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Monday, March 30, 2020

Haryana Hurricane: Shafali Verma ready to take T20 World Cup by storm

Even before the T20 World Cup started, India's 16-year-old opener Shafali Verma's assault on top Aussie pacers created a buzz.

Written by Sandeep Dwivedi | New Delhi | Updated: February 21, 2020 12:57:47 pm
Shafali Verma, Shafali Verma batting, women's t20 world cup, t20 world cup, cricket world cup, women's cricket, cricket match, india cricket, australia cricket, india vs australia women cricket Shafali’s straight six off Aussie pacer Megan Schutt in a tri-series T20 game has been playing on loop on social media for a while now. Her father Sanjeev says that the hours spent playing the game on Rohtak’s narrow streets has helped his daughter send the ball over the sight screen. (Express photo by Kamal Sharma)

In a span of two months, Sanjeev Verma lost his entire life’s savings of Rs 7.5 lakh, that he had kept aside for his children’s cricketing careers, and his wife’s 50 grams gold jewellery to a conman. It was in 2016 that Verma got fooled by a swindler who called himself a RAW official, flaunted photo-shopped frames with the Prime Minister, promised the struggling small-time goldsmith a permanent job at an airport, made unending demands of cash and then disappeared with the loot.

“I still remember all I was left with was Rs 280 in my wallet. I didn’t have anything else,” says the strongly-built proud 43-year-old, who looks away as his eyes well up.

Sanjeev was broke but all wasn’t lost. No cunning, deception or adversity could steal the Verma household’s priceless jewel – the in-born sporting talent in the family’s middle child, teenaged batting prodigy Shafali. At 15, she is the most exciting batter in the Indian team at the T20 World Cup starting in Australia on Friday.

Shafali Verma, Shafali Verma batting, women's t20 world cup, t20 world cup, cricket world cup, women's cricket, cricket match, india cricket, australia cricket, india vs australia women cricket Shafali’s parents Sanjeev and Praveen Bala at their home in Rohtak’s Sunaar Gully.

It’s been more than three years since Sanjeev went bust. He’s now healed, his savings account relatively replenished. Penury is now an early chapter of yet another Haryanvi sporting tale from the ‘hamari chhoriyan chhoro se kam nahin‘ genre. One has heard this story before, watched it on the silver screen, and knows the end but still these unique father-daughter journeys remain endearing and keep tugging at heart-strings.

***

Wearing North India’s favourite winter-wear, the sporty tracksuit upper, Sanjeev sits in the squeaky clean gym of Rohtak’s well-maintained Shri Ram Narain Cricket Club (SRNCC). This ultra-modern indoor cricket facility is his daughter’s cricketing school. In the presence of coaches and the club owner, Sanjeev maintains the kind of dignified spontaneity that’s the preserve of parents of class-toppers at post-exam PTMs.

Shafali’s presence at the academy that’s twice as old as her is overwhelming. She smiles from the poster on the wall overlooking the main road that connects to the Delhi highway. She’s also on the iron main gate that opens towards the narrow approach lane. The reception resembles a gallery hosting Shafali’s photo exhibition.

Just before Sanjeev, a club cricketer from his youth, settles for a round of steaming milky tea and three types of namkeen, the academy owner and one of Haryana’s long-time coaches Ashwani Kumar’s son Anish has a quick word with him. He wants some more high-resolution pictures of Shafali from Australia. The institution now has a new mascot, their own Amul girl – the smiling girl with boy-cut hair.

Shafali Verma, Shafali Verma batting, women's t20 world cup, t20 world cup, cricket world cup, women's cricket, cricket match, india cricket, australia cricket, india vs australia women cricket Academy owner Anish Kumar.

There’s this famous tale of how Sanjeev got a 10-year-old Shafali to cut her hair really short so that she could pass off as her older sick brother in an all-boys’ school team, and how she went on to become the player of the tournament. It has seamlessly jumped from regional papers to national dailies to social media to the storyboard of Star Sport’s T20 World Cup promotional campaign.

The broadcasters seem to have got their star-spotting perfect. Even before the World Cup starts, Shafali has inadvertently generated viral contests – gold dust for those tasked with talking up potential brands.

