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Shafali Verma: The strong girl who's batting down barriers

How the big-hitting teenager built a career in sport with her father's help despite the conservatism around her

Annesha Ghosh
Annesha Ghosh
Last year, on the sidelines of the Women's T20 Challenge in Jaipur, Shafali Verma told ESPNcricinfo her immediate personal goal: "To make papa proud when I start playing for India and, hopefully, he will be there for the first World Cup I play."
She was 15 years old at the time, hadn't yet played a single match for India and the T20 World Cup would, for any other teenager, have seemed a world away. Yet here she is in Sydney, the world's No. 1-ranked batter in T20Is, two matches away from that world title. And her father will be there to watch her.
A little over five-feet tall, so remarkably belligerent has the teenager been as an opener for India that her team go into the knockouts undefeated in the tournament and with the most - and quickest - runs in the powerplay across teams.
Despite the dearth of runs from Verma's opening partner, the usually consistent Smriti Mandhana, and India's premier big-hitting match-winner and captain, Harmanpreet Kaur, India have racked up a competitive 130-plus total in all three matches batting first, and chased 114 in the last game with ease. This has been, to a great degree, down to Verma's fearless energy. Her scores have got better - 29, 39, 46, and 47 - and she has nine sixes, the most in the tournament's group stage; Verma has injected an urgency that, for years, India's limited-overs sides, especially the T20I team, has been chasing.
"I used to score a lot of our runs in the last two or three years, especially in the powerplay, but now with Shafali coming in, she's getting the runs in the way I do," Mandhana said ahead of the group-stage match against New Zealand last week. "She's made a huge impact and the team has become more balanced thanks to her."
"But she still has one more promise to fulfil," Verma's father, Sanjeev, told ESPNcricinfo, as he prepared to board his first international flight on Tuesday night. "Before she left for the World Cup, she told me, 'Papa, ik century toh lagaa ke aani hi hain [I must hit at least one century].
"I'm not being unrealistic; I know her potential, perhaps the world has seen it too. Maybe that first World Cup fifty will also be her first World Cup hundred. Maybe it's meant to happen when I get there."
A jewellery repairer in Rohtak, a conservative district in the north Indian state of Haryana, Sanjeev has gathered the money he needs to be able to watch his daughter live with the help of well-wishers and the Haryana Cricket Association. He is going to watch his daughter taking another decisive step to "proving conservatism wrong".
"Since the start of the World Cup, during my morning walks or on my way to my shop, strangers, neighbours, random passers-by have stopped me to say, 'Kya Sanjeev bhai, aapki beti ne to mahilao ka cricket dekhne pe majboor kar diya [Your daughter has forced us to follow women's cricket]," Sanjeev says. "There was a time when people used to say I'm ruining my daughter's life by making her play because they don't expect girls to be in sports. Bass, ghar ka kaam karwao, toh hi tum acche baap ho, warna bigaar raho ho beti ko [Just make them work at home, then you are a good father, otherwise you are spoiling your daughter]."
"There was a time when people used to say I'm ruining my daughter's life by making her play because they don't expect girls to be in sports"
Shafali Verma's father, Sanjeev
In Haryana, a state that for long has held the dubious distinction of having one of the highest rates of female foeticide in the country, raising a world No. 1 women's cricketer has required immense steadfastness on Sanjeev's part. For starters, he didn't object when a six-year-old Verma wanted to have her hair cropped - a no-no in conservative Indian quarters - upon seeing a group of girls play at a local ground.
"Papa being the huge cricket fan he's always been, he used to take me and my brother to these local tournaments," said Verma. "Had he not done so, maybe I would not have watched Sachin [Tendulkar] sir play so early in my life."
Verma fell in love with batting watching Tendulkar play his last Ranji Trophy first-class match in 2013 at the Bansi Lal Stadium in Lahli, Rohtak, in 2013. "Papa used to talk a lot about Sachin Tendulkar. When I first saw him bat, I knew I had to try this," she recalls.
During that tournament, Tendulkar's guesthouse in town would turn into something of a pilgrimage spot for the father-daughter duo, every elusive glimpse of the batting ace spurring her on to learn more about the basics of batting under her father's tutelage.
"When I first picked up the bat, I thought the only way to play was to whack the ball with zero technique," Verma laughs. "Since I was five-six, I had just been watching my brother bat and bowl legspin, or just used to be at his training sessions to collect the balls. When I actually started training, it felt different but it certainly felt good. Papa, too, started working very hard on me subah, shaam, raat tak - har time [day in and day out]. He made sure at practice that he never treated me like a 'girl'."
A few months later, when Verma's brother Sahil, the oldest of the three siblings, fell ill during an Under-12 all-boys local tournament in Panipat, Verma, 10 at the time, floated the idea to her father that she could fill in for her brother. "She said, 'My hair makes me look like a boy anyway, so let me just put on a shirt and go play,'" Sanjeev says. "I thought it made sense because girls do not get to play much in our part of the town anyway, so why not just let her do what she wants to do."
