Among many impressive character actors, the two figures of the Indian star cast who stood out in the one-off Test against England at Bristol were debutantes Shafali Verma and Sneh Rana.
As the two stood tall to help India stave off defeat in their first Test match in seven years, one could not help but muse at the contrasting journeys of the two players that have led them to become integral parts of the Indian team.
Breaking Into the Team
Shafali Verma first garnered attention when she finished as the highest run-scorer in the Women's T20 Challenger Trophy 2020, with 189 runs from five appearances at 47.25. What shone through was her strike rate of 156.20.
The next highest strike rate among batters with over 100 runs was Priya Punia's 116.67. It was quite obvious that India had been lacking a power-hitter and with the Women's T20 World Cup coming up, they had unearthed a gem.
Verma hit the ball out of the park, both literally and figuratively, as she ended up being the leading run-scorer for India in the Women's T20 World Cup with 163 runs from five matches at a strike rate of 158.25 – the highest in the competition by a fair margin. India's ride to the final of the showpiece event owed credit to the explosive Haryana opener.
In what seems like a daft decision with the advantage of hindsight, India overlooked Verma in the home series against South Africa. But once she was picked for the England tour, the opener ensured that she left nothing to chance.
While 17-year-old Verma has been an out-and-out success, Rana, at 27, has had to take a different and circuitous route to reach her destination.
After having impressed in domestic cricket, Rana made her India debut in 2014, but a serious knee injury and lack of form pushed her to the sidelines. However, the all-rounder did not lose hope and kept putting in the hard yards. Alongside Mithali Raj, Rana guided Railways to the title in the Women's Senior One Day Trophy 2020, claiming 18 wickets and blasting 160 runs at a strike rate of over 120.
Her performances did not go unnoticed as she earned a well-deserved call up for the England tour. Playing her first international match since February 2016, Rana showed she still has the requisites to be successful at the highest level.
From Uncertain Starters to Certain Stars
It is amusing that both Rana and Shafali Verma were not lock-ins to make the Indian Playing XI for the one-off Test. As it turned out, they ended up being the most impactful players for the team.
India had the options of Jemimah Rodrigues and Priya Punia to open alongside Smriti Mandhana and given the technique and temperament of both players, it wouldn't have come as a surprise to all if the team management had gone for either of the two ahead of Verma.
However, once Mithali Raj got to know that they would be playing on a used surface, with liberal seam movement unlikely, she decided to hand the explosive opener her maiden Test cap.
Likewise, it was not the most sensible decision in terms of cricketing logic to pick two off-spinners, especially against an England side packed with right-handers, with both spinning the ball towards the batters. It would have been ideal to pick left-arm spinner Ekta Bisht or leg spinner Poonam Yadav for the sake of some variety in the Indian bowling line-up.
Off- spin bowling all-rounder Sneha Rana, however, repaid the faith of head coach Ramesh Powar and captain Mithali Raj not only with the bat, which was the clincher to get her the nod, but with her primary skill as well.
Rana's All-Round Brilliance
With not much happening for the first 20 overs of the Indian bowling innings apart from a dropped catch by Smriti Mandhana in the slips off Jhulan Goswami, Rana accounted for the dismissal of England opener Tammy Beaumont for 66 after the batter looked well set for a big one.
She went on to dismiss Amy Jones, Georgie Elvis, and Anya Shrubsole to pick up four wickets from 39.2 overs – the most by an Indian bowler in the innings. Deepti Sharma bowled the second most with 27.
After getting dismissed cheaply off a peach from Sophie Ecclestone in the first innings, Rana, batting unusually low at No. 8, pitched her tent at the crease with India fighting to save the Test match in the second innings after following on. She batted on for almost 17 overs with Shikha Pandey and then for over 30 overs with Taniya Bhatia to take India to safety.
Rana became the first Indian player, and the fourth player overall in women’s cricket, to score a half century and pick up a four-wicket haul on Test debut. Her 80 not out is the third-highest score at number 8 or lower. Rana’s unbeaten 104-run partnership with wicketkeeper Taniya Bhatia is the second-highest ninth-wicket stand in women’s Tests.
Verma, the Trailblazer
No one would have begrudged the presenters had Rana got the Player of the Match award, but it went to another Indian debutante, Shafali Verma, who carried the tag of India's most impactful batter with aplomb, an honour only a few can rock on debut.
Her 96 off 152 deliveries in India's first innings – and there was no reason for her to not strike a century (or two) – and her 167-run stand with Smriti Mandhana set up the proceedings for India. In the second innings as well, Verma was clearly India's most threatening batter in the top seven.
Verma's 159 runs in the match is the third-highest by a player on women's Test debut. She also became the youngest batter (male or female) to score two half centuries in a Test match, only behind Sachin Tendulkar, and only the fourth woman to have won the Player of the Match award on Test debut.
With one aged 17 and the other 27, clearly the career graphs of Verma and Rana have been quite different from each other, but both have led to the same spot – the peak of cricketing brilliance.
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