17-year-old Shafali Verma | Photo: Jyoti Yadav | ThePrint

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Rohtak/Gurugram: In 2014, an 11-year-old ‘boy’ led his cricket team to victory during a tournament in Panipat and was adjudged the ‘Man of the Match’. However, unbeknownst to the organisers of the tournament ‘the boy’ was actually a disguised Shafali Verma, one of the rising stars of Indian women’s cricket.

Hailing from Haryana’s Rohtak, the 17-year-old batswoman rose to Number 1 in ICC’s Twenty20 International rankings, after she smashed 60 runs off just 30 balls against South Africa last week.

India lost the series but her fearless batting and long sixes proved that she is a force to be reckoned with. And this is further backed up by statistics — Verma has managed to score 617 runs with a strike rate of 148.31 in 22 matches since her debut in 2019.

Her career-defining knock, however, was during the T20 World Cup last year, where she secured a semi-final berth for India, the first team to qualify, with her 34-ball 46 against New Zealand. She was just six-months into her international career at the point.

While Verma is yet to make her One-Day debut, her non-selection in the series against South Africa raised several eyebrows. Former captain Diana Edulji even said that she is “the best” the Indian team has got.

But the young cricketer is unperturbed by the omission and keeps a positive attitude while she continues to train hard at the Sri Ram Narayan Cricket Academy at Sultanpur, Gururgam.

“If the committee did not pick me then it must have been in the team’s interest. I am focusing on my goal to play for India,’ Verma told ThePrint.

Sri Ram Narayan Cricket Academy at Sultanpur where Shafali Verma is training | Photo: Jyoti Yadav | ThePrint

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Breaking idol Sachin Tendulkar’s record

Verma began her international cricket career in September 2019 when she was just 15 years old. And most significantly, she broke the record of none other than star batsman Sachin Tendulkar — someone her family of five in Rohtak has long revered — by becoming the youngest Indian cricketer to score an international 50.

For her family, Verma said, cricket is Tendulkar. “If there was no Sachin in a match or if he got out, we would immediately switch off the TV.”

In 2013, Tendulkar was in Rohtak to play his last Ranji match and there were no tickets available for the match. But her father, Sanjiv Verma, who owns a small jewellery shop, managed to secure three passes and Verma accompanied her father and brother to watch him play.

“I was shocked to see the craze for Sachin. We were all shouting Sachin-Sachin. I had decided at that moment to idolise him,” she told ThePrint.

Six years later, in November 2019, she broke her idol’s 30-year-old record and became the youngest Indian cricketer to notch an international 50. Tendulkar was 16 years old when he made his record, while Verma was just 15. She hit 73 runs off 49 balls with four sixes against West Indies.

“I plan to break more such records and make my own,” she boasted.

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Held her first bat when she was 7

Verma encountered cricket by chance. The middle child of three siblings, she held her first bat when she was just 7 years old.

She had accompanied her father and elder brother for practice where she batted for the first time. Since then, she has not looked back.

A large part of her training can be credited to her father along with the entire family’s support.

She and her brother practiced with their father at 5.30 in the morning before school and then again, at night, in tennis courts because those were the only spaces that had adequate lighting.

“It was rigorous training. But Shafali never said no. I would find pitches and take her on my scooter to play with the boys. To motivate her, I also announced (a prize of) Rs 5 per six. Every day she returned home with Rs 50 to 60 from me.’ Sanjiv told ThePrint, who himself was an aspiring cricketer.

Verma’s house in Rohtak, which also accommodates his shop, is full of the young cricketer’s numerous trophies. The family has also preserved her first three bats in a display case.

But her journey as a cricketer was not easy. For a game that is believed to be the domain of men, it took Verma a long time to gain respect from the boys she practiced with. She also found an innovative way to deal with the criticism — by chopping her hair off.

“The boys teased me and said what a girl could possibly do in cricket. And then I saw a girl with a short haircut and realised that nobody was able to differentiate whether she was a girl or a boy. This look meant there was no teasing and discrimination and we could play among the boys,” Verma said.

Sanjiv Verma with Shafali’s bats and medals | Photo: Jyoti Yadav | ThePrint

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‘Something extraordinary about her’

After playing the game at the school level, Sanjiv enrolled both his children at the Sri Ram Narayan Cricket Club in 2015. It was here that Verma’s talent truly shone through.

“When she joined us at the age of 12, we put her in her age group’s team. But she outshone her fellows. We then made her play with the under-19 women’s team and she again outshone the other female players. After this, we made her practice with the under-19 boys team,” Ashwini Sharma, the owner of the club told ThePrint.

Even her contemporaries at the club find her inspiring. “She would hit sixes and boundaries. It is thrilling to practice with her,” said 22-year-old Geetanshu Malhotra.

Ranbir Singh Mahendra, the former BCCI president, had visited a nearby training camp where he noticed Verma for the first time in 2015.

Speaking to ThePrint, he said, “She was practising on the net all alone. I watched her for a few minutes and asked Ashwini to keep a watch on her, as there was something extraordinary about her.

But Mahendra also thinks that she needs to focus on her fitness. “Only four and sixes will not sustain her career for a long time. Every second year, a young talent emerges. She needs to be more fit.”

Verma, meanwhile, has taken all the criticism in stride and is working hard to improve her shortcomings: “I have left all the fast food and devoted my time to the training. I am learning from my seniors.”

The Haryana Cricket Board Association has also appointed a nutrition and sports psychologist to help her physically and mentally.

(Edited by Rachel John)

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