WHEN SHAFALI VERMA first broke into the international scene in 2019, she was like a breath of fresh air. Just 15 years old, she made everyone sit up and take note of her fearless, big-hitting ability. Women’s cricket itself was going through something of a transition in India. The team was moving on from its older legends, and a new and wider fanbase was slowly being drawn toward women’s cricket. And Verma seemed to embody some of that change going on.
About six months into her international debut, she was at the finals of the 2020 T20 World Cup, having almost single-handedly taken her team there. On that day, the team received a pasting from a ruthlessly clinical Australia. For all of Verma’s promises, it fizzled out on the most important day. She scored just two runs and dropped the Player of the Match on nine (Alyssa Healy went on to make a match-defining 39-ball 75).
The Indian women’s team had yet again reached a final, only to lose. And although Verma had a tournament a teenager could only dream of, you could sense she partly felt herself to blame for that result.
Verma has now had a redemption story that only sport can throw up. Having failed at the senior level, she entered the Under-19 team for the T20 World Cup in South Africa and has now led it to its first T20 World Cup title.
The women’s teams, both its senior and Under-19 sides, had never won a World Cup. The senior women’s team often came agonisingly close, from the narrow losses in the 50-over World Cup finals in 2005 and 2017, to the 2020 T20 World Cup final.
When Verma was first picked for the side, there were a few who questioned its rationale. Was it necessary to draft someone from the senior side? Couldn’t the team win without her? The benefits are now there to be seen. Her inclusion galvanised the side. It gave the team an experienced campaigner and leader who could inspire it. And captaincy, apart from thrusting Verma into a new leadership role, also seemed to have unlocked some of her old potential. She began scoring runs again and even bowled more frequently. Even when the team lost against Australia in the Super Six round after being bowled out for a mere 87, the very next day they bounced back with a massive win against Sri Lanka.
Women’s cricket in India now stands at an interesting and critical juncture. Larger conversations around gender parity and a growing fanbase have brought women’s cricket in India to this current moment. But the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) hasn’t always seemed as convinced about the potential of the women’s game. While the Women’s Premier League (WPL), a T20 league fashioned after the Indian Premier League, has been launched recently, it was a long time coming and much after England and Australia stole a march with their own versions of such women’s leagues. Back in 2020, when Covid struck, while the men’s team returned to the field soon enough, the women’s team went a year without any matches.
But all this appears to be changing now. Indian women now make the same money from matches as men. The first-ever WPL between five teams is set to take place in March, and many from the Under-19 squad will probably make it to the auction that is expected to be held a few weeks from now. Culturally, too, there is a noticeable visibility around women’s cricket, and you can see that in the clutch of Bollywood films, made or in the pipeline, around women cricketers.
The Under-19 World Cup win will go a long way in pushing that conversation forward. Historically, every time India has won a World Cup, from Kapil Dev’s 1983 win to MS Dhoni’s 2007 and 2011 triumphs, it has had a large cultural impact. This triumph will probably have a similar effect on women’s cricket. Nothing mainstreams a sport like a world title. And along with the arrival of the WPL and stars like Verma, the women’s game is now making a space of its own.