Three months ago, a 15-year-old girl broke one of Indian cricket’s most nostalgic of records. Cricket has long been enamoured by the tale of a baby-faced Sachin Tendulkar facing up to the likes of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis and notching up the first of his 164 international half-centuries at the age of 16. Almost exactly 30 years to the day, Indian opener Shafali Verma brought up an audacious 73 against the West Indies at just 15 years of age, supplanting Tendulkar as India’s youngest ever to score an international half-century. Verma, whose batting has drawn comparisons with Virender Sehwag in both its audacity and effectiveness, is now a lock at the top of the order alongside Smriti Mandhana in India’s T20 World Cup campaign. In an exclusive with Indian Link, Verma has announced her fierce ambition to light up the world stage.
Speaking to Indian Link before the ultimately washed-out warm-up match against Pakistan, Verma betrays no nerves or emotion about playing against Pakistan for the first time, belying her age.
“I’m feeling no pressure,” she says, without a moment’s hesitation. “I’m taking it like any other game and not thinking about the team opposite. My only aim is to play well and always do well for the country”.
Verma speaks directly and with conviction; it is no surprise that she wields the willow in a similar manner. In December, she blasted a 78-ball 124 in a one-dayer against Australia A in Brisbane, leaving the Australian team coach in awestruck admiration. “She’s just an amazing talent, she’s only 15 years old and she’s got so much power,” said Leah Poulton. “She just had so much composure at the crease, she didn’t look fussed at all. She’s definitely going to be one to watch over the next few years.”
Verma’s bright future is one that she has never taken for granted. Like many in the Indian team, Verma faced struggles finding teams who would play against her. Local teams across
several towns would often refuse, citing their concerns that she would get hurt and that her father would complain. Verma’s father Sanjeev, found a novel solution: he cut his daughter’s hair to give her a more “boyish” appearance, and Verma promptly began playing regular cricket on weekends.
With her father busy making jewellery for a living, Verma would often cycle twenty kilometres just to make it to cricket training. “I faced a lot of challenges growing up,” acknowledges Verma. “But dad never let me feel like there were financial issues in the
house. He always encouraged me to play. Today, everything I am is because of my father.”
Earlier this month, Shafali Verma met for the first time another big influence in her life, incidentally the very man whose long-standing record she broke – Sachin Tendulkar. More than six
years ago, then ten-year-old Verma travelled a long way to see Tendulkar in his last domestic Ranji trophy game, and labelled the moment she met Tendulkar in Australia as a “dream come true”.
“I didn’t meet him for very long, but I was very excited and happy to even get to meet him, because he is my idol,” said Verma. Tendulkar, who was in Melbourne for the successful Bushfire Cricket Bash charity match, responded in kind, writing “Hearing from you on how you had travelled all the way to Lahli to see my last Ranji game and now seeing you play for India is amazing. Keep chasing your dreams because dreams do come
true. Enjoy the game and always give your best.”
The youngest of four teenagers in India’s T20 World Cup squad, Verma is used to taking advice from senior players in what she says is a welcoming team atmosphere in which none of the youngsters have been made to feel out of place. The clear team unity across young and old heads alike is a critical reason this Indian side is shaping up as true title contenders, particularly after an impressive showing in the lead-up to the tournament.
Verma is committed, however, to ensuring the Women in Blue go beyond merely impressing. It’s an ambition she is well suited for; like most teenagers, Shafali Verma loves listening to music, but asked for her other hobbies and interests, Verma responds, deadpan: “Only cricket”.
Yet not far beneath Verma’s composed exterior, there remains some of the youthful exuberance that typifies young Indian cricketers, along with a humility that stems no doubt from Verma’s modest roots.
“I like that [people] are starting to know my name. I want to do even better, I want the whole world to know me. If I start becoming more recognised and doing well, I want to help poor people that can’t play cricket,” says Verma.
For Australian fans of the explosive 16-year-old, there may be some exciting news ahead on the horizon, with Verma revealing to Indian Link her desire to follow in the footsteps of Indian captain Harmanpreet Kaur and opening partner Smriti Mandhana by playing in the Women’s Big Bash League.
“I would love to play in the WBBL. It will help me develop my game and also adjust to different conditions,” says Shafali Verma.
If she does make it out to the WBBL, we can expect to see some Australian domestic cricket records to come tumbling down very soon.