India’s Deepti Sharma problem raises