First was when she managed a selfie with Sachin Tendulkar — her role model and someone whose record she broke by becoming India’s youngest international half-centurion at 15 — at the team hotel in Sydney.

Sanjeev smiles as he narrates the Tendulkar story exactly the way Shafali relayed it to him from Australia. It starts with Shafali sitting in the hotel lobby and team coach WV Raman telling her that Sachin is at the reception. Shafali runs, mumbles a few incoherent words and places herself next to Tendulkar to get a frame for posterity. “She told me on phone, ‘Papa, Sachin sir bole, arey udhar light mein chalo, wahan achha photo aayega‘,” (Sachin sir said if we move closer to the light, the photo will come out better) chirps the father. “She also said, ‘Papa, maine to dekha hi nahin Yuvraj Singh bhi udhar the, Raman Sir ne bola arey udhar bhi dekh le‘.” (Yuvraj was also there but I didn’t see him. Raman (WV) said look there also)

Shafali Verma, Shafali Verma batting, women's t20 world cup, t20 world cup, cricket world cup, women's cricket, cricket match, india cricket, australia cricket, india vs australia women cricket Shafali Verma fulfilled her childhood dream of meeting her idol, Sachin Tendulkar

This was a few days after she had hit Aussie pacer Megan Schutt for a six. Her stroke kept playing on loop on social media. As if playing hopscotch in the lane of her Rohtak home, Shafali had stepped down the pitch and with a smooth natural swing posted the ball behind the sidescreen. The commentators were gobsmacked.

In the Twitter clip, one could hear them scream: “Watch out cameraman… it’s unbelievable… that’s beautifully timed, wonderfully shaped against Megan Schutt, one of the best bowlers in the world in T20 cricket, and she has done it pretty easily.” A player of repute, Schutt has even made it to the ICC’s All Stars T20 team.

Now, it’s Sanjeev’s turn to dissect the shot. He gets into the character. He is now the tough-to-please coach who instilled fearlessness in his daughter. Like many from the region, he is blunt. The only sugarcoating that’s done around here is by the halvais. That’s how they are, they don’t believe in pretence.

Maine bola tha Shafali ko, seedha hi hisaab hai, agar naam wale ko peet degi toh tera hi naam ho jaayega. Aur woh toh number one bowler hai world ki, usko ‘seven five’ ka maarna badi baat hai.” (I told Shafali, it is very simple. If you smash a reputed bowler you will make a name for yourself. And she hit the world’s No.1 bowler for a 75-metre six).

One asks: “What’s seven five?” One of the coaches replies: “Seventy-five metres ka chhakka, he means.”

Schutt’s more famous new-ball partner Ellyse Perry too had figured in the father-daughter game-plan. For the uninitiated, Perry is the world’s only double World Cupper – she has represented Australia in both cricket and football at the highest level. She is also an Ashes legend.

After Shafali got out to Perry in the first game of the tri-series against Australia, she got a yelling from her father. “I said ‘are you mad? How come you got bowled. You should have followed the ball closely.’ Next game against Australia, she hit four boundaries in one Perry over. I had told her ‘sahi kiya, yeh Perry poori aave na toh unko tod diyo‘.” (You did right, whenever you face the likes of Perry, just smash them) If Shafali makes it big, scriptwriters are going to have it easy. Her father speaks in punchlines.

***

We are now on Sanjeev’s motorbike that’s climbing a flyover. He is talking about the early days of coaching Shafali and his son Sahil. Every morning, the father would wait for the first sliver of sunlight and the three would hit the road looking for any strip of land where they could train. “Below this flyover, there is a very narrow lane. In the morning, the shops are closed so we would play there.”

There isn’t a park, field, school, parking area, street or any clearing in Rohtak where the Vermas haven’t planted their stumps. Sanjeev stops the bike close to a pebble-strewn ground that has a partially disassembled shamyana and other remains of revelry from the previous day. “We would play in such a mess. The ground would be tuta-phuta and I would give endless throw-downs to them. I knew making Shafali play at varied places and pitches would help her adjust to conditions better. See, we always played in narrow lanes or roads so you need to hit straight. You see how commentators and everyone talks about her straight six, it’s all because of that training,” he says.

Coaches Sanjay, Sant and Sandeep.

In the days following the conman’s disappearance and the family budget sinking to a mere Rs 280, Sanjeev and his two tiny tots would start early. The father had no money to buy balls. “There used to be an English school where senior kids used to play in the evening. Often they would lose the ball in the marshes. So the three of us would first go searching for the ball so that we could train,” he says.

The motorbike now reaches ‘Sunaar Gully’, where the Vermas live, surrounded by their extended family. Father, brothers, cousins, they are all around. Sanjeev has a two-room abode that also doubles up as his workplace. “Kaarigar pesha hai hamara,” (We are craftsmen) he says pointing to the corner that displays imitation gold necklaces and his work tools. But this looks like the home of cricket.

It used to be a three-room set-up but Sanjeev brought down the walls of his work-room so that the kids had more space to knock around the cricket ball at home. From the iron grill ventilation on the roof hangs a leather ball stuffed inside an old sock. The wooden storage bed in the living room has huge dents, the heavily-chipped sunmica kept together by cellotape and cartoon stickers.

Mother Praveen Bala appears briefly, talks about Shafali. She says she used to get worried when her daughter would be away from home for a few days. Now she’s used to it. These days she watches her on television, so it helps. Father Sanjeev follows her to the kitchen. It’s time for another round of steaming milky tea with three kinds of namkeen.

Sanjeev enquires about his youngest daughter, 7-year-old Nancy. Mother says she is sleeping. While we are still discussing the choice of name, and Sanjeev gives no concrete reason for finalising Nancy, the girl walks into the living room. Still rubbing her eyes, she gets on the storage bed and from Shafali’s trophy display gets her tiny bat out.

Brother Sahil.

She informs her father that she has hit the stuffing out of the ball in the sock last night. On the dustpan near the garbage bin sits a battered leather ball, split into two with cotton threads hanging out.

Father gets a new ball and Nancy gets into action. If not Shafali or Sahil, then there’s Nancy. Cricket balls don’t get a rest in this house at Sunaar Gully. For a seven-year-old, Nancy’s strokes have raw power. With every hard hit, the ball returns to her menacingly. Once it just misses her unprotected head.

Sanjeev isn’t too perturbed. It’s a cue for the father to recall a very innocent question Shafali once asked him. It was within days of her batting with a helmet. The young girl wanted to know what it feels like when one gets hit on the helmet. Within days, she would experience it. Facing a 22-year-old male pacer at nets, the 13-year-old got hit on the visor. The helmet got a big dent, the metal grill got mangled. She would return home to tell her father: “Arre, kya yahi hota hai lagna… bas! Kuchh hua hi nahin.” (So this is what getting hurt is… that’s all, I didn’t feel a thing). Cricketers suffer head-blow trauma for long. They start fearing short balls, they become circumspect to move forward and meet the ball on the front foot. In case of this extraordinary Rohtak girl, she became fearless.

***

On the way back to the club, Sanjeev gives a guided tour of more spots where he and his two kids would hit rubber, tennis, hard balls and even the ‘andaa’. “You mean egg!” you ask. “Nahin, nahin! that’s what we call that white hard plastic ball,” replies the father with a grin.

By now, the four indoor nets have come alive. The trainees range from a few boys who are stump-high to players who have just returned to their base after Haryana Ranji games. Owner Anish, while acknowledging ‘namastes’, keeps an eye on everyone. When told that the run-down peeling outside walls don’t prepare one for fancy facilities inside, he talks about how it is the players who make a academy, not exteriors.

“See, we give a number of players every year to various Haryana teams across age groups. Most top performers in the team that won the u-16 national title for Haryana last year were from here.”

Anish says that the club named after his great grandfather runs like a giant joint family. Every high of a club trainee and religious festivals are occasions to sing and dance. He points to a collage where Anish’s father, mother, wife, brother and even his infant daughter are seen in pictures with Shafali. That was a function to celebrate her inclusion in the World Cup team.

The star of the evening is standing close to a rangoli made by the club cricketers on the floor of the reception. On the club’s Facebook page are videos of cricketers in colourful traditional wear shaking a leg, with parents and coaches sitting cross-legged on mattresses, on the same indoor artificial turf where they bat and bowl all through the year.

Father Sanjeev outside his home at Sunaar Gully.

