Mohit Sharma remembers seeing some of the traits before. The intrepid strokeplay, the solidity in defence, the clarity in approach, the seeming lack of nerves. "Never before had I seen a girl bat like that or with that kind of an easy, fearless attitude," he recounts.
Sharma, who last played for the India men's team in 2015, followed the England vs India Bristol Test on TV. "This is the first time I've had the opportunity to watch women play Test cricket," he says over a phone call. But there's an element of familiarity to this novel experience of his.
About five months ago, at a camp of the Haryana men's team, the domestic side he represents, Sharma played some half a dozen practice matches against Shafali Verma. And bowled at her at the nets, too. So the 96 and 63 that Verma, 17, scored in the one-off Test, becoming the youngest woman to hit twin fifties on Test debut, wasn't entirely surprising to him.
"At the camp, Shafali would handle the new ball with ease," Sharma recalls. "It didn't matter to her if the pacers were clocking 135kph or higher, or what the stature or skillsets of the bowlers were. In all of those five-six matches, she confidently survived a good 15-18 overs opening the batting. So, scoring runs wasn't her only achievement."
That rang true for Verma's performance in Bristol, too. She batted for the better part of days two and three, and a part of the morning session on day four, trying to get the better of England's 396 first-innings tally and then a follow-on deficit of 165. The 235 balls she faced across the two innings, the second-most by an India debutant in women's Tests, were as much a vindication of her talent as it was a bulldozing of perceptions around it.
Before this Test, 75 percent of her 617 international runs had come in boundaries. Capped only in T20Is, her 29 sixes, the most by any woman player in T20Is since her debut in September 2019, and her No.1 ranking in the format, have been a testament to her ability. In the Test against England, her record three sixes, the most by a woman Test debutant, did her reputation as a big-hitter no harm.
But broken down to its individual components, her Player-of-the-Match winning debut was remarkable also because of its more elemental, less dazzling facets. The blocking, the grinding, the restraint, all high elbow, supple wrists - and doing it for prolonged phases of play.
"Shafali, [as] we know, does have a range of shots and she can be very effective in a format like this if she gets going," Mithali Raj, the India Test and ODI captain, said after the match. "In no time, we could see the score would be somewhere else if she gets going. And once we knew it's a used wicket and there won't be much movement, we thought it would be a good time to give her a Test debut, and she lived up to it."
Before her dismissal in the second innings, Verma's approach in the opening half-hour of the final day was a study in character as well as a test of it. Sophie Ecclestone, the No. 1-ranked bowler in T20Is, began with a slip and a short leg in place. Her left-arm spin was angled largely into the body, with the drift playing its part, and Verma responded with only forward presses and straight-bat back-foot plods.
Three overs later, in Ecclestone's third on the day, Verma threatened to cut loose, starting with an inside-out shot, right off the middle of the bat, over the bowler's head. The tossed-up delivery carried all the way over the fence. Restraint be damned.
The start to the over was reminiscent of the momentum-changing four she struck off Brunt on day two en route to her record 167-run opening stand with Smriti Mandhana. The end to that over, with Verma having offered up a catch off Ecclestone, was a reminder that the Bristol Test was, after all, the teenager's first competitive red-ball game.
"Personally, [I felt] her fifty in the second innings was a very beautiful fifty," Raj said. "The 96 she scored was a good knock, but the fifty came with a little more sorted head and a little more experience. The sweetly timed drives… It was beautiful to watch her."
Verma was dismissed long before India saved the match, from where it looked like their four-Test unbeaten streak would not extend to five. The feisty draw, broadcast live to global audiences, could have wide-ranging, long-lasting ripples.
"I'm sure from here on, she'll go from strength to strength and will be very, very important to the batting of the Indian team, in all formats."
Mithali Raj on Shafali Verma
For starters, Verma is still uncapped in ODIs. For the home series against South Africa in March, she didn't receive a call-up for the 50-overs assignment. (The team management or selectors never explained why.) But the Bristol Test left little room for any uncertainty to cloud Verma's immediate future.
The England tour now transitions into its limited-overs leg. A maiden 50-over appearance for India in the three-ODI series should only be a matter of (a week's) time. In the larger scheme of things, discussions around the playing combination and putting on competitive first-innings totals leading into the 2022 ODI World Cup must start revolving around Verma's role.
"I'm sure from here on, she'll go from strength to strength and will be very, very important to the batting of the Indian team, in all formats," Raj said. "She beautifully adapted to this format. She didn't go like how she would go bonkers in the T20 format. Sensibly she played the new ball and it's great to have her."
It couldn't be more ironic that Verma now sits atop the list of most runs by a Test debutant without a first-class cap. The Bristol draw was India's first Test in nearly seven years. The three-day senior women zonal tournament, the only domestic red-ball domestic event, ceased to exist after the 2017-18 season. The absence of an Under-16 national competition means an entire demographic remains untapped or under-exposed or both until the players reach the Under-19s and Under-23 competitions.
Against the backdrop of the dearth of a well-outlined pathway for female cricketers in India, Verma's journey to a Test cap remains something of a study in the relation between intent and talent-nurturing. At the Haryana men's camp earlier in the year, Verma was the only female player. It was the Haryana Cricket Association, her state unit, that ensured Verma got a regular hit at the nets, in practice matches, and took part in the fitness sessions alongside the men's players.
"I had to even remind my bowlers, 'Aisa nahi hona chahiye ke tum log ladki soch ke ball dalo aur woh tumhari pitayi karey (Don't go easy on her because a girl; she might take you to the cleaners),'" Sharma, who led the opposition team in the practice games featuring Verma at the Haryana camp, remembers. "All of us bowlers gave our 100 per cent. There was no leniency because she is a girl. We knew we were up against a good batter."
For all the paucity of Test cricket for women internationally and of a structure that assists planned, long-term development of India's female cricketers, Verma's record-breaking debut in the longest format remains a success story like no other. Imagine what could happen if India actually got down to unearthing talent by design, not by accident.