CHENNAI: March 27, 2022, Hagley Oval, Christchurch. India was playing South Africa in their final league game of the Cricket World Cup – a must-win encounter for them to progress to the semifinals. South Africa needed three runs to win from two balls. Mignon du Preez was on strike, batting on 51 from 61 balls. At the other end was Deepti Sharma, standing steely-eyed at the top of her mark, ready to bound in.
Mignon seemed all set in her stance, with her trademark paradoxical movements. Having struggled in the earlier games, she had enjoyed one of her better days in the tournament. She was the one who could potentially end the World Cup dream of Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami.
Meanwhile, 9.4 overs into her day, Deepti had had an excellent outing, conceding just 38 runs in her spell. Defending only seven runs in the final over, the off-spinning all-rounder had given away just four and been a part of a run-out in the first four deliveries.
There were long discussions among the Indian team after almost every ball in that over - fields adjusted, plans altered and re-altered and attempts made to calm everyone down. If there ever was a clutch moment in the game that was it.
The pressure was palpable. But Deepti remained visibly calm. Still supremely self-assured, she took a few quick steps into her run-up and went through with her action. Mignon waited for the ball, but it never came, still lodged firmly in the bowler’s hand. It was the mandatory Deepti-Sharma-fake-delivery of the match — one that left the batter in anticipation. It was an act that came as no surprise - something that has become her trademark when under the pump.
“It comes to me pretty naturally,” said Deepti when asked about it in an exclusive chat with The New Indian Express from Bengaluru. “I have been doing it for several years now. Second thing, you'll also get a glimpse of what the batter is trying to do, whether it's stepping out or going on the back foot,” added the off-spinner.
And she had a point. But just like any other cricketing tactic, sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. On that day, in the most important match of the tournament for India, it almost worked. Mignon stepped out to launch Deepti down the ground on the very next delivery but was caught at long-on by Harmanpreet Kaur… Except that Deepti had overstepped.
While Mignon took South Africa home and India faced an early exit, one of the things that stood out that night was the calmness that Deepti showed under pressure. The calmness, that is, despite the no ball. She was no longer the nervous 19-year-old who tried to slog her way through the 11 runs that were required in the last two overs of the 2017 World Cup final. She was now more aware of her game, more in control of her emotions and had clearer, more precise plans whenever she took the field.
But even back in 2017, there was never any question about her potential: she became the first teenager to score 200-plus runs and take more than 10 wickets — 216 runs and 12 scalps — in a Women’s World Cup. However, in the most important moment of the final during the chase, she panicked.
In the five years since Deepti’s confidence has grown leaps and bounds. She’s gone from someone who buckled under pressure, to a player who now thrives under it — a quality that showed on that day in the final moments of India’s final World Cup league match against South Africa at Christchurch.
How did she get to this point? Because confidence isn't built overnight. It comes from hours, weeks, months and years of work behind the scenes on both the technical and mental front. And for Deepti, like most top athletes, hard work is her default setting. But in recent times, her work, she says, has been driven by two key aspects - visualization and improvisation.
“Till now whatever matches I have played, after a match I always go back and see how I did in the videos and what I can improve,” she said. “For example, it's not like if I do well, I don't go and look at it and see what I did right and then when things go a bit up and down, suddenly, I go and follow what was the issue in the batting, what was the problem.”
“For me, every match, irrespective of whether I did well or not, whatever innings I played, I liked to go back and watch it. Even the positives, whatever boundaries I hit or good innings I played, it has helped me a lot. When I go back, I practice based on that whether it's bowling or batting. I feel that it has helped me improve a lot.”
Between July 23, 2017, and March 2020, Deepti was the fourth-best off-spinner in the world in terms of wickets (24 scalps at an average of 36.20 with a 4.15 economy) behind Sana Mir, Leigh Kasperek and Ashleigh Gardner. Among Indians, Poonam Yadav and Ekta Bisht were the two spinners to have more wickets than her in that period.
When the pandemic broke, India did not play any international cricket for over a year. When they returned, Deepti hit a bit of a roadblock in 2021, taking just five wickets in 10 innings with that average shooting up to 76.80. But it was not just her; every Indian spinner, barring Rajeshwari Gayakwad who averaged 31.12, had a bad year. No one else averaged below 40. In 2022, however, they did better and so did Deepti, taking 17 wickets in 12 innings so far.
