Deepti Sharma is a grafter. She is the kind of player you would bank on to bat through an innings, not someone who can turn a match on its head. There is nothing fancy, no shots in anger, just the good old nudging and nurdling. She is the classic example of an old-fashioned player — wait for the bowler to make a mistake and take full toll of it.
The first thing that that strikes you about the left-hand batter from Agra is her composure under pressure. Throughout India’s 2017 World Cup campaign in England, Sharma — identified as one of the stars of the tournament — constantly deflected the tension with both bat and ball.
"At different times during the World Cup, we found ourselves under pressure," Tushar Arothe, then coach of the Indian team, told ESPNCrincinfo. "Whenever I looked at Deepti, she had the look of someone wanting to embrace it. That was a revelation for me. She was quiet, but the calmness she resonated was simply unbelievable for someone playing in her first major event."
Then only 19, Sharma stuck to a simple game plan and showed the desire to push through difficulties. Every time India were under the pump, she was their answer.
One of Sharma’s most popular mantras through that campaign was “lamba khelna hai” (to play a long innings). She was always trying to anchor the innings, rotate the strike with her “singles and doubles” and would look to accelerate only at the back end. It was a tried-and-tested style that had worked wonderfully through her short career, but it was a method that would hold her back in the shortest format.
Through the early part of her career, Sharma was not thought of as an effective T20I player. While her ODI debut came in 2014, she had to wait till January 2016 to earn her first T20I cap, and even then she played primarily as a bowler.
Through her 19-match career, Sharma has batted only nine times in the shortest format — three innings at No 3, two at No 4 and 5 and one each at No 8 and 9. Through those innings, only four times has she scored at a strike rate above 100, and only once has it been over 115.
The deficiencies were clear — she needed to change her approach; she needed to attack more.
Reputations such are these are hard to shake off no matter how much you try. In cricket, it becomes even harder. One innings is never enough… sometimes, even four or five won’t do. Unless you show that you are on top of things, and putting in a concerted effort to improve, any shift in performance will just be described as a flash in the pan.
Sharma isn’t one to take the easy way out. If there is a quality that defines her, it's perseverance. No matter how long it takes to perfect a certain skill, Sharma will practice it again, and again, and again, until she gets it right. Her desire to do everything to the best of her ability, is something that reflects in her game as well.
Aware of all that she needed to work on, Sharma hit the nets with the intention of adding more power and a wider range of shots to her repertoire. She decided to show glimpses of that work in a format which she had become indispensable.
During the ODI series against Australia and England at home, Sharma batted with a much more positive intent. It wasn’t as if she was suddenly scoring at a strike rate of more than 85 or 90, but her approach had changed. Batting in the middle order, she was willing to take the spinners on from the start — using her feet, going over the top and sweeping aggressively. There was a new — and unfamiliar — sense of urgency to her batting.
During the second ODI against Sri Lanka at Galle, Sharma did something that truly underlined this change in her approach: she belted the eighth ball of her innings for six over deep mid-wicket. The delivery was a knee-height full toss from Inoka Ranaweera, the left-arm spinner. The left-hand batter nonchalantly ran down the pitch and pummelled the ball over the rope. It was a powerful shot, and one that certainly helped alter her reputation ever so slightly.
Six months ago, she would have simply looked to tap the ball into a gap to pick up two runs. She would have waited till she had batted a little while longer before being willing to go over the top in search of a boundary. But Sharma had changed, and with that shot, she made it known.
Sharma’s bowling makes her versatile. She is a classical off-spinner who gets the ball to drift away from the right-hander before it hits the pitch and turns back sharply. She bowls at a tricky pace, looping the ball above the batter’s eyeline, teasing them to come forward only to see the ball suddenly dip and rip past them. Her high-arm action and wonderful wrist position also meant that she gets a lot of overspin on the ball, causing it to jump off a length, bringing the top edge into play.
Sharma’s biggest strength with the ball is her accuracy. She bowls a nagging line and length, with an aim to keep the scoring to a minimum. Dot balls will lead to wickets, she believes, and therefore bowls with an intention to choke the batters. Give Sharma a plan, and she will back herself to execute it. She does not possess a whole lot of variations in her armoury, but works well within her limitations— varying her length, changing her pace and adjusting her fields to keep the batters guessing.
After a stop-start beginning to her T20I career, the 21-year-old has found her way back into the Indian XI as a bowling all-rounder. There is no doubt she will play a key role in the team’s campaign in the West Indies — the slightly slower wickets expected to assist her style of bowling. As someone who plays spin well, Sharma — likely to bat in the lower middle order — will also be expected to provide momentum at the back end of the innings. Her new found approach will mean India breathe easy when she is batting. She is now willing to take the attack to the opposition straight away.
"As an off-spinner, opening left-handed bat, and an agile fielder in any position — whether close-in or on the boundary — India have an unbeatable combination in her (Sharma),” Purnima Rau, former India coach, told ESPNCricinfo ahead of the 2017 World Cup.
Sharma is truly India’s ultimate all-rounder. She absorbed the pressures of the big stage in England, and made an indelible mark on the tournament. With that experience under her belt, the all-rounder will be hoping that she can do something similar in what will be her second T20 World Cup.