With her big-hitting prowess and fearless approach, the 16-year-old cricketer Shafali Verma created a stir right from her debut. And in 2020, she became the breakout star of the recently-concluded ICC Women’s T20 World Cup.

Verma was 15 when she received her maiden national call-up last September after making a mark on the domestic circuit and the Women’s T20 Challenge before going on to break Sachin Tendulkar’s record of youngest Indian half-centurion in international cricket.

Her coach Ashwani Kumar and former India wicketkeeper Ajay Ratra, both of who have tracked her nascent career closely, recounted how they spotted her talent and knew she would be an India international in no time.

“The women’s team probables had a camp at NCA in June-July and I was part of it as the wicket-keeping and fielding coach. After seeing Shafali comfortably bat against Jhulan Goswami in the nets, I was convinced that she would be playing for India soon. And that is what happened,” Ratra, who played six Tests and 12 ODIs, told PTI.

Besides Ratra, Verma’s strokeplay in the practice session also impressed India coach WV Raman.

“Even he was of the opinion that she could go on to become a very important player for India,” recalled Ratra.

It is only fair to say that if it was not for Verma’s flying starts, India would have struggled to reach their first-ever final at the T20 World Cup earlier this month as the other batting stars of the team failed to make an impression. Her only failure came in the final, leaving her in tears.

The Rohtak-born, who loves to play in the V, gained a plethora of fans around the world with her ability to hit comfortable sixes, especially the one that flies over the bowler’s head.

Seeing Verma take the best of the bowlers to the cleaners in Australia was hardly a surprise for her coach Ashwani Kumar, who runs the Shri Ram Narain Cricket Club in Rohtak.

“When she came to me first as a little kid (11), I taught her the basic stance and after few days, she was comfortable hitting the big strokes. Then she started training with the girls four years elder to her and in six months’ times, she was practising with the U-14 boys. She never felt out of place,” recollected Ashwani, a former-first class cricketer from Haryana.

“Fast forward it to now, she trains with the fellow academy cricketers [like Ashish Hooda] who have played Ranji Trophy,” he said.

Verma idolises the great Sachin Tendulkar and Ashwani feels that is one reason why she developed a penchant for playing with a straight bat.

Asked if he anticipated Verma becoming a household name at such a young age, the coach said: “I will be honest here. I did not have an idea about women’s cricket. I had just seen her play for Haryana and I got an idea that she was meant for bigger things.

“Before she left for the World Cup, I was not sure how she would handle the pressure of a big event but she exceeded my expectations and did well throughout. Having said that, it is just a start for her and she knows that,” he added.

However, they also feel that there is a a lot of scope for improvement for the teen to sustain the sensational six-month run she has enjoyed. Ashwani and Ratra also feel that Verma needs to improve her agility, which would make her a better runner between the wickets and a much improved fielder.

“She only got back a couple of weeks ago and the lockdown happened. When things are back to normal, I would be talking to her about the importance of rotating the strike frequently and not just hitting the big shots. She also needs to work on reducing the number of dot balls,” said Ashwani.

The lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic has also prevented Verma from appearing for her class 10 board exams. Ashwani and Verma’s parents are not sure if she will get another opportunity to complete her exams in the near future.

“She was very focussed on studies after coming back from Australia. But with the exams now postponed, you can’t be sure if she will have the time to appear for them later, considering the international playing schedule. But such is the life of a professional cricketer,” added the coach.

With PTI Inputs