Annesha Ghosh is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @ghosh_annesha
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Shafali Verma laughs shyly when asked if selfie-hunters come calling when she's at home in Rohtak, Haryana. "Sometimes," she says, her nod indicating a young athlete's growing ease with new-found fame.
"My target has been to take lessons from every series and keep improving as a cricketer," Verma, currently the No. 1-ranked T20I batter, says. "After the T20 World Cup I worked on my skills, fitness, and choosing the right deliveries to play. I felt I did better there in the South Africa series. I could sense some improvement in my fielding as I had focused on working out and strengthening my body during last year's lockdown."
Verma's scores of 23, 47, and 60 in the T20Is were one of the few highlights of India's series against South Africa in March, their first since the T20 World Cup a year ago. They lost the T20Is 2-1 and the ODIs 4-1.
Verma looked far more at ease against the bouncer in those games than she had previously. She says it was down to the work she put in. "If you try to get better at something and get complacent after trying just once, it never works out. I chalked out a plan and played 150 balls [bouncers] at a time, then rested for a bit and faced more bouncers. I focused on practising the same thing over and over again."
Verma had an opportunity to crank her game up a gear when the Haryana men's team set up camp ahead of their Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy campaign earlier this year.
"I feel that I benefited a great deal from that Ranji camp," she says of the preparatory period ahead of the South Africa series. "My back-foot game was a bit weak earlier, but facing the Ranji bowlers, who would come in at around 140kph, has helped better my technique and confidence on that front.
"I interacted with Harshal [Patel], who recently played in the IPL, Mohit [Sharma] bhaiya, Rahul Tewatia, and picked their brains about dealing with the bouncer. They shared their inputs with me and so did their coach. He gave me his feedback on my batting. I'm very grateful to everyone at the Haryana Cricket Association for the opportunity."
To get around pandemic-related difficulties like lack of access to facilities, Verma's long-time coach, Ashwini Kumar, a former Haryana first-class player, set up nets and a bowling machine in his backyard for additional batting sessions to supplement her training at Rohtak's Shri Ram Narain Cricket Club.
In the national set-up, too, Verma says, there has been no want of encouragement since she earned her maiden call-up in September 2019.
"All of my team-mates, coaches and support staff encourage me to bat in my natural style," she says. "Whenever I don't play a shot well, Smriti [Mandhana, her opening partner] points out the mistake and suggests how I could have approached the ball better, say, by timing it better or something else. She gives me sound feedback. We discuss a lot about what we think of each other's batting." The two put on a 96-run stand inside nine overs in India's only win in the T20I series against South Africa.
The T20 World Cup in Australia last year was Verma's first major tournament and the teenager was the object of a lot of media interest and buzz. If she didn't blink in the spotlight, it was partly due to Raman and the management, who made sure she didn't look much beyond the task at hand.
"I worked with him [Raman] for two years," Verma says. "He would back me to the hilt to bat the way I bat. 'Ball dekho, apnaa game khelo,' [Focus on the ball, focus on your own game] he would say. He motivated me since my debut. Whether or not I did something correctly or did it well, he would encourage me. I will miss him and I want to thank him. It was great playing under him."
The England tour, Verma's first trip to that country, will kick off a busy season overseas for India, and she has been preparing to embrace the new experiences and challenges that will come along.
"I want to remain fit. That's my primary goal, because if I'm fit, I can carve out a long career for myself. And to simulate skiddy conditions [overseas], I have been training with wet synthetic balls, to allow them to skid more.
"I watched the IPL as well. One gets to learn a lot observing and watching the IPL players, their shot selection, especially."
Verma is excited at the prospect of playing a Test. The last time India played one, at Mysore in 2014, she was ten years old. She hasn't ever had a taste of multi-day cricket at any level, and though she likes watching Steven Smith in Tests, most of her idols in the sport, she says, smiling, are from the shortest format.
Already one of the most compelling T20 batters around, Verma will have a shot at learning from some of the best in the business when she teams up with multiple World Cup winner Alyssa Healy at the Sydney Sixers in the WBBL this year soon after India's bilateral series against Australia.
"Healy is a good batter," Verma says. "I watched her bat in the [T20] World Cup. "If I get to open with her or bat with her in any other position, I would like to pick her brains, speak to her about what it's like playing at this level and learn from her experience."
A promotion in the central-contracts tiers has also boosted her salary by an additional 20 lakh [US$27,500 approx] this year. The raise is welcome. She grew up in a family with a modest income; her father, Sanjeev, runs a small jewellery shop.
"I sense that everyone who has been part of my journey is happy to see that I have found an aim in life. When I look back, I think of my younger self cycling 15km to school and then cycling back [home] and then to my cricket academy…. [Growing up], I would try motivating myself by reminding myself that if I work hard, my name might come up for selection.
"There has been some struggle in my journey, but abhi jo time chal raha hai, usko dekhke khushi hai [I'm happy to see how things are going]. As Papa says, if I stay diligent, keep learning and work on my mistakes, I can do better and support the Indian team in every way I can."