Deepti Sharma: made for the long haul

Deepti Sharma celebrates her half-century. © Getty Images

“Mental toughness is having 100% attention on the next ball.” (Justin Langer)

The capacity to ‘stay in the moment’ is something all batters talk about. It is usually the secret to playing a long innings.

Some batters have this innate ability to play each ball as a separate event – not carry any emotions or memories from the previous ball into facing the next. They simply react to what the bowler is throwing at them. There’s no history. No extra pressure. It’s all about the moment.

Deepti Sharma has been like that ever since I can remember. When I first saw her in December 2013, when she was still finding her feet at the senior level, Sharma played a knock that underlined that very ability. Opening the batting for Uttar Pradesh, Sharma’s 134-ball 58 guided her side to a comfortable five-wicket win over Hyderabad in a chase of a paltry 126.

Early on in that innings, Sharma was beaten several times while wafting outside the off-stump. She survived a couple of close shaves, including a dropped chance at second slip. But every time it seemed like the bowler was on top, a then 16-year-old Sharma would walk away from the converging slip cordon, in the direction of the square leg umpire, mutter something under her breath, look towards the heavens before marking her guard again and preparing to face the next delivery.

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After that shaky start, the left-hander showed wonderful discipline, leaving balls outside off stump with great precision, forcing the bowlers to bowl at her, and taking full toll when scoring opportunities came her way. It was a frustrating innings to watch – slow, and rather painful – but it showcased her solid temperament, technique and fierce focus on the job at hand. In hindsight, it was a typical Sharma knock – lamba wala [a long one].

Through the course of her international career, Sharma has shown the same plucky qualities with the bat. Shunted up and down the order, used as an opener in the absence of Smriti Mandhana, and later pushed down to No.3 when India were searching for solidity, she now finds herself as part of the lower-middle order in white ball cricket. The demotion in the order, coupled with the pace at which the game has continued to evolve has meant that Sharma has had to sometimes trade that solidity for a shade more flamboyance and power. It’s led to the introduction of some more agricultural shots in her repertoire and a bit of inconsistency as well. But on Day 3 and Day 4 of India’s one-off Test against England at Bristol, when her side was searching for solidity, the Sharma of old came to their rescue.

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Deepti Sharma hoicks a delivery through the leg side. © Getty Images

Mark guard. Adjust helmet. Walk towards square leg. Adjust left glove. Adjust right glove. Adjust helmet. Walk back. Mark guard again. Settle into stance. Double tap. Look up. Single tap. Single tap. Forward/ back foot defence. A call of ‘Waiting’ or ‘NOOOO!’. Check alignment of feet, bat and head. Go again.

For 241 balls, over the course of 308 minutes across two innings, Sharma religiously repeated her routine. Sometimes, just to break things up, she walked down the track and patted down the pitch. Sometimes, she stood her ground and practised her shot again. And at other times, she simply looked at her partner and absently smiled or nodded. But each time, before every delivery, she scratched her guard again, and reset her focus – those steely eyes settling in on the red orb at the other end.

Walking in to bat at No. 7 in India’s first innings, late on Day 2, Sharma looked the most solid of India’s batters in that first innings. Although fellow debutante Shafali Verma’s 96 quite rightly stole the headlines, it was the left-hander’s unbeaten 29 that almost helped India avoid the follow-on. She handled left-arm spinner Sophie Ecclestone extremely well, getting right forward to defend, or hanging back to play the hard sweep or paddle. She calmly halted India’s rapid slide adding 43 crucial runs alongside Sneh Rana and Pooja Vastrakar.

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The left-hander’s promising knock meant India pushed her up the order to No.3 when they were asked to follow on. Joining Verma with India precariously placed at 29 for 1, still 136 runs in arrears, she called upon that “mental toughness” Langer spoke of, blunting England’s charge and providing ample support to a blossoming Verma.

Of the 35 maidens India played out through their second innings, Sharma played 10.

There was never a sign of restlessness. No itch she needed to scratch.

While Verma pummeled the boundaries, Sharma was simply happy to bat – patting the ball straight into the pitch, bunting it to cover or mid-off, flicking to mid-wicket, or letting it pass through to the ‘keeper.

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Deepti Sharma celebrates her half-century with Punam Raut. © Getty Images

The 23-year-old has always had a big appetite for batting. During her early years at the international level, every interaction with the media came with a standard line, “lamba khelna hai” [to play long].

Through her ODI career, when batting in the top three, Sharma has scored 1031 runs in 25 innings at an average of 49.09, including one century and four fifties. She’s faced over 1500 deliveries when batting in the top three, giving herself time to settle in and play the long innings.

But that hasn’t happened for many years now. So this Test seemed like the perfect opportunity for her to relive those early years. A chance to give herself time, settle in and bat for as long as she could. No run-rate to keep up with. No scoreboard pressure. Just bat for sessions on end. It was a situation tailor-made for her.

In innings no.2 Sharma scored only one run off her first 45 deliveries, but showed no signs of frustration. Her face was calm, her breathing measured. Every ball was a separate battle with no connection to the next. Once it was gone, she brushed it aside, re-adjusting her helmet and gloves, re-marking her guard, preparing for the next little battle.

Through the course of the innings, the left-hander’s languid approach and her time-taking routine pushed England’s patience. A visibly annoyed Brunt – already pushed to the brink by Verma – was made to wait on several occasions before Sharma was ready to face up to her. When the seamer charged in and tried to knock Sharma’s stumps out of the ground, she was met with a series of solid defensive shots. When Brunt tried to stare her down, Sharma met the fast bowler with her steely gaze, almost as if to say, ‘What are you looking at? Go do your job, like I’m doing mine!’ There was no outward aggression, no words exchanged, just a blank stare down the track. It was typical Sharma – not loud, not cocky, just there. Ever present. Ever solid.

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As the gum-chewing, cheeky-smiling, half-teapot standing Verma scythed through England’s attack with a flurry of cuts and cover drives, Sharma wore them down at the other end with what seemed like an incredibly broad bat. She was a boulder that England could not budge.

She first shared a 70-run stand with Verma for the second wicket, and followed it up with a 72-run partnership with her former opening partner Punam Raut. Her motto was simple: play close to the body and last as long as you can.

Once settled in, she played some exquisite cover drives off the seamers, and swept the spinners with utmost ease, bringing up her maiden Test 50 off 157 deliveries. Her knock not only allowed India to wipe off the deficit, but also injected belief in the side when all seemed lost. Although her wicket fell against the run of play – an ugly hoick across the line off Ecclestone that she will admonish herself for – Sharma had done her job for the team.

She won 167 little battles for India, showing great application, patience and mental toughness to fight through some tricky spells. Her innings wasn’t flashy. It wasn’t headline grabbing. Sometimes, it was painful and hard to watch. But it was just typical Sharma – solid and understated. And of course, bahut hi lamba tha!