Before the start of the T20 World Cup, if you were asked to predict India’s most consistent match-winner, most would have named one of two veteran batters in the squad – Smriti Mandhana or Harmanpreet Kaur – and not rookie Shafali Verma.
The 16-year-old opener, who has impressed everyone with her clean ball-striking, was expected to be an impactful game-changer. But it would have been pretty ambitious to say the big-hitting bat would outperform the more steady players. You expected aggression and quick-fire knocks from her, not stability or leadership.
But in a happy turn of events, Verma has married the two, and become the breakout star of this World Cup. The youngster from Rohtak turned 16 during the tri-series at the end of January, but Australia has seen the growth of the opener that has gone beyond just age.
The teenager is leading the batting charts for her country and her contributions have been vital in India becoming the first semi-finalists. In the last four matches, if there is one player who has contributed in every match to ensure India’s unbeaten streak, it is the youngest member of the team. At the top of the order, she has been the pulse that has held the misfiring batting order together.
Of course, it would be unfair to say that Verma’s run has been a complete surprise. Since her debut in September, or perhaps even earlier at the Women’s T20 Challenge in May, she has shown signs of being a world-class player.
With the eyes of the cricket community on her in her debut at an ICC event, however, it was presumed that not only would teams have plans to deal with her but also that she would be perhaps not have been as fearless as she normally is. But, the teenager has blown the questions away in some style.
In the four games so far, she has made 29 off 15 (against Australia), 39 off 17 (against Bangladesh), 46 off 34 (against New Zealand) and 47 off 34 (against Sri Lanka), top-scoring for India in all but the opener against Australia. She is the second highest run-getter in the tournament with 161 runs, hitting 18 fours and nine sixes in four matches at an astounding strike rate of 161. To put things in perspective, the next highest scorer for India is Jemimah Rodrigues with 85 runs.
But the impact of blistering knocks stretches beyond these numbers, it’s in the very style of her batting.
With her brisk scoring, powerful strokes, and fearless attitude, she have given India a unique advantage at the top – a comfort zone if one can call it that.
Whether it is the first ball of the match or she is facing world No 1 bowler, Verma goes for her shots confidently. It’s almost as if she does not need time to get her eye in, she sees the ball and smashes it.
That is not to say she is a one-dimensional bat. She is equally adept at taking on both pace and spin and has a repertoire of shots, even though they all seem to pierce the 30-yard circle aerially. She doesn’t always use the gaps, but she is very much capable of hitting boundaries while keeping the ball on the ground as well.
The way the teenager reads the balls and then frees her arms to take control of the shot and whack it, is a sight to behold. It may look like is throwing her shoulder at any and every ball in her zone, but the firm stance is just a measure of her confidence in her ability.
Against Sri Lanka for example, she walked well across the stumps and deep in the crease to hit a boundary through fine leg. It was an incredulous moment – both the shuffling and the boundary. But it showcased her enterprise.
Admittedly, the all-out approach has often seen her lose her wicket tamely as well. In the first three matches of the World Cup, Verma’s wicket fell when she holed it out or mistimed her shot. (She was run out in the fourth game) But in all four games, she fell only after making a significant contribution at what is the most crucial time of the match: the Powerplay.
Yes, the 40s on the scorecard will rankle anyone who looks for the landmark of a half-century but in the shortest format of the game, a 40 is just as good and the teenager has the full backing of her team to play her natural game, even if it’s six and out.
The conditions in Australia haven’t really posed as big a challenge to her as well, partly because of her experience in the tri-series and India A tour before where she scored a 78-ball 124. In fact, Australia women’s A team coach Leah Poulton and national coach Matthew Mott have already both lavished praise on the youngster.
So far, even pressure has been a foreign concept to her given India batted first in the first three matches and having a small chase in the fourth. Her assured play has taken the pressure of the other batters and ensured that the lethal bowling unit has enough to bowl at.
In short, Shafali Verma is a teenage prodigy who, having taken India to their second straight semi-finals, is living up to the hype. The spin unit bowling as a whole was India’s biggest strength but on an individual level, the batters were to be the bulwark of the team and Verma has essayed that role almost single-handedly.
If she can extend and enhance this form for one more game, India will be all but assured of their first final in the format. And given her recent track record, neither the final nor a first World Cup trophy seems like a pipe dream for India.