T20I teen debutante trained in guise of boy
- Bruised and battered several times in those formative years in the boys’ team, Shafali’s passion for the game grew by the day.
- Then things began to change as her school decided to develop a girls’ cricket team. “It was not easy for her to play against the boys as she often used to get hit on the helmet.
The 15-year-old batswoman, who became the youngest T20I debutant for the Indian women’s cricket team, chopped her hair on the instructions of her cricket-mad father, Sanjeev Verma, after every cricket academy in Haryana’s Rohtak district refused her admission. “No one was ready to induct her in any academy because there was not a single one for girls in Rohtak. I literally begged them to give her a chance but in vain,” recalled Sanjeev, who runs a small jewellery shop in Rohtak.
“I knocked on the doors of a lot of cricket academies but all I got was rejection. I decided to cut her hair, and took her to one of the academies and got her enrolled there as a boy,” he told TOI.
When asked whether anyone had noticed at the time that she was a girl, he replied: “I was scared but no one noticed. Nau saal ke umar mein saare bachche ek jaise hi lagte hain (At the age of nine, every kid looks the same).”
Bruised and battered several times in those formative years in the boys’ team, Shafali’s passion for the game grew by the day. Then things began to change as her school decided to develop a girls’ cricket team. “It was not easy for her to play against the boys as she often used to get hit on the helmet. On a few occasions, the ball even smashed her helmet grill. I used to get worried but she never gave up,” Sanjeev added.
The seeds of Shafali’s passion for cricket were sown when Sachin Tendulkar was playing his last Ranji Trophy match against Haryana at Lahli in 2013. The nine-year-old was in the stands of the Chaudhary Bansi Lal Cricket Stadium, on her father’s shoulders, chanting “Sachin, Sachin”.
The swashbuckling opener, who has been touted as India’s next superstar by the likes of Danielle Wyatt and Mithali Raj, smashed 46 off just 33 balls on Tuesday against South Africa in her second outing for India. She lasted only four deliveries on her debut.
“I am feeling a bit relaxed now, after getting a duck on debut. The senior players backed me after the first match and I am glad I contributed to the team’s victory,” the 15-year-old told TOI from Surat.
Shafali, who earned her India debut on the back of a superb domestic season where she amassed 1,923 runs, including six hundreds and three half-centuries, knows this is just the beginning and is determined to cement her place in the side before flourishing across formats. “The aim is to play as long as possible for India and keep winning matches for my country,” said Shafali, who is a student of Class 10 at St Paul School, Rohtak.
Sanjeev had to face constant interference by pesky neighbours and relatives for years. “Neighbours and relatives started to taunt me. ‘Teri ladki ladkon ke saath khelti hai, ladkiyon ka koi future nahi hai cricket mein (Your daughter plays with boys, girls have no future in cricket).’ I and my daughter were exposed to such scornful comments from society that anyone would get mentally scarred. But my daughter is very strong mentally. She told me once, ‘Papa one day they all will be chanting my name’,” recalled Sanjeev.
She was right. They have been praising Shafali as one of their own ever since she made her debut.
None of it would have been possible but for Sanjeev’s determination for his daughter to play for India. “When she first came on TV while playing for Velocity team in the Women’s T20 Challenge in May, all those who were criticising us were dumbstruck. I felt so proud.”
“I have three kids, a son and two daughters. My younger daughter has also started playing cricket and, hopefully, it is just the beginning. I am sure more girls from Rohtak will play for India,” Sanjeev said.