At the end of 22 overs of action in the first T20I between India and South Africa in Surat on Tuesday, it seemed there would be only one winner. The home side, on a tricky batting wicket, had stumbled across the finish line in their innings to post just 130 on the board. In reply, South Africa were off to a flier. The first over of their innings fetched them 18 (EIGHTEEN!) runs, while the second saw 7 more added to the score.
After eventually winning the thrilling match by 11 runs, India captain Harmanpret Kaur admitted at the post-match presentation that she was nervous at the half-way stage with how much her side managed to score. It was a batting performance that is growing worryingly typical for the Indians in the shortest format. Shafali Verma, the 15-year-old debutant, got out for a duck thanks to a stunning catch but four of the team’s best players fell to avoidable shots off ordinary balls after that.
Smriti Mandhana got into a tangle trying to overhit a full toss. Jemimah Rodrigues tamely lofted a good length ball straight down the throat of the fielder at long on. Deepti Sharma (more on her later) played an ill-timed sweep shot to a ball outside her leg stump. And Harmanpreet Kaur, by some distance the best Indian batter on the night, missed a straight ball to be trapped LBW.
From 102/3 at the end of 15 overs, India added just 28 more runs in the next five, losing five more wickets.
So, when the run-chase began, you could bet your bottom dollar that Kaur’s nerves only multiplied when Lizelle Lee put her side in charge of the match with four boundaries in the first two overs. Suddenly, South Africa needed just 106 from 108 balls: the required rate already less than a run-a-ball.
In quick time, an eighth T20I defeat on the trot seemed a real possibility.
In came Deepti Sharma.
The third over of the South Africa innings. She had to provide her captain a foothold in the game that was fast slipping away. Perhaps aided by the fact that the marauding Lee was off strike, Deepti got to work on the less-experienced Tazmin Brits. Flight, loop, dip, hint of turn. Repeat. First six balls, no runs conceded.
The fifth over of the South Africa innings. Deepti once again had Brits on strike and the maiden over was playing on the South African’s mind. Surely she cannot just play out another over from the spinner. Surely she had to show some intent. Sure enough, she pre-meditated a hoick down the ground, saw the ball tossed up once again, lost her shape while swinging the bat as the off-spinner got the ball to turn in from a full length and beat Brits all ends up. Classic off-spinner’s dismissal.
Nadine de Klerk was the next batter in for South Africa. She had triggered the aforementioned Indian collapse with two wickets in the 16th over. Four deliveries into her batting innings, she was about to become the second wicket of an over herself. The right-hander stayed at the crease and tried to cut a ball that was perhaps too full only to see the outside edge being taken by Taniya Bhatia.
Deepti Sharma had bowled 12 dot balls, taken two wickets.
Kaur could have decided to bowl her through in one spell, but she held the off-spinner back.
The 14th over of the South Africa innings. With the scoreboard reading 73/6, Deepti came back into the attack. The pressure was on the visitors but she was following up an 8-run over. Shabnim Ismail, the left-handed batter known for her feisty character, was on strike. Instead of going around the wicket, Deepti decided to work the angle against Ismail and lured her into the trap off the second delivery: flight, dip, turn. Ismail beaten, Bhatia did the rest. Ayabonga Khaka came out after that and dead-batted deliveries as if this was a five-day match.
Deepti Sharma had now bowled 18 dot balls, taken three wickets. 3-3-0-3.
And then came the 19th over. It could be argued that, despite being the only over where she conceded runs, her fourth was the most important over she bowled in the innings. Du Preez was playing an absolute blinder with the bat, reading the spinners exceptionally well. In the three previous overs bowled by the spinners, South Africa had scored 31 runs. And now, with 26 needed off 12 balls, India needed a tight over from Deepti. And she completed her spell... conceding just eight runs, and no boundaries.
Deepti Sharma’s final bowling figures: 4-3-8-3.
“Yes, definitely this is my best bowling performance,” she said when picking up the player of the match award. “I bowled according to our plans and thankfully got help from the wicket too. I wanted to bowl wicket-to-wicket as it was turning, and also wanted to pitch it up as much as possible. And I just wanted to enjoy. If you enjoy, you automatically do well.”
Two overs in the powerplay when South Africa were on top, the fourth over being the all-important 19th of the innings when du Preez threatened to take the match away from India: Deepti Sharma bowled the tough overs and came up trumps. No wonder she thought this was her best bowling effort.
And it, most importantly, came when India needed her to be at her best.
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