Shafali Verma, all of 15 years and four matches old, is playing her first international game outside India. She is facing Shakera Selman, a veteran of 75 Twenty20 Internationals who is returning from an injury layoff, in the second over of the innings. She has played out a good first over, taking five runs off it.
At her age, she could be forgiven for being nervous, for taking time to settle in on a pitch she would not have encountered before. But in a manner that belies her age and experience, she slams 14 runs in the over with two boundaries and a six.
The next over, bowled by Chinelle Henry, goes for 26 runs – Wide. Four. Six. Wide. Four. Four. Two. Four – and in the span of four overs, India is 60 for no loss and the teenager on 40 off just 15 balls. She then became the youngest Indian cricketer to score an international fifty as she reached the landmark in 30 balls.
At the other end is Smriti Mandhana, who is playing her second straight match after coming back from the injury, and the left-hander scored her second straight fifty. It was a stunning knock, relying on timing and some wonderful punch shots for boundaries.
But such was the brilliance of Verma’s battings, that even her senior partner’s knock paled in comparison. Mandhana and Verma stitched an unbeaten opening 143-run partnership to set the tone for India’s 184/5, the joint-highest score against the Windies.
The visitors went on to win the match by a massive 84 runs. India were helped by some extremely sloppy fielding from the hosts, who dropped Mandhana thrice and Verma once, but not even that could away from the batting masterclass that the two batters put on in between.
Through it all, the fearlessness of Verma stood out. Granted, the first match of a series has perhaps the least amount of pressure, but the confidence with which she went about her first knock overseas was impressive. Even coach WV Raman tweeted urging people to watch that knock on YouTube.
It is this fearlessness that brought Verma to national notice earlier this year. Playing for Velocity in the Women’s T20 Challenge, she scored a solid 34 off 31 in her first match. She had scored 128 off 56 for Haryana against Nagaland in February, which is the third highest score in women’s T20 cricket. In her second international match, she scored a 33-ball 46.
Her power-hitting ability is special and as India looks to build a squad for the T20 World Cup next year, she will be hard to ignore. Her presence at the top of the order is a license to thrill of sorts: go for the shots, make the runs with your natural game. But in her knock at St Lucia, she showed another facet to her game: composure.
After 40 from her first 15 balls, the next 10 runs took 15 more balls as West Indies reined in the scoring a little. But when she couldn’t connect for the boundaries, she ran her singles and twos patiently as Mandhana did the bulk of the scoring after the Powerplay. No risks needed, no desperate shots tried.
When she finally fell on 73 (off 49 balls), it was right after a six, which would tell you otherwise. But it seemed a calculated risk in the 16t over.
However, India should be wary of what happened after her dismissal as three wickets fell in three overs. Batting collapses have been this Indian team’s kryptonite far too often now and it almost happened again.
Mandhana, the other set batter, went in the next over while Pooja Vastrakar (0) and Deepti Sharma (3) – both sent ahead to pinch-hit – fell one after the other. From looking good for a 200+ score, India suddenly found themselves in trouble. In any other situation – if this was a chase, if West Indies had come close with the bat – this mini-collapse would have been dangerous.
But captain Harmanpreet Kaur (21 off 13) steadied the ship with some timely support from Veda Krishnamurthy (15 off 7) – the original pinch-hitter of the Indian team. The target was set and the Indian spinners let loose on an already weakened WI batting order without injured captain Stafanie Taylor.
The chase was stifled before it could even begin. Hayley Matthews, who would have had to bear the bulk of the batting, started with back-to-back fours off Deepti Sharma who was given the new ball.
But in came Shikha Pandey – the most experienced Indian pacer in the format – and she made an instant impact with a terrific inswinger that knocked back Matthews’ stumps. From then on, it was a procession of wickets as Radha Yadav and Poonam Yadav took two apiece with Pandey.
India will go into the next match – which is less than 24 hours after the first – with momentum and morale firmly on their side. Whether or not the batting heroics are repeated, all eyes will be on the teen sensation again, this time at a more reasonable hour back home. Till then, as the national coach said, go watch the innings and enjoy the fearless batting by the 15-year-old.
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