ROHTAK, INDIA (AFP) – Shafali Verma once disguised herself as her brother to play cricket, and went on to win “man of the match and series”. Now the teen sensation wants to help India win the women’s Twenty20 World Cup.
Verma, who turned 16 on Tuesday, made her India debut last year in a Twenty20 against South Africa but turning up in her elder brother Sahil’s jersey is her most cherished memory.
“I told my father that I will go and play disguised as my brother (who was sick) and even had his name on my back,” Verma told AFP.
“I played and became man of the match and series.
“Organisers complained to my dad that you made your daughter play instead of your son and he replied that ‘you were lucky, if my daughter can hit so hard, imagine what my boy would have done’.”
Verma, an attacking opener, is now in Australia for a Twenty20 tri-series warm-up for next month’s World Cup – a trophy that has eluded India’s women.
But the prodigy’s ambitions were almost ended by the lack of opportunities for aspiring female players where she grew up.
When she was nine, she decided to cut her hair short to play with the boys in her home town, Rohtak. Her cricket-obsessed father went along with the plan.
“Whenever I went out to play, boys would not take a small girl in their team, fearing I would get hurt,” she said.
“After cutting my hair I went to play with the boys and they did not even realise that I am a girl. But they got it after a few days and felt happy.”
Verma grew up in conservative northern Haryana state, where women are not encouraged to play sport. But she shared her father’s mad passion for cricket and India legend Sachin Tendulkar.
A visit by her idol to Lahli village near Rohtak for his final domestic Ranji Trophy match in 2013 inspired her.
“That motivated me and I became serious for cricket and began to work hard to emulate my idol,” Verma said as she sat in the Chaudhary Bansi Lal Cricket Stadium in Lahli.
But Verma found there was only one academy for girls in the region despite the sport’s overwhelming popularity in India.
But her prodigious talent was spotted by coaches and she was picked to play in the boys’ team.
There were also struggles off the field, after her father Sanjeev was conned out of all his family’s money to an imposter who had promised him a job.
Breaking down in tears, Sanjeev told AFP in his humble one-room house where he runs a small jewellery repair shop, that they became so poor Verma played with torn gloves and a broken bat for several months.
The setbacks only made Verma work harder. Backed by her father, who also dreamt of being a professional cricketer, she established herself in state cricket.
“My father has been a huge pillar of support. He made me practise hard,” Verma said.
Last year she was picked for the Velocity team in the women’s T20 Challenge, which was played alongside the men’s lucrative Indian Premier League, and walked onto the field with women’s cricket great Mithali Raj.
She shared the dressing room with international stars including England’s World Cup-winning all-rounder Danielle Wyatt, who called her the next “superstar” of Indian cricket.
Verma made her India Twenty20 debut in September and became the youngest Indian to score an international half-century in her fifth outing against the West Indies – surpassing a 30-year-old record held by Tendulkar, who was 16 when he made his maiden Test fifty.
Her proud father – who kept the torn gloves and broken bat as a reminder of the hardships they went through – is confident her fearless approach will encourage others including her seven-year-old sister Nancy, who bats left-handed.
“(Shafali) will take women’s cricket to greater heights and get India the women’s World Cup – T20 and ODI,” Sanjeev said as he watched Nancy practising her batting in the house’s small verandah, which doubles up as a makeshift cricket pitch.