“Bohot hai jo 100 ball me pachaas, sattar, assi mardenge. Agar ek lakh ladkiyan khelti hai cricket, to usme se nabbe hajar log aise honge. Aage badhna hai to ache strike rate se bohot run banane padenge.”
For those wondering how a 15-year old girl was hitting bowlers of international calibre back over their heads, this is how. The actions belong to Shafali Verma, who lit up the IPL Women’s T20 Challenge with a brisk, eye-catching 34, setting up an eventual nervy won for the Velocity against the Trailblazers. The words though, which explain much of the audacity of her innings, belong to her father, Sanjeev Verma.
Loosely translated, they mean: There are so many players who can hit fifty runs off 100 balls, or even seventy, eighty runs. If there are one lakh girls playing cricket, ninety thousand must be like that. If you want to stand out, you have to score a lot of runs at a good strike rate.
“You have to be able to play three shots on every ball. One-man army banna hai (you have to become a one man army),” Sanjeev went on to say.
It is a philosophy that Shafali has taken to heart, posting staggering numbers in domestic cricket this past season, across all age groups. In the Under-19 one-day tournament, she was the third highest scorer, accumulating 376 runs, with two centuries against strong sides. But accumulating is incorrect, as she got those runs at a strike rate of 172.47. In the Under-23 age group, she did even better, scoring 543 runs with three centuries at a strike rate of 198.17. And she didn’t do too badly when playing with the big fish either: in senior cricket, she put together 239 runs at a strike rate of 152.
It’s not often we get to admire the strike rates of Indian batters, but this breakneck speed is all Shafali knows. At the Sawai Mansingh Stadium on Wednesday (8 May), she shuffled across her stumps and slapped her fifth ball, a full delivery from Shakera Selman, through mid-on for four. Next ball, the West Indian quick shortened her length, perhaps hoping to make the youngster uncomfortable. But the ball didn’t bounce, and Shafali’s pull shot made perfect contact, bursting through the hands of the deep midwicket fielder for another four.
Three more fours followed (interspersed by a fair few dots), and a six, all off bowlers with international experience. The six was a double mishit; a sliced shot, off the toe of the bat. And it still carried over the long on fielder. It’s what you expect to see in men’s cricket, where power trumps timing. Here was a 15-year-old girl showing it can be done by women too.
Sanjeev is not surprised. In her home town of Rohtak in Haryana, father, daughter, and Shafali’s 16-year-old brother have spent many a morning in the past year, working on getting stronger. No gym equipment required when you can flip tractor tyres 20 times. And remember that ‘kas ke pakad, jam ke jakad, lagaa’ ad, which credited Dhoni’s helicopter shot to a chaff cutter? That same machine, retro-fitted by the police to make turning it harder, has honed Shafali’s arm strength.
Shafali’s path to cricket was laid down by her father, who was a cricket-mad recreational player himself. Having never found the avenues to take his passion further, he settled into domestic life. He now runs a jewellery shop in Rohtak, but was determined that his children be able to pursue the passion that he was denied, no matter their gender. It is his first daughter, Shafali, who has shown the potential for greater things.
According to Sanjeev, Shafali has been playing cricket since the age of seven. As her age moved into double digits, she also graduated to leather-ball cricket. Sanjeev then cut her long hair and sent her to play as many boys tournaments as she could.
“Many people would not be willing to play with a girl, especially such a small girl. ‘Usko lag jayegi, phir aap FIR kar denge! (she will get hurt, and then you’ll make a police complaint against us)’, they would say!” But Sanjeev and Shafali persisted. And it led to an incident that he calls a turning point.
“One day she got hit on the helmet with a bouncer from a boy. Her helmet went flying off her head, and was damaged, but she was totally fine. She came back to me and said, ‘Kuch nahi hua, yunhi dar rahi thi main (I wasn’t hurt at all, I was unnecessarily scared of the ball)’. After that, the leather ball held no fear for her.
That fearlessness births hope. Shafali is one of only four uncapped players in the three T20 Challenge women’s squads, and on a day that Smriti Mandhana failed, she grabbed the limelight. It is also a testament to the talent that exists in India’s small cities, that continues to emerge without a national level Under-16 tournament.
Perhaps most importantly, with an eye on a full-fledged women’s IPL in the future, it is a box ticked: even beyond the Indian team, there are potential superstars, raw talents that can inspire the next generation when honed.
Shafali is already doing that, even in a state famous for its skewed sex ratio. Sanjeev’s youngest daughter, all of seven, already holds a bat in hand. Left-handed, she can’t wait to follow her sister onto the cricket field.