Verma ended up winning the "Man-of-the-Match" award and was named "Man of the Series" too. "I felt she's got this gift, just timing the ball and hitting it a long way," recalls Sanjeev. "Not many girls had that relatively, so I had to try to give her the best chance to develop it." This episode has now been turned into a promo for the tournament by the broadcasters in India.
A training set-up for police recruits close to the Verma home soon became the space for Sanjeev to help his son and his daughter build up their strength, especially in their upper bodies. Flipping tractor tyres 20-30 times in a session, turning the handle of a chaff cutter, tying heavy balls around their wrists and flexing them all became a daily routine for the two siblings.
"Since my early days of cricket, my strength had been to hit the ball straight. So once I am able to loft one over the bowler's head or drill one down the ground, I know ke chalo, sab theek hain [things are fine]," Verma says. "I get a lot of confidence in general when I hit a four, and it keeps increasing with every boundary I hit. Shoulder mein jaan hain, shayad isiliye kar pati hoon ["My shoulder has power, that's why I can do it"].
That strength lay at the heart of her performance at the U-16, U-19, and U-23 levels for her state, Haryana, starting from 2013. A breakout domestic season five years later, including a 56-ball 128 against Nagaland in a prolific run at the 2018-19 inter-state T20 tournament, put her on the selectors' radar for the three-team Women's T20 Challenge, a domestic competition seen as a prelude to an IPL-style league for women.
"She stood out for me in the nets from day one," England batter Danni Wyatt, Verma's team-mate in the competition, said after her debut. "I didn't think she was that young, and then when I heard she was only 15, I was like: 'Wow.'"
In four months' time, the retirement of Mithali Raj from the shortest format coincided with Verma's maiden India call-up and debut in the home T20I series against South Africa. Although consistently troubled by Shabnim Ismail's pace and bounce, Verma showed enterprise in a 40-plus knock.
The following month, on her maiden overseas tour, she bested the highest T20I score by a visiting Indian in the Caribbean. Her 73 was part of a stand of 143 with Mandhana, a record for India in T20Is.
An even more resounding statement of intent came in the opening game of the A series against hosts Australia in December last year. Verma, 15 at the time and visibly fitter and stronger, scored 124 runs off 78 balls against an attack that featured bowlers with experience of multiple WBBL seasons, some of them even playing for Australia.
"I did get into fan mode for a while there," Australia A coach Leah Poulton told after that knock. "She's not your typical Indian opening bat. Over the years they've produced these opening bats with these amazing techniques and they're really crafty, whereas she walked out there and she was just pure power."
At the T20 World Cup, Verma's approach to building an innings hasn't altered one bit.
"She is just a kid, she is having a good time, she is enjoying herself, but she is on a journey to find herself both as a cricketer and as an individual"
India head coach WV Raman
"I am aware powerplay is where I have to dominate," she had explained in Jaipur, during the Women's T20 Challenge. "Whether it's a domestic innings or somewhere else, I don't think much or tell myself, 'You need to stay, be watchful and all that.' The focus remains to get some runs up top."
A major part of the success Verma has had in the T20 World Cup is also down to the support she's got from senior team-mates like captain Kaur and vice-captain Mandhana as well as head coach WV Raman. In the lead-up to the tournament, Raman told ESPNcricinfo that India "have everything to gain when she comes off". Kaur echoed Raman after India topped Group A, saying that "Shafali is someone who loves to play big shots, and we don't want to stop her".
Raman had made a plea to the media in the build-up to the T20 World Cup to "not to go gaga over her, because she is barely 16, and too much attention is not good for her at this stage". On the eve of India's semi-final against England at the SCG, he spoke of how the tournament has been a voyage of self-discovery for the teenager who is still very much a kid - she still likes being "naughty" in the dressing room, Kaur had said.
"There is absolutely no baggage in her head, the kid that she is...," Raman said. "On the other hand she's also a very intelligent kid. She is at a stage where she is still trying to find herself, as to who she is as a person. She is just a kid, she is having a good time, she is enjoying herself, but she is on a journey to find herself both as a cricketer and as an individual. That's what it is."
Last year, Verma had spoken to this writer about the film Dangal, a biopic of wrestler sisters from Haryana who achieve success thanks to their father's relentless training and grooming (and battling with the system). The ending is fictionalised - the father is locked up by the team coach and can't watch his daughter win the Commonwealth Games gold medal.
Still in her pre-teens at the time she first watched the movie, that climax is etched on Verma's mind. "Unke papa ko toh lock kar diya tha [They locked him out], so he couldn't be at that final, but she made sure she implemented the tactics he had taught her and won that medal."
With Sanjeev in the stands, you can be sure that Verma will do everything to fulfil her promise to him.

Annesha Ghosh is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo