India squander advantage, but Shafali sizzles in whites to keep the Test cricket flag flying high

A very late collapse ensured that India batted themselves out of the one-off Test in Bristol, but a picture-perfect display of batting from Shafali Verma and Smriti Mandhana elevated Indian Women’s Test cricket to a level seldom seen before.

Brief scores: IND W 187/5 (Shafali Verma 96 and Smriti Mandhana 78; Knight 2/1) trial ENG W 396/9 d by 209 runs

When Heather Knight won the toss and opted to bat first on Wednesday, on a scorching hot day in Bristol on a used wicket, there was a sigh of disappointment amongst the Indian fans. Not necessarily because they weren’t overly keen on watching England bat, but simply because the main event – the entry of Shafali Verma in Test cricket – got delayed. At one point on Day 1, when England were 230/2, it looked like the headliner would get pushed even further, but a flurry of wickets towards the end – which left ENG on 269/6 at stumps – reignited hopes of Shafali walking out to bat pretty early on Day 2. 

Come the second day, though, that wasn’t to be; England’s lower-order, led by debutant Sophia Dunkley, had other ideas. It only took the visitors 12 balls to strike on Day 2, but what followed was an unexpected assault. Not so much from the bat of Dunkley, who entered the match on the back of her prolific domestic form – two 90+ scores across her last three knocks – but from the blade of Anya Shrubsole, who prior to today hadn’t posted a score higher than 32* in 13 years of international cricket. 

Following the dismissal of Katherine Brunt, a Dunkley-dominated 56-run 8th wicket stand propelled England over 325 and when Deepti Sharma finally broke the stand, courtesy of a mishit from Ecclestone, the Indian openers were mentally preparing themselves to walk out to bat, pretty much expecting the bowlers to castle the hosts out in and around the 350-run mark. What they didn’t foresee coming, though, was England’s #9, Shrubsole, channelling her inner Afridi.

At 326/8, skipper Knight would have been chuffed if Shrubsole had just hung around to support the recognized batter Dunkley but the No.9 batter had none of it. She came out with intent, racing off to 16 of her first 18 balls, and turned into a superhuman on the other side of lunch. 4, 4, 2, 6, 1, 4, 2, 1, 1, 4 read Shrubsole’s ball-by-ball progress between the 120th and 122nd over and in the blink of an eye, the hosts were nearing 400. The tail-ender’s assault was stunning, so much so that the fact her partner, debutant Dunkley, was nearing a maiden hundred completely went over almost everyone’s head. 

The only way she was going to get out, it seemed, was if something extraordinary happened and it did, to an extent, on the second ball of the 122nd over. Sneh Rana delivered a rather unremarkable long-hop, but the ball keeping excruciatingly low meant that Shrubsole’s defence was finally breached, with her three short of a maiden international fifty. The 76-run 9th wicket stand was finally broken, and as England skipper Heather Knight, post Shrubsole’s dismissal, waved her hands from the dressing room and gestured that her side were declaring, fans – and commentators – were grateful for the show they’d been treated to.

None, however, had an idea that it was just going to be the prelude. 

For a day and a half, fans had longed to watch Shafali Verma, the most exciting young cricketer in the world, the number one T20I batter in the world, wield her willow in the bright whites. And though the wait was long, the 17-year-old proved that it was worth it. 

7 runs were all the first 27 balls of Shafali yielded, but as soon as she creamed a gorgeous drive through covers on her 28th ball, those watching very well knew that they were in for a treat. And treat it was, as the youngster delivered, scoring 96 precious runs that proved to be an advertisement for Women’s Test cricket in itself.

In a scarcely believable knock that depicted everything she was – generational talented, gifted strokemaker and the brightest young prospect – Shafali, donning the whites for the first time, made the world stop. By her own standards, the 17-year-old got to the fifty-run mark slowly – 83 balls was what it took – but, post bringing up her maiden Test half-century, every time she sensed an opportunity she pounced.  

662 international wickets is what the quartet of Brunt, Shrubsole, Kate Cross and Ecclestone have between them but for four hours, it was the 17-year-old debutant who delivered a masterclass on ‘how to play international cricket’.

From pushing all the fielders back to baiting the youngster by having the boundary-riders well inside the ropes, the Three Lions tried everything. Yet all they could succeed in was unearthing facets of Shafali’s game that the world had never previously witnessed. Blocking balls incessantly is not a trait Shafali is known for, yet when the need arose, she did. But when the English bowlers went into a false sense of security, bullish that they’d tied the opener down, she responded with trademark pyrotechnics. For four hours she was in a trance and the results were there for the world to see: England were genuinely rattled.

So rattled by Shafali’s knock were England that they let the 17-year-old’s opening partner Smriti Mandhana, another generational talent herself, go about her business without facing any roadblocks. An inherently aggressive batter herself, Mandhana, at one point, was out-entertaining Shafali. The southpaw, who was handed not one but two reprieves, got to her second Test fifty by pulling Brunt twice in the span of four balls, and she, too, within her first 90-or-so balls, had provided more-than-enough highlight reels for the broadcaster. Together the duo put on 167 in under 50 overs, and at one stage the pair were so in sync that one could not help but think that they were on course to shattering all sorts of records. 

But fairytales only last so long and India’s came to an end in the final hour and a half of Day 2. The ‘sync’ Shafali and Mandhana showed went a bit too far as both batters, in search of glory, threw their wickets away with a maiden Test century in sight. Shafali (96), one hit away from a very, very famous Test ton, got her timing horribly wrong and skied one straight to deep mid-off – she was aiming for mid-wicket, that should tell you how much she miscued her hit –  while Mandhana (78), almost eerily similarly, went for a wild heave through the on-side only to see herself get caught inside the circle. 

And as the famous saying ‘when it rains, it pours’  goes, as soon as the openers departed, it poured for England. The Three Lions had endured 54.3 overs to dismiss the openers, but, astonishingly, four overs was all they needed to take the next three Indian wickets. Punam Raut and nightwatchman Shikha Pandey both perished to the part-time off-spin of England skipper Heather Knight, rather tamely, while Knight’s counterpart Mithali Raj was undone by Ecclestone, who after a smart review sent the Indian skipper packing for just 2. 

167/0 in no time because 183/5 and England almost had a sixth, only for the faintest of edges to save Harmanpreet Kaur. With the score 187/5, play eventually stopped post the 60th over, and, understandably, having squandered the initiative, India walked back to the dressing room disappointed.

The final hour will sting for the visitors, but the 240 minutes that preceded it might have just ensured that they wouldn’t have to wait seven more years to play another Test match in England again. 

What the players said

Sophia Dunkley: “It’s a very exciting day for me. [I was] just trying to get the team in a good position. To get fifty was very, very special and nice to have mum in the crowd. It’s definitely been a crazy day today, getting a half-century on debut is definitely very special for me, and then going into the fielding innings, [Smriti] Mandhana and Verma got a good partnership going and gave us a few chances at times but things didn’t really go our way. Then we got the breakthrough and five wickets fell and [it was] really exciting going into the evening and a lot of momentum to go into the morning with as well.”

Shafali Verma: If a batsman gets out in the 90s, it’s natural for them to feel bad. I looked to play my natural game. We focussed on punishing the loose balls and spending time out in the middle. It is usually tough to negotiate the bowling at the start of an innings. We were biding time and giving respect to the bowlers. But in doping so, we missed out on converting a few loose balls into boundaries (smiles). These two days of Test cricket have taught me the importance of patience and fitness. I will get a lot of confidence from this innings and hopefully, will convert the 90 into 100 next time.”

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