanjeev. "Upon knowing that her brother can't participate, Shafali asked if she could go and play in his name. Since both of them had short hair and there wasn't much age difference (Shail is two years older), I sent her to the tournament. And nobody realised she was a girl."
Her talent was evident in the 10-overs-a-side meet as she bagged a few man of the match awards and also the player of the tournament award. But because she was playing as Shail, she couldn't keep wickets like she does now. Her brother bowls leg spin.
It was then that Shafali really got hooked onto the game. In October, the then nine-year-old got a chance to see her idol Tendulkar play his last Ranji Trophy match against Haryana in Lahli. In early 2014, her father decided to enrol her in the Ram Narain Academy in Rohtak, where she trained under coaches Ashwani Sharma and Aman.
Despite possessing talent, not everybody makes a successful jump from the junior level to seniors. This is an aspect that India's T20I vice-captain Smriti Mandhana had spoken about in the past. But Shafali already seems to be in the good books of T20I captain Harmanpreet Kaur. Playing her second international series, and first on foreign soil, the youngster made a mockery of the West Indies attack, smashing 73 and an unbeaten 69 on November 9 and 10.
What was more heart-warming was the pace at which she scored. She has a strike rate of 146.09. It was one of those rare occasions when fellow opener Smriti sat back and played second fiddle to her junior.
Former India women's fielding coach Biju George, who was with the team till the South Africa series last month, said that one of the reasons for her success is clarity of mind. "She is very confident of her abilities," George observed. "She backs herself and never shies away from any challenge. During training, she is not afraid of facing anyone, even if the bowler is a senior. She plays her shots and has an uncluttered mind. Her mindspace is very good and that is why she is able to perform like this."
That mindspace he is talking about was evident ever since her debut. After a four-ball duck in the first match, she scored 46 off 35 before hitting consecutive fifties in her fifth and sixth outings. A rigorous fitness regime means she has the power to clear boundaries.
"After her debut game, we spoke for a long time. She told me how she trained with tyres and played against boys back home. She was sure of her approach. "'Is match mein nahi toh next match mein karenge (if not in this match, I will score in the next),' she said. She is a strong girl, mentally and physically," George said.
A year after unearthing a prodigy in Jemimah Rodrigues, Harmanpreet & Co will be pleased with this new kid on the block, especially with the World T20 just three months away. "Shafali was the kind of player we were looking for, ahead of the World Cup. She won't be a Mithali or Smriti but she will create her own brand," George concluded.
Time will tell if she scripts her own history in Indian women's cricket.