Meet the all-round prodigy with the 'boy-cut' hairdo
On May 15, the eve of the first qualifier of the 2017 IPL, the focus in cricket circles on social media briefly moved to two India women's cricketers breaking batting records in South Africa. One of them, 19-year old Deepti Sharma, struck eight more fours than her age in scoring 188, the second-highest score in women's ODIs.
Leading the wave of congratulations on Twitter were former India opener Virender Sehwag, whose highest tally of fours in a one-day international (25) was two fewer than Deepti hit in Potchefstroom, and offspinner R Ashwin, with whom Deepti was to have shared the stage at the BCCI's annual awards night in Bangalore on March 8. She missed the event to play a zonal game.
Any disappointment she might have felt at not being present to collect her award after being named the best woman cricketer 2015-16 (junior) was offset by the opportunity to play alongside her idol and India ODI captain Mithali Raj, who won the equivalent award for the senior level. "Mithali di and I were due to play a game for Central Zone the next day. Playing for India alongside Mithali di, that was my dream."
The youngest of seven siblings, Deepti, like Raj, followed her brother and her father into cricket. But while eight-year-old Raj had little say in being dragged to her brother's cricket coaching sessions, nine-year old Deepti relentlessly badgered her father, Bhagwan Sharma, a retired chief booking supervisor with Indian Railways, to make her brother Sumit take her to practice.
Her fascination for the game began when she rummaged through her brother's kit bag and heard "all the nice things" Sumit, a former medium-pacer who represented Uttar Pradesh in the Under-22 CK Nayudu Trophy, would recount every evening upon returning from training.
What fuelled her curiosity further was the nickname Sumit had acquired in the local cricketing circuit. "They used to call him Bala," Deepti says. "His bowling action and the way he would swing the ball resembled [Lakshmipathy] Balaji, and even his looks, to some extent. I didn't know who this India bowler was initially, but I kind of liked the name, always."
On his father's instructions, Sumit took Deepti to one of his net sessions at the Ekalavya Sports Stadium in the Sharmas' hometown of Agra. While he got busy with his training, Deepti sat on the stairs near the girls' playing area. When a ball came rolling along the ground towards her and she was asked to return it, she took casual aim and hit the stumps.
Watching this unfold from an adjacent net was Hemlata Kala, the former India batsman and current chairperson of the BCCI women's selection panel. She summoned Sumit to enquire who this "little boy" was and whether he played cricket regularly. When Sumit said the girl with the "boy-cut" hairdo was his sister and that she had never come to a cricket field previously, Kala said: "Let her play. This kid will represent India someday."
Those words got Deepti to begin formal cricket training under Sumit. By his own admission, though, Deepti barely needed any tutoring on some of the important basics of the game. "Deepti is naturally right-handed, but she settled into a left-hander's grip on her own, without any help from me," he says. "Even with bowling, medium pace seemed to be her natural choice."
For the next two years, Deepti appeared in Uttar Pradesh's U-19 trials, but was considered too young to represent the state. But Kala, who had taken her under her wing by then, made sure the young girl was exposed to the opportunities her precocity deserved.
"Hema di would take Deepti to Delhi and Allahabad, where she would send down a few overs, bat in the nets or watch intra-squad matches at the Railways camps," Sumit says.
An increased familiarity with match-like situations brought more confidence. Deepti remembers making an impression at the 2010 trials - her third attempt in a row, and first successful one, to make it to the state's U-19 side. "I scored 65 and picked up three wickets with medium pace in one of those games."
A 114 against Vidarbha in Kanpur helped her break into the state senior side in 2012. PN Singh Rana, former co-selector at the UPCA, insisted she be drafted into the senior ranks though she was only 15.
Former India batsman Rita Dey, who was then the BCCI national selector (central) and the UPCA chairperson of the women's selection committee, says that along with Deepti's prolific returns with the bat and ball, "the young girl's boundless enthusiasm for the game" strengthened her case for a spot in the senior team.
Progress was swift, and in parallel, her bond with Dey grew stronger. Dey's influence on the teenager, both Deepti and Sumit acknowledge, has been "life-changing, not just career-defining".
Dey, along with Kala and Rana, felt that Deepti's medium pace was probably not adequately complementing her strengths with the bat. "This could come in the way to her selection in the national side," Dey recalls thinking. "She is not among the tallest girls around, and her natural action seemed more suited to spin." Deepti thereafter switched to offspin.
In 2014, an unbeaten 53 for India A earned her a maiden ODI call-up for the series decider against South Africa. On debut, at the Chinnaswamy Stadium, she was run out for 1, but with the ball, she raised hopes of a late fightback by India, breaking through a 109-run stand with a double strike in the 29th over of the chase. India, however, lost the match by four wickets, and so the series.
"I never had any such thing as a 'dream debut' in my head. But those two wickets gave me confidence that if I may have an off day in one department, I could bank on my other skill to contribute to the team."
Deepti's all-round skills make her an integral part of the current Indian set-up, according to Purnima Rau, former captain and coach. "As an offspinner, opening left-handed bat, and an agile fielder in any position - whether close-in or on the boundary - India have an unbeatable combination in her."
Rau recounts an incident from India's home series against Sri Lanka in 2016. "Ahead of the third game, a few issues with her bowling called for some immediate fine-tuning. Just a day of work with her and Aarti [Nalge], the video analyst, and you could tell the bowler Deepti Sharma who took all those wickets was not the same as the one we had to sit with."
For Rau, watching Deepti pick up that six-for was "one of the highlights" of her coaching career with the Indian side. Deepti finished the series as the highest wicket-taker, with 12 at an average of 5.25, and two Player-of-the-Match awards in the three-match series.
She would go on to pick up three more such awards in India's 12 successive ODI wins thereafter, the joint second-longest winning streak in the women's format.
"She looks solid," says fellow India allrounder Priyanka Roy. "Her temperament is something you respect as an opponent, and you know she'll come back at you even if you may have subdued one of her skills."
Among the international opponents she has played against so far, Deepti admires the Australia captain Meg Lanning. "From the little I have seen of Lanning, I like the intensity she brings to her game. It is as if she acquires a different personality upon entering the field - you know, a powerful attitude."
It's the same type of switching on and off that Rau sees in Deepti's body language. "When you meet her off the field, there's something vulnerable about her. She is a teenager, a simple girl. You'd want to protect her. But when she's out there in the middle, she'll rarely show any nerves."
Deepti finished as the leading run-getter in the series with 253 runs in six innings, including three fifties, and she routinely applied the choke on the opposition during the 53 overs she sent down - the most by any of the nine bowlers used by India - in which she conceded 2.67 runs an over.
"She showed good understanding of her responsibilities at the top. In general, she's calm but knows what she is doing," said team-mate and T20I captain Harmanpreet Kaur of her performance in the qualifiers.
After making 188 during her world-record 320-run partnership with Punam Raut, Deepti said she wanted to dedicate her performance to her mother, Sushila, and personal coach Vipin Awasthi. A retired principal of a government school, Sushila says Deepti's distractions as a teenager are few and her demands even fewer. A basic feature phone made way for a smartphone only last year, at 18, and that was because all the India squad members had to be on a common WhatsApp group.
Explaining her limited social-media presence, Deepti says: "Zyada zaroorat nahi padhta hain [I don't feel the need]. Cricket keeps me occupied. When I'm not playing, I like to watch video clips of matches, especially those featuring Suresh Raina. I am a big fan of his and I want to master his inside-out six."
She brings that focus to every aspect of her career, even when practising for interviews as part of World Cup media training, or filling out a team questionnaire.
"I wanted to make sure I was mentally ready before the interview began, even though it was just a mock thing," Deepti explains after the team's sessions in Mumbai. "I took a deep breath to calm myself down. As for submitting [the questionnaire] last, it's not that I wrote a lot. It's just that I took some time to arrange my thoughts because it was the first such session I had attended. That extra minute helped me choose the right words. I was able to write exactly what I wanted to write."
Facing the new ball and providing valuable starts to her team against the world's leading bowling attacks, breaking through partnerships by piling on dot balls, and interacting with non-Hindi-speaking media personnel, Deepti, two months short of 20, will face several challenges at the World Cup. But in keeping with her ethic that drives her pursuit of perfecting that inside-out Raina shot, Deepti will have practised hard enough to make sure she's game for anything, on the field and beyond it.
Annesha Ghosh is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo