• A 17-year-old playing the longer format, with a red ball and in England for the first time. Shafali Verma was unfazed.
  • A 27-year-old making an international comeback after years of domestic cricket toil. Sneh Rana was resilient.   
  • A 23-year-old who is already a veteran having debuted in 2014. Deepti Sharma was steely.
  • A 23-year-old who was recently dropped and hasn’t settled in any batting position. Taniya Bhatia was a revelation. 

These four had one thing in common: They were making Test debuts and each of them played a crucial role in India’s remarkable, hard-fought draw in the one-off Test against England in Bristol after being made to follow on.

Verma provided a sensational spark at the top order with twin fifties that showed off her new batting nuance. Rana and Bhatia stitched an improbable century-stand for the ninth wicket while following on. Sharma was the quietly determined bridge between the top-order show and lower-order resistance.

If India’s gritty draw was a battle, it was fought and won by the inexperienced infantry and not the military veterans. Win is not an accurate term here. But Test cricket is perhaps the only game that recognises that a draw-that-prevents-defeat can be as good as a victory. The final-day finishes where one team survives seemingly impossible odds hold a special place that can’t be quantified by a win-loss index. Think Sydney 2021 or Johannesburg 2013. Those matches were fought by teams on almost equal footing.

But the Indian women’s cricket team managed to save the Test where the balance between the teams was lopsided from before the start.

India were playing a Test match after seven years while England are the only team alongside Australia to play the format regularly in the Ashes. Some of the younger Indians had not played competitive cricket with the red ball, some had not played in English conditions before and most were unaccustomed to the longer hours that multi-day cricket requires.

Indeed, the pandemic meant that India barely played in the last 15 months compared to England. To add to that, Mithali Raj and Co succumbed to an age-old problem in the first innings – a dramatic batting collapse – and Heather Knight imposed a follow on. In the second essay, India’s seventh wicket fell with a lead of just 46 runs. The bowlers were on top, the fielders were close-in and there was constant sledging and pressure on the youngsters.

If playing a Test match was new ground, this was uncharted territory.

Now, it would be remiss to say this was an inexperienced Test team. The Indian XI had six players who were also part of the famous 2014 win, and Mithali and Jhulan Goswami were also there when India won the 2006 series. But while the veterans failed, India were rescued by these determined debutants who rose to the challenge.

The dream debutants

India fielded five first-timers in their playing XI and four of them played a starring role.

Shafali Verma, as she does in virtually every match, enthralled with her brand of cricket and broke a slew of records. The 17-year-old became first Indian and fourth woman to score a half-century in both innings on Test debut (96 and 63). She is now one of just two players in combined Test history to make two scores over 50 in the same match at the age of 17. The other happened to be a certain Sachin Tendulkar.

Also ReadData check: The big numbers from Shafali Verma’s twin half-centuries on Test debut

The same Tendulkar said last week that the teen has the talent to hook audiences to the women’s game with her blistering batting. But at Bristol, she managed to do that without going slam-bang. She curbed her attacking instinct and instead used her easy power to get most of her boundaries in more conventional ways. Blending picture-perfect defence with picturesque shot-making, she showed that she is not just a prodigious talent but also an ever-improving player.

On the other end was Sneh Rana, who had to climb her way back into the team again. She took 4/131 in the first innings and followed it with an unbeaten 80 in India’s second to become the first Indian across genders to take four wickets in an innings and score a half-century on Test debut.

The off-spinning all-rounder was away from the Indian team after injuries and inconsistent form for five years and despite good performances, couldn’t find her spot in a team replete with spinners. But her chart-topping all-round performance in Railways’ victorious Women’s Senior One Day Trophy campaign earlier this year was hard to ignore. It was the same form that prompted the Indian think-tank to debut her.

Also ReadWomen’s Senior One Day Trophy: From Indrani Roy to Sneh Rana, top performers of 2021 season

It was a surprise call since the team already had an off-spinning all-rounder in the form of Sharma. Captain Mithali said after the match that since there wasn’t enough practice to determine the in-form spinners, they went with the domestic results (and form in nets). It proved to be a masterstroke.

In the first innings, just when England threatened to put on a huge score, Rana (3/77) and Sharma (2/50) combined to dismiss four of the top five batters. In India’s second innings, with the pressure of a follow-on situation, both played a crucial role with the bat. Sharma, promoted to No 3 after being unbeaten in the first innings, was the perfect foil to Verma’s sparkle and her 168-ball 54 was the foundation that India’s resistance was built on.

The final piece of the puzzle proved to be the most unexpected one. Bhatia is undoubtedly the best wicketkeeper in India, but her performance with the bat has too often been found wanting; she was sent at No 10 in the second innings. While a keeper is usually handy with the bat, she had been shunted around the order too often to settle into any rhythm. And after a duck in the first innings, it was hard to hang too much hope on the penultimate pair. Instead, Bhatia provided the coup de grace as she scored an unbeaten 44 off 88 to snatch the game out of England’s hands.

These four, alongside Smriti Mandhana in the first innings and Punam Raut, Shikha Pandey in the second, batted out an attack comprising some of the game’s top bowlers to ensure India remains unbeaten in Tests on English soil.

The memorable draw was significant for India and women’s cricket at large. It also showed the depth of talent India possesses that just needs to be harnessed batter. If rookies could achieve this, imagine what they can do with a proper domestic structure with exposure tours and specialised tournaments. It also showed that women’s Test cricket is indeed a marketable product and we should have more of it.

Also ReadWanted: A Rahul Dravid (and a robust cricketing structure) for the Indian women’s team too