Deepti Sharma eyes long road ahead

A prodigious cricket talent who’s a match-winner in her teens, slightly built, soft-spoken, sporting a warm smile and a complete lack of pretence – this could describe half the Indian Women’s team. The latest in that group to mark herself out as one for the future is jersey No. 6, Deepti Sharma.

A 19-year-old allrounder from Agra, Deepti Sharma has been an integral cog in the series-winning side in their two One-Day Internationals against West Indies so far.

The scorecards put her as having accumulated 48 runs and there are no wickets against her name from the two matches at the Mulapadu cricket grounds on November 10 and 13. But they don’t reveal how commendably she performed in what was asked of her.

Deepti offered the hope of much-needed stability in the top order, combining with fellow left-hander Smriti Mandhana in a vital 63-run stand for the second wicket. That was after she forced the runs to dry up with her off-spin, conceding just 19 in her quota of 10 overs. While she kept up the pressure at one end, her fellow spinners made inroads into the visitors.

“My game is to take singles and doubles and rotate the strike. I play shots when I get a loose ball,” she tells Wisden India with earnestness. “When I bowl, I focus on bowling dot balls. The coach (Purnima Rau) and Mitthu di (Mithali Raj, the captain) have said that my job is to get dot balls. The batters will get frustrated and gift us their wicket.”

It is a simple enough approach. Uncomplicated, uncompromising, sincere. But, not a complete reflection of the extent of her abilities, and altogether surprising when one realises she’s definitely more than the dot-ball and the single. In February this year, she took 6 for 28 in Ranchi, an India record haul at home, to script a 3-0 ODI sweep of Sri Lanka. She had 12 wickets in that three-match series. In the domestic Under-19 One-Day Competition last year, she smashed 175 for Uttar Pradesh against Chhattisgarh and pocketed five wickets in the match too, for good measure.

That 175 was her favourite moment on the cricket field, she admits. The tournament saw her aggregate 499 runs from ten matches, taking UP all the way to the final, where they collapsed against Andhra despite her half-century.

For Deepti, adaptability is key. In her 13 internationals so far, she has been moved up and down the order, batting anywhere from No. 1 to No. 8. Does that affect her? Of course not!

“I’m an opener with my domestic side. I’m a batting allrounder. The fact that I’m getting to play from No.1 to No.8, it’s a good thing. And the fact that I’m finding success, it’s even better. It’s not a problem to adjust.”

Playing according to the situation is the only way she knows how. “I don’t think too much – just that when I bat, I should play responsibly and as per the merit of the ball.”

She is still disappointed with the way she got out in the first ODI. It was the wrong shot. She didn’t play as per the merit of the ball.

Bhaiyya says, ‘You just have to play as per the merit of the ball. If you can play like that, you won’t become out. You will play all 50 overs.

“He was scolding me a little when I got out early in the first match. He was saying it was such a good opportunity to finish the match, but I didn’t do it.”

Deepti, it is soon evident, has been hugely shaped by her cricket-playing elder brother. The youngest of seven siblings – five boys, two girls – she has benefitted from a supportive family, but her cricket story started with her brother.

Bhaiyya used to play cricket. He has played CK Nayudu,” she says, slipping into her narrative with a storyteller’s elegance and remembering that day when she was around nine years old as if it were yesterday. “One day, he takes me to the ground and makes me sit on the stage there. A ball rolls near me. I hit it direct onto the stumps. There was a girls’ practice session happening at the same time there. Hema ji (Hemalata Kala, the chairperson of the women’s selection panel) asks, ‘Who is this kid?’ My brother says, ‘It’s my younger sister.’ She tells him, ‘Bring her to the ground everyday for practice, she will play for India one day and play on for years.’ That is when my cricket started.”

Sumit Sharma, whom she calls Bala bhaiyya, also suggested that she give up medium pace to take to offspin when there came problems with her action.

When she took two wickets on ODI debut against the visiting South Africans in Bangalore, all the hard work seemed to have paid off.

“You know that kind of happiness, people going crazy with happiness, everyone was that happy,” she says, recalling how her close-knit family took the news of her selection back in 2014. “Bhaiyya, everyone who lived far away, got together, everyone enjoyed themselves. And when I got back, I joined the celebration.”

She made just 1 that match before being run out and a more steady role in the playing XI was a few months away, but there was enough reason to cheer: She got to play alongside her idol, Mithali Raj. Deepti is also a fan of Suresh Raina. “His stance – everyone says I’m just like him.”

In all of this, this teenager still needs to find time for studies. She has missed her class 10 exams the last couple of years and it’s on her agenda. Not that she’s lugging books around on tour. She prefers listening to music – Arijit Singh is a favourite – watches match highlights, reads Cricket Samrat and steers clear of movies.

She also isn’t getting side-tracked by a hunt for a job like some of her peers, despite offers from the Railways. Her focus is on training. “If I do well, I’ll get jobs in the future. But if we don’t practice, we won’t get to that level,” she says.

“Till now, the dream was to be in the India team,” she adds. “Now it’s to keep it going and keep up the performances.

Bahut saal khelna hai India ke liye.” There will be many years ahead in India blue.

This article first appeared in Wisden India.

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