Annesha Ghosh is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @ghosh_annesha
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Since her international debut in 2019, Shafali Verma's rapid rise as an all-format player has played out like an action-packed cliffhanger, at 2x speed.
Even before she faced her first ball in international cricket as a 15-year-old, she had etched her name in the record books as the youngest Indian to play T20Is. Soon after, the audacity in her approach made her appear like an instant cure-all for many of India's batting woes.
A costly dropped catch in a chastening loss in the 2020 T20 World Cup final then followed and it wasn't long before the teen batting phenom found herself surfing the choppy seas of top-flight cricket: left out of the ODIs, a blockbuster maiden bow in Test cricket, debuts in overseas leagues, attacks exposing flaws in her technique, a middling patch leading into her maiden ODI World Cup and exclusion from the XI one game into the world tournament.
But even when Shafali had gone off the boil, the sense of inevitability around the teenager being only so far from a new batting record never waned.
Shafali has scored 0, 12, and 42 so far in this World Cup, against Pakistan, Australia, and Bangladesh, respectively. In the bilateral ODIs against New Zealand just before the World Cup, she scored 12, 24, 51, 0 and 9. So when India recalled her into their XI in a crunch game against Australia last week, the ploy seemed risky. But the payoff Shafali's potential return to her usual best promised made the punt worth taking, despite her inconsistent recent run in ODIs since her debut last year.
"I am always ready for any kind situation I am thrown into. I was ready for the Australia game and was aware that my next opportunity was just around the corner," Shafali said on Saturday, ahead of India's must-win game against South Africa in Christchurch. "The coaches, too, were backing me in the nets.
"Our batting coach [Shiv Sunder Das], for example, always encourages me and he works with me on my strong points and loose points and so does Kranti bhai [the throwdown specialist] with his throwdowns. They always make sure to speak to the out-of-form players and try to boost their confidence, which is a good thing. As a player, you derive a lot of confidence through such interactions."
Though far from her usual quick-scoring self, Shafali showed glimpses of her big-hitting prowess in her short stay against Australia, bludgeoning the experienced Megan Schutt for a six into the sight screen. In the Bangladesh game, an improved showing yielded a run-a-ball 42 in a vital 74-run opening stand with Smriti Mandhana.
"The last game gave me so much confidence," Shafali said. "I was just thinking of improving myself and backing myself rather than [whether] I am doing good or not. So, [I am] just thinking to do well for the team in tomorrow's game."
The premium she placed on opportunities "to learn [something] from each day" in the nets helped her in her time on the sidelines for the three matches in this World Cup, she said.
"When I was out, I was going through a bad time," she adds. "So I was focusing on my processes and when you go through such patches it's important to work on your process. I worked on my mistakes, and tried to improve on a day-by-day basis, and I am doing that even now - physically, mentally and skills-wise."
Shafali's inconsistency has been a concern within the Indian batting line-up through their six matches this World Cup. But she believes India have an opportune chance to make amends in their last league fixture against South Africa on Sunday.
"Tomorrow is a very crucial game. Everyone knows their role and are ready to give their 100%. We want to put up good partnerships tomorrow. All batters are in form," she said. "Every time we go out there to bat, our focus remains on building partnerships, supporting the other batters, and backing each other. Whatever happens, we try to back each other, and we want to do that tomorrow as a batting unit through partnerships, too."
Against arguably the most imperious fast-bowling attack in the tournament, Shafali and India have their task cut out. And her struggles against the short ball, especially Shabnim Ismail's vicious bouncers which rattled her in her debut series, in India in 2019, could compound the India opener's woes.
"It's a really good match-up," South Africa allrounder Chloe Tryon said about the forthcoming instalment of the Shafali vs Ismail face-off. "We know that she's going to want her wicket and we know Shafali's going to want to hit runs against her. As long as Shabnim sticks to gameplan and stays nice and calm, I'm sure that can happen. But that's going to be a really good contest to see them go about it."
Shafali, for her part, is hardly flustered at the challenge facing her. She is, instead, relishing the prospect of having a go at the South Africa quicks.
"I have worked on playing short balls. I have improved but want to keep getting better at it, whether that be against the short ball or a strong point of mine," she said. "I always love to play hard balls and good bowlers. I enjoy facing them.
"Of course, [I love facing] fast deliveries because I started out playing against boys, so I am looking forward to playing fast balls tomorrow and am very excited about the match. I'll enjoy playing fast bowling tomorrow."
Tryon also spoke about the prospect of Shafali rediscovering her mojo against them.
"Well, she has to bounce back some way, and you'd expect that in the next game," she said. "So, she's a big threat. We've seen the kind of cricketer she is and how destructive she can be.
"Once she gets going, she's kind of hard to stop, so we've had those discussions [that] she's bound to bounce back and you can see she's hungry to make runs. So, as us, we just [need to] make sure that we execute our plans against her and hopefully she does not score any runs against us but it's going to be a really good challenge for us."