Verma looked right at home on Test debut

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  • Only Test: Day Two – England 269/6 (Knight 95, Dunkley 74, Rana 4-131), India 187/5 (Verma 96, Mandhana 78, Knight 2-1)

The Indian Premier League is widely credited with democratising men’s cricket in the country, bolstering its strength in depth and transforming the power hitting capabilities of the sport’s most passionate nation. What is referred to less frequently, however, is what the celebrity-endorsed, widely watched, multi-billion pound league has done for the mindsets of those players. The ability to withstand pressure, in any given situation, amidst packed out stadia or, more recently, in front of millions of television viewers and the weight of lucrative sponsors, is one which those vast expectations prepare any cricketer very capably for. 

And which makes Shafali Verma’s knock, of 96, on debut, as a 17-year old playing her first ever First Class match let alone Test match, chasing an imposing 396 set by England, all the more astonishing. Because Verma has never had the opportunity to play in an IPL. Verma, like her teammates, went cricket-less for almost a year while the pandemic took hold and her governing body forgot about the female form of the game. 

Verma, the number one T20 batter in the world and now the highest scoring Indian debutant in a women’s Test, has achieved all this despite so many factors lodged against her. Her innings was measured, accomplished and perfectly tempered. Like Heather Knight on Tuesday, England’s captain with 11 years of international cricket behind her, Verma’s century was odds-on before it wasn’t. If Knight, trapped in her crease leg before, might be accused perhaps of playing too tentatively to reach her three figures, Verma’s fell in opposite fashion, an audacious swipe outside off, reaching – yearning – for yet another piece of history.

Alas, not today. Fear not. Mourn the century opportunity missed, of course, but think what the future holds. This treasure of a player is only just getting started. If we consider what she is capable of when Verma gets the full support she so richly deserves, the mind boggles.

In favour of the skill and temperament of Verma’s innings, if not that of her nation, is that when Verma’s wicket went, it precipitated a calamitous Indian collapse. Her 96 off 152 balls in an Indian record-opening stand of 167 with Smriti Mandhana (78 from 155) stood in stark contrast to the five wickets that then fell for just 16 runs. Just like Wednesday’s play, the game ebbed and flowed in pleasant, testing fashion: a flurry of activity at the start, followed by moments of monotony (India’s Punam Raut took 24 balls to get off the mark) and then an England resurgence at the end. With football’s Euros on our minds, that makes it four sessions for England to India’s two – the tourists have much to do to claw it all back.

If Verma had the opportunity to get her century, then one debutant who didn’t was Sophia Dunkley. Rightly so, you might think, with 396 on the board, 127 made that morning alone and a pitch which looks as though it will deteriorate sooner rather than later, England declared, nine down. They were in confident mood. Nevertheless Dunkley, 12 not out overnight but unbeaten on 74 by the time her captain hauled her in, may have reason to feel a little aggrieved that she didn’t get a stab at three figures at the first time of asking. 

More so when, an hour on and still without a wicket, England found themselves pondering the merits of their declaration, both India openers having cruised past their fifties and 140 on the board. There were dropped catches too – three, in fact – and, sharp though they may have been, that England’s bowlers were forced to toil for almost 50 overs before prizing out Verma may impact their decision to enforce India’s follow-on, should the opportunity arise on Friday.

"I was just trying to get us into a good position throughout the whole thing," Dunkley said at the close of play, casting aside any need for a debut century. "I just tried to keep it as simple as possible and use what I’ve been using in [one-day] cricket and transferring that over. And for me it was trying to be positive and keep wanting to score and just being there and not getting bored. It is kind of similar to the white ball that we’ve been playing but definitely I had to adapt in a few ways.”