Two seasons old in international cricket, 17-year-old Shafali Verma is fully aware of the need to improve constantly and her immediate focus is on tweaking her short ball game against fast bowlers.
Having made her India debut as a 15-year-old prodigy, Shafali has come a long way over the past 24 months and alongside the elegant Smriti Mandhana, forms one of the most explosive opening pairings in women’s cricket.
She has played a couple of Tests, six ODIs and 28 T20 Internationals since making her debut in the shortest format in September 2019, enough exposure for top teams like Australia and England to work out her game.
On tours of England and Australia this year, Shafali was peppered with short balls and she didn’t look particularly comfortable against them.
To get better against the rising ball, Shafali is facing 200-250 balls from U-25 male players, who can clock 125-130 kmph at Shri Ram Narain Cricket Academy in Gurugram under the watchful eyes of her coach Ashwani Kumar.
“It feels good that I have been able to complete two years in international cricket but there is a long way to go. I know the areas of my game I need to get better at and one of them is playing the short ball,” Shafali said after being named a Hyundai brand ambassador here.
“The coaches have also told me to play as per the ball and I will continue to do that. I will never change my game,” said the teenager who is back home after a maiden stint in the Women’s Big Bash League in Australia.
During the England and Australia series, Shafali was seen backing away to the short balls and the approach fetched her mixed returns. The coaches at the academy are making her play the short ball on cemented, astroturf and normal wickets.
Besides negotiating high speeds from the U-25 male cricketers, Shafali is also facing throwdowns to cover all bases.
“I won’t back away that much going forward. You will see me shuffling around the crease a lot more and play as per the merit of the ball,” said Shafali who is also working hard on her fitness.
Having very little experience of playing red ball cricket, Shafali also looked at home when she made her Test debut against England in June.
She struck a memorable 96 in the first innings, a knock that will always remain special for her.
With three fifty plus scores in four innings, she has had a dream start in the five-day format. However, the same can’t be said about the six ODIs she played this year and also lacked consistency in the T20s in Australia and England.
Her coach Ashwani Kumar feels Shafali will only get better with time and experience.
“We must not forget that she is still 17. Her dream Test debut shows that she has got the required technique to succeed at the highest level.
“In the shorter formats, where there is scoreboard pressure, you need to be really quick with your thinking and that is where she needs to improve a bit. As she goes along playing for India, you will see her only getting better,” he said.
Talking about two years in international cricket, Shafali feels she has learnt something new with every game and is most grateful about playing Test cricket.
“In Test cricket, I got to learn a lot more than I thought, especially patience. It is the best format and it was a dream come true for me.
“I just loved my first Test knock (96), I felt really good out there and I played a lot better than I thought. That innings will always remain special.” Most of the players in the Test squad, including Shafali, had very little experience with the red ball as multi-day cricket is not part of the domestic set-up.
On the upcoming World Cup in New Zealand, her plans are simple.
“I just want to be fit and work hard on my game and help India win. I hope I will inspire more girls to play the game. Two seasons in international cricket have been very good to me. My approach is learn something new from every game and improve.” She also had a lot of praise for her senior partner Smriti Mandhana.
“She is always backing me on and off the field, tells me to play my natural game and whenever I am struggling in the middle, she always helps me fix my flaws.
“…if I am struggling against a particular bowler, she will tell me ‘take a single and give the strike to me’. It is great that I have batting partner like her.”