Deepti Sharma’s moment of glory
Deepti Sharma impressed everyone with her all-round abilities at the World Cup, but it is her composure and understanding of the game that could make her the player to watch out for
What do you do if you’re an effervescent 19-year-old playing your first World Cup match, and you don’t even get a chance to bat? Bear in mind that just over a month earlier, you had opened the batting against Ireland and smashed 27 fours and 2 sixes in a 160-ball 188. Do you sulk in a corner of the dressing room? Or do you just go out there with a smile on your face and show off your other skills?
Deepti Sharma is no sulker. So she took the field and contributed fulsomely to upsetting the English apple-cart in India’s first match in the Women’s World Cup. The dangerous Nat Sciver was caught on the sweep down the leg side, Dani Wyatt popped back a return catch and Anya Shrubsole—who would go on to break Indian hearts in the final at Lord’s—was caught in the deep to seal a 35-run win.
Figures of 3 for 47 were impressive enough, but those wickets weren’t the high watermark of Sharma’s afternoon. That was a throw from backward point that detonated the stumps at the bowler’s end to send back Katherine Brunt, whose run-a-ball 24 had threatened to haul the hosts back into the contest. Sharma celebrated with a sheepish grin that eventually blossomed into a 100-megawatt smile.
Later on, as she reflected on a moment that had pride of place in the highlights reel, Sharma might have thought of the incident a decade earlier that had started her off on the road to Lord’s. The youngest of seven children, she had accompanied Sumit, her elder brother who represented Uttar Pradesh in the CK Nayudu Trophy for Under-23s, to a practice session.
When Wisden India’s reporter travelled to Vijayawada last year for the One Day Internationals (ODIs) against West Indies, Sharma told her the story in her own words. “A ball rolls near me. I hit it direct on to the stumps. There was a girls’ practice session happening at the same time there. Hemaji (Hemlata Kala, the chairperson of the women’s selection panel) asks, ‘Who is this kid?’ My brother says, ‘It’s my younger sister.’ She tells him, ‘Bring her to the ground every day for practice, she will play for India one day and play on for years.’ That is when my cricket started."
Kala was beyond the boundary in Derby, watching Sharma’s exploits against England. Less than a month later, she saw her grace a World Cup final, just as she had at Centurion back in 2005. Kala was an outstanding performer in the longest format, averaging 50 in the seven Test matches she played, but her old-school methods didn’t fetch her much success in the 50-over game.
Sharma, however, is very much a product of the Indian Premier League generation. Technically sound and capable of playing the anchor role, she can also find the rope. In a career spanning 27 innings, she has batted in every position from 1 to 9, other than No.8. The solidity and adaptability bring to mind Rahul “Man Friday" Dravid and the many roles he played in India’s ODI side for men, but some also caution against such shuffling.
“She is calm and self-assured," says Alan Wilkins, the former Glamorgan pro who was part of the commentary panel for the tournament. “Her technique is sound, and she should be in India’s top three or four from here on."
For Wilkins, it was the composure that made him sit up and take notice. Only once, when Harmanpreet Kaur’s furious tirade, after a mix-up nearly caused a run-out in the semi-final, reduced her to tears, did Sharma look anything like her age. “Just look at her presence in the field," he says. “She wants the ball to come to her, and she knows instinctively what to do to get into good positions in the field to effect her run-outs. She is calm in these critical positions, she is calculating, and almost pre-empts her strikes from the inner ring of fielders. Out in the deep, she has a strong arm as well with a good throw."
Isa Guha, who won a World Cup with England in 2009, too appears convinced that Sharma is around for the long haul. “She appears to play with a lot of confidence with bat and ball, and is a tremendous fielder," says Guha. “It will be a case of how she can fine-tune her individual skills and build with each and every experience. She was definitely one of my favourite players from the tournament."
Perhaps her most impressive innings came in India’s worst outing, against a rampant South Africa. Even as the rest of the top and middle order went the way of leaves in a gale, Sharma gritted it out for 111 balls and 60 runs before she was the eighth out.
Wilkins believes that Sharma is the poster-girl of a new generation. “I’m not sure how long Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami will continue playing, but at 19 years of age, Deepti Sharma represents the bold, courageous youth of India," he says. “In some respects, she has a touch of Virat Kohli’s attitude about her, with the skill-set of Ravindra Jadeja. When they were her age, they believed in themselves to produce the goods, which is what we are seeing from Sharma.
“The future of the Indian women’s cricket team should be built around Deepti. She was a catalyst for so many good things that happened for India in this World Cup."
Sharma is a huge fan of Suresh Raina, but if she wants a role model from the women’s game, she shouldn’t look much further than the Pune-born Lisa Sthalekar, who took 146 wickets and scored 2,728 runs in her 125 ODIs for Australia. Like Sharma, Sthalekar bowled off spin, and batted mostly in the top order. In her last game, the 2013 World Cup final, she signed off with 2 for 20, bowling Merissa Aguileira and the dangerous Deandra Dottin with classical examples of the off-spinner’s craft.
Sthalekar calls herself a “huge fan". “There were two things that impressed me when I first saw Deepti play," she says. “It wasn’t her skill with the bat or that she tosses the ball up when she bowls, it was the fact that she moves really well to the ball in the field with a rocket arm. And that despite only being 19 years of age, she comes across as very relaxed and calm.
“I believe that it will be the latter that will hold her in good stead. At the international level, all players are skilful, but can they perform on the biggest stage? Those that can stay in control of their emotions will not only perform well, but have the ability to lead their side. I look forward to watching her develop over the next four years."
With her close-cropped hair—Kala initially mistook her for a boy—and her reluctance to parade her life on social media, Sharma’s focus is squarely on how she can get better on the field. Indian women’s cricket has many more centuries, wickets and direct hits to look forward to.