In 2009, when Sushma Verma turned up for trials at the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association (HCPA) camp, she wasn’t sure what skill she would pursue. She had a go at medium pace first, but seeing the large number of medium fast bowlers, discarded those ambitions. She then decided to look towards the batting nets, but found even more of a throng there. The smallest crowd was among the wicketkeepers. So, it was there she went next. The coach, Pawan Sen, noticed her itinerant feet and asked her what she was doing. “I just want to be in the team, sir”, Sen remembers her saying.
A natural athlete, Verma played handball regularly for her school — along with some other sports — before choosing to take the gloves in cricket. But to make sure her skills were developed to their potential, she had to leave the comforts of her home in Shimla, and move to Kangra, where the first ever HPCA residential camp for girls was being held.
Inspired by videos of Adam Gilchrist, Verma began to work on developing her wicketkeeping skills, which coach Sen had identified as her strongest suit. “Her reflexes were good”, he said, “So I advised her keep working on her keeping.” The inmates at the academy formed the core of the Himachal U-19 team. The staff emphasised the importance of fitness and fielding, and in their third year, the squad reached the finals of the U-19 domestic tournament, with Verma at the helm. “Then, we made her captain of senior team as well”, said Sen. The staff was convinced of her leadership qualities, going by her performance in practice games against boys teams as well as the nationals. “Her game sense stood out.”
It was her keeping that took her to higher levels though, as she soon made the North Zone team and started appearing in India A games. In 2014, she made her debut for India at home against South Africa.
Verma’s position in the team as the first-choice wicketkeeper has been more or less cemented since then. Curiously though, her contribution to the team as a batter has been nearly non-existent, primarily because she has not been given a chance to bat up the order. Despite being in her third year of international cricket, she has played just eight innings in ODIs (20 matches), faced just 56 balls, and scored only 13 runs. In her last international innings, she batted at number 10, below even Ekta Bisht, who cannot be counted as an all-rounder by any stretch of imagination. It means that for India going into the World Cup, contributions with the bat from the wicketkeeper is one of the biggest areas of concern.
Verma’s lack of batting opportunities is also mirrored in domestic cricket. She batted in the top order for Himachal Pradesh, but since joining Northern Railway a couple of years ago, she has turned out for Indian Railways in the domestic tournaments. With the likes of Harmanpreet Kaur, Punam Raut and Mithali Raj in the top order, Verma has hardly been called on to bat even in domestic cricket. In the 2016-17 season, she batted only four times: Twice each in one days and T20s. She managed a total of 21 runs in these four innings, and then a further 52 runs in three innings of the Challenger Trophy, including a 35* in the final. Her keeping, meanwhile, has kept her near the top of the dismissals chart.
The lack of game time with the bat is an area of concern for the player herself as well. “In between she had lost confidence a little bit”, said Sen, who has been her coach from the start. “She felt she was just doing keeping. She was worried that she can’t show her batting skills in the Indian team.”
So, Sen chalked out a plan for her to ensure that when she gets the opportunity, she will be ready. “She would play matches with U-16 boys, and bat up the order. I would tell her that she should come and bat whenever she is free, and we would train on bowling machine, and work on her batting.”“I am confident that she will score when she gets the opportunity”, he says of his ward.
For now, Verma must keep proving her worth with the gloves like she has done so far. She is hardly the first keeper to be picked primarily for her keeping; Samantha Lobatto and R Kalpana have also played similar roles. This seems to be how the team management has defined Verma’s role. It is more important that she takes every chance that comes her way, any runs she provides down the order are supplementary. It is a difficult situation for the 24-year-old. Chances to contribute with the bat are likely to be rare, and she will need to be prepared to take every single opportunity that comes her way. Once again, Verma must do everything she can to make sure she is in the team.