Deepti's growth is not only evident in the numbers, but also in the fact that she has become India's go-to bowler in recent times. With India's pace attack lacking international experience — apart from Jhulan Goswami ( Shikha Pandey has played only three ODIs since March 2020) — the off-spinner has often been tasked with bowling in the powerplay and death overs, something she had to do in that World Cup game against South Africa as well.
It’s a skill Deepti has practiced a great deal over the years, doing a lot of spot bowling to get used to bowling with the new ball. “So, the funda is the same, if you know where you have to bowl and how to execute it, that's all there is. You know, the batter shouldn't get any room as with just two fielders outside, it will be easier for them. I just keep in my mind to stick to my strengths,” said the 24-year-old.
“Whether it's powerplay, middle overs or death, I like bowling in every situation. That's what I practice for and once you keep doing that, you get used to it. It doesn't matter if it's powerplay or slog-overs as long as you know where to bowl. Once you are confident, you can bowl in any given situation.”
While Deepti has truly grown into a top-class off-spinner, with the bat, her journey has been quite a contrast. She made her India debut as a backup opener in some style, smashing a 188 — the highest individual ODI score by an Indian — against Ireland as a teenager. As years went by, she has batted in all positions between 1-9 and has often been used as a floater, largely in the lower middle order. Deepti has batted 68 times so far but has got an extended run of sorts (more than 10 times) only in two positions - No 3 and 6.
Just like any other batter, the southpaw has had her share of challenges, struggling to keep pace with the demands of a new position — 1804 runs at an average of 35.37 while striking at 64.63. But she’s hardly shied away from those battles, trying to contribute to the best of her abilities, adjusting her methods along the way. And similar to her bowling, visualisation and improvisation seems key to her preparation in adapting to different roles in the batting order.
“So, what happens with my role is that (it is) based on which position I get to bat, I always try to do my best for the team. Whatever role I get, it doesn't matter. It's all about making sure I contribute to the team's cause. See, when you open the batting, you'll have some time to settle in, and powerplay makes it a bit easy with just two fielders outside the circle. You will have the opportunity to score the maximum runs possible. In middle overs, you'll have to play according to the scoreboard, read the match situation and react accordingly.”
“I always try to stay positive. Whatever match is there, every match I look at it the same way, whether it's domestic or international. The focus remains the same. Mentally, if you think about it, it's still the same. Just the bowlers, their pace and standards differ a little bit. But yes, my mindset will remain the same. If you keep it the same, it helps is what I believe.”
After all these years, Deepti’s keenness to stay positive throughout the challenges and heartbreaks and her ability to keep things simple on and off the field is what has helped her grow in confidence, not just as a player but also as a person. And when any player shows that kind of level-headedness and maturity in their cricket, they always get noticed.
It happened to Deepti as well when she was named vice-captain to Mithali in the last couple of ODIs against New Zealand earlier this year. When the former Indian skipper did not take part in the recently concluded Women’s T20 Challenge, Deepti led Velocity to the final. It was the first time she was captaining a team, something she seemed to have enjoyed doing as well.
“It was a great experience. I was confident because when you get to do it in a match on a big stage like the T20 Challenge, it is a sign of positivity,” she said, before adding, “you could say it comes with an extra responsibility to do your best for the team, whatever the team or any player needs, you make sure that you give them the opportunity to do what they want. Whether it's a bowler or a batter, whatever demands are there for the team, I always back the players.”
“Our team had a lot of youngsters as well, playing for the first time in the T20 Challenge. I told them, 'whoever gets an opportunity in the match, stick to your strengths, whether it's bowling or scoring shots, just try to do that and more importantly believe in them. It'll always help you do well.' All I gave was a little bit of motivation and they did extremely well, which benefitted the team as well. It was a different feeling to play in the final as a captain.”
There is a calmness and keen understanding in the way she speaks - a stark contrast to the hesitant teenager who took her initial steps in international cricket. Between two World Cup heartbreaks, Deepti has evolved from a nervous young talent to a utility cricketer who has constantly upskilled herself, is well aware of her strengths and limitations and can hold her nerve in clutch situations. And as she keeps repeating through the chat, visualisation and improvisation are at the centre of it all.
But there is one more underlying theme to her evolution. It’s the fact that she doesn’t say no to anything that’s asked of her and tries to fulfil it to the best of her abilities. She is a trier who never gives up. And it’s a quality that no one can take away from her.