Shafali Verma is only 16, but such is the effect of the long pause in sport, especially women’s cricket, forced by the pandemic that her heroics seem distant.

Wiser and hungrier to take fresh guard after months of lock down, the Rohtak girl who grabbed global cricket attention as a hard-hitting opener in the women’s T20 World Cup early this year, is ready to roll.

                                  

Shafali, who has built an aura since entering the 2019 Women’s T20 Challenge as an unknown face, will be one of the most watched as this season’s three-team series starts in the UAE on Wednesday.

Indian women’s cricket received a big boost when the team reached the 2017 ODI World Cup final. The baby-faced Shafali’s blows added a fresh dimension in the runners-up finish to Australia in the T20 version at Melbourne in March. She was named in the team of the tournament.

The attacking opener has played 19 T20 internationals, with a stunning strike rate of 146, and that approach took India to within one step of Cup glory. Shafali also became the youngest Indian to score an international half-century, surpassing the 30-year-old record of her idol Sachin Tendulkar, who hit his maiden Test fifty as a 16-year-old.

Shafali is in Sharjah, with the Mithali Raj-led Velocity team, raring to go.

“I’m excited to hit the ground for the games; to just play my shots. I miss playing with Smriti Mandhana and for the Indian team. It’s amazing how Women’s T20 challenge has been organised during a pandemic. I will continue to go for my shots from the word go, help my team win. Till we return to wear the blue jersey, I will give my best in the UAE,” said Verma.

She will open the batting in the first game against holders Supernovas, which has England all-rounder Danielle Wyatt.

The four-match series will provide Indian cricketers the first game since the loss to Australia in the T20 World Cup final. Each player will earn $2500 as match fee.

Living in the bio-bubble has thrown the first challenge.

“The quarantine time in Mumbai and Dubai has been really tough. We have stuck to each other through phone calls. When I last played this tournament in Jaipur I was nervous, but having played for India in the West Indies, and in Australia in the World Cup, it has made me confident. I have learnt new techniques and how to switch my mindset according to the situation,” said Verma, who is already a familiar face in the game despite making her T20 debut against South Africa only last year.

She failed to score in that match but subsequently had excellent outings in the West Indies a few month later, scoring 73, her best in a nascent career, to break Tendulkar’s record.
“The lockdown period was testing. I could not go out for cricket and was confined home, though it was great to spend time with family. After the lockdown ended, I trained hard on fitness and was a regular at my academy in Rohtak. I like to practice hard every day, with full intensity. That should show when we get to the ground for the games. My aim will be to see the ball and hit with force,” said Shafali, who has been talking with skipper Mithali Raj at practice sessions in the UAE and been hanging out with Danielle Wyatt.

Indian women cricketers will be joined by some leading stars from England, South Africa, Sri Lanka, West Indies, Bangladesh and New Zealand. Natthakan Chantham, who scored the first women’s T20 World Cup half-century by a Thai player, will also feature in the event.

Ask Verma about IPL 13 and the teenager picks Mumbai Indians. “IPL has seen thrilling matches. Even the women’s games should be thrilling. Mumbai Indians have done a great job this season too. They are my favourites; so what if Sachin sir is not there. I’m backing them to win. I hope like the Jaipur edition, the UAE women’s T20 challenge again turns out to be a memorable one for me.”

Due to clash of dates with the Women’s Big Bash League, many top cricketers from Australia, New Zealand and England will miss the UAE event, while no India player is featuring in WBBL.