Sanjeev says the ‘Making of Shafali’ had a lot to do with her benefactors in Rohtak. Within days of joining the academy and asked to join the ‘high-as- stumps’ kiddie group, the coaches had second thoughts. Coaches Sanjay, Sant and Sandeep all say that they knew very early on that Shafali needed to play with kids much elder to her. Both Sanjay and Sant say the girl’s power-packed shots risked injury to the junior bowlers.

After a couple of years at the academy as Shafali’s power multiplied, the staff had a jury meeting of sorts. “Me, my father and the coaches sat to decide if she should be put in the group with our elite players. My father had just one simple stand ‘in case you guys think of putting her with the best players, don’t go back on your decision as it will really discourage the young girl’,” says Anish. The U-turn was never needed, Shafali kept climbing.

These days, she faces the likes of Ashish Hooda, Haryana Ranji Trophy new- ball bowler who consistently clocks 135 kph. Coach Sanjay says, “She doesn’t look out of place when facing Ranji bowlers. And I know the bowlers too are going all out.”

During his thanks-giving, Sanjeev keeps mentioning BCCI’s former office-bearer Anirudh Chaudhry and his father, one-time BCCI president Ranbir Singh Mahendra. “They have supported her always, even if she scores a hundred or a zero,” he says.

The father says he doesn’t get into things he doesn’t understand. “Maine woh sari tension sir logon ko de di hai. (I don’t take tension, now it is their responsibility). I have spoken to Anirudh sir and Ashwani sir, I don’t take any decision without a discussion with them.” That conman’s blow of 2016 comes to his mind again as he says, “Hum toh sab loota chuke hain ek baar, doosri baar nahin loota sakte.” (I have lost everything once, I don’t want to lose it again).

Anirudh recalls the day when Shafali won the ‘best newcomer award’ at the BCCI function. The Indian board’s old hand has attended several such events in the past but as luck would have it he missed this one. “It was due to a clerical error, I couldn’t be there. But I was following it very closely on my phone and was in constant touch with Shafai. When you have followed her journey so closely, it was a very emotional moment for me,” he says.

Within days of her record-breaking knock and the award, the marketing men started making calls to Rohtak. Anirudh, by virtue of his long stint as BCCI treasurer, doesn’t want to say much about how he helped the Vermas decide on the agents and sponsorship deals but words like ‘vultures’ and ‘raw deal to player’ do crop up in his guarded comments. For the record, Shafali now has an agent, an attractive bat deal plus a Rs 10-lakh retainer contract with the BCCI.

***

Not far from where the discussion about his sister is taking place stands Sahil. With the natural awkwardness of a teen, he walks across but the mention of Shafali brings a smile to his face. His father had said that they all often pull Sahil’s leg saying how Shafali took his place in the team. The boy laughs about it, and says he can’t wait to see his kid sister play the World Cup in Australia.

Do the siblings talk cricket? He shakes his head and cracks up. “When she returns home, I tell her at times that she didn’t play a certain shot well and she replies ‘Bas, tu chup ho ja‘. Her answer is the same even when I tell her she hit a great straight lofted six,” blurts out the shy boy.

The stroke that Sahil mentions has been Shafali’s trademark. With Sanjeev and the coaches together, a highly-informative conversation on the ‘lofted stroke’ starts.

Question: From where does Shafali get all her power?
Father: Woh toh hamein nahin pataa, coach saab se poochho. (I don’t know, ask the coach)
Coach Sanjay: It’s the forearms.
Father: Haan, haan, inko jyada pataa hai. (Yes, he knows better)
Coach Sanjay: Have you seen her powerful forearms. It’s natural, she has heavy arms. It is God-gifted. It helps her get a firm grip of the bat and that means the bat doesn’t move in the hand when she connects.

There’s a small pause, the father seems to be thinking. Now he speaks again.

Father: We worked on it. It was a year back, there is this police ground here. I used to take Shafali there. I would make her flip truck tyres there. There was also a gundaasa there that could be tightened and she used to work on that. You know what’s a gundasa? It’s that manual machine with wheels used to cut cattle feed.

So tomorrow when India play Australia, if you see a fearless 15-year-old hits Perry for a ‘Seven five’, you know why the ball flew.

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