It's an early August afternoon in Bengaluru. The sun is trying to peek through the clouds, and a gentle breeze is around - the famous Bengaluru weather is showing off. Meanwhile, the infamous peak-hour traffic has just about eased. Away from all the hustle, WPL franchise UP Warriorz are holding a week-long off-season camp at a private sports complex in the eastern suburbs of the city.
That a women's cricket team is conducting a camp of this kind is a rarity in India. It merely underscores the importance of having a professional structure, which makes opportunities trickle down to the grass roots.
More than a decade ago, Deepti Sharma was a starry-eyed kid trying to make her way up the ranks, a path strewn with hurdles, the lack of opportunities and exposure foremost among those. Today, Deepti is a veteran trying to help unearth young talent at a scouting trial, apart from fine-tuning her own skills, which have made her a key member of the India team.
Deepti is at the front and centre of the camp, where the coaches have set out specific tasks for the players. Deepti, who was signed at the auction ahead of the inaugural season for INR 2.6 crore (US $312,000 approx.), may have been back in rainy Agra training on cement surfaces. Instead, she's going through the paces, both fitness- and cricket-wise. Be it timed sprints or precision-specific range-hitting topped with a technical breakdown of what she did right and what she didn't.
Such critical feedback from coaches in women's domestic cricket, heavily dominated by the star-studded Railways team, is rare. Which is why the camp is already a massive step-up for the players who have assembled.
As lunch time nears, Deepti gears up for a fresh round of match simulation. Many starry-eyed youngsters, who have been called up for trials, are keenly watching the team's vice-captain. There's a sense that everyone involved is keen to see what she does.
Of course, the Warriorz are looking to get out as much as they can from the week-long camp. For Deepti, personally, this is a welcome opportunity to push herself hard ahead of a busy few months, having not played much since the WPL. All India have had in the interim is a short tour of Bangladesh, a low-scoring series marred by talk about the surfaces and the fracas over the umpiring.
It starts with the Asian Games in Hangzhou, where India have secured direct entry to the quarter-finals beginning September 21. Having fallen short of the final hurdle several times, India have an opportunity to push for gold and establish themselves as the Asian powerhouses they are. It will set them up nicely for incoming tours from England and Australia in the coming months.
Deepti has been part of all the recent heartbreaks, including thatT20 World Cup final at the MCG in front of 86,174 spectators. "Earlier, we never used to even qualify [for big-tournament finals]. Now we qualify, play the semi-finals, finals... it's not easy," Deepti tells ESPNcricinfo. "The more matches we play, the more experience we gain. We are falling short by a small margin. I am hopeful that we will cross the line very soon."
The experience bit is pertinent, because that is exactly what the WPL aims to achieve: to give Indian players a platform to train and play with the world's best, adopt best practices and introduce them to modern training methods. This could go a long way towards bridging the gap from being second best to best.
"We were waiting for so long for this [WPL], and it finally started. It has been great, experience-wise," Deepti says. "We have played against some of the [overseas] players for so long, and now we are playing in the same team. It feels nice - different, because everyone backs each other. That is one good thing. You just need that support from the team. I feel this will go to a completely different level and it's going to be a lot of fun going forward."
Deepti is only 26, but already a senior in Indian cricket. She made her ODI debut as a 17-year-old in 2014 against South Africa before getting her T20I cap 14 months later against Australia. No other Indian bowler has picked more wickets than Deepti since her debut in T20Is (105) and ODIs (93). In February this year, she became the first Indian bowler across men's and women's cricket to get to 100 T20I wickets.
Deepti's numbers with the bat are decent too - 1912 runs in 74 ODI innings at 34.76 and 955 runs in 68 T20I innings at 24.48. What makes Deepti a perfect fit in any line-up is her versatility. She can bowl with the new ball and at the death in T20s and is often used to choke the opposition in the middle overs of an ODI. With the bat, Deepti has batted in every position from No. 1 to No. 9 in ODIs and No. 3 to No. 9 in T20Is. It's this prospect of taking up new challenges that drives her.
"Whatever the situation, if have to bowl or bat I like taking up the challenges in front of me," she says. "These challenges help me get my mind stronger. It's not easy to play in any condition, but if your preparation is strong, you can overcome any challenge.
"I do my practice sessions in a way that I remain mentally strong, so that whatever I have in front of me gets easier."
Hrishikesh Kanitkar, who will be travelling to Hangzhou as the head coach of the women's team, had recently spoken about how Deepti keeps her "training levels very high". This is one aspect Deepti says she focuses on keenly.
"The mindset I have during a match, the same mindset I try and carry when I practice," she says. "I have been trying to increase the number of balls that I face during a practice session. If I used to face 500 balls, now I am trying to up that by 100 to 150 so that I get better at my shot-making.
"My preparation is always keeping in mind a match scenario. I keep practicing with the new ball, old ball, semi-new ball. Those sessions help me during a match. In a match situation, I can be asked to bowl at any given time, so I try to keep myself ready and try to replicate whatever I have done in practice in a match scenario."
While Deepti has had success with the ball, she had a below-par WPL with the bat, scoring just 90 runs in eight innings at a strike rate of 83.33. Her overall T20 record too points to her having underachieved with the bat. In 107 innings, Deepti has hit just two fifties, and her career strike rate reads 105.71.
With the likes of Shreyanka Patil, whose stocks have risen rapidly in recent months, breathing down her neck, Deepti knows her T20 numbers with the bat need improvement. She has recently been the designated finisher for both India and her franchise. And she needs to work on her power-hitting, which she reckons she has been doing at training.
"Power-hitting is an ongoing part of my practice routine," she says. "I have started practicing with heavy balls. I make sure when I am facing the bowling machine, I try to step out and practice my lofted shots.
"The balls are a bit heavier than the normal Kookaburra balls. So when you practice, say, ten balls with the heavier ones and then switch back to the Kookaburra, the shot-making becomes a bit easier.
"I like playing as a finisher as it requires more responsibility and finishing a game for your team is a feeling on a totally different level. There is so much positivity within you when you finish a game for the team."
The next T20 World Cup is still a year away and Deepti remains a key part of India's plans for now. The Asian Games presents a good chance for her to maximise her potential and build on her off-season gains. It could set her and India up nicely for the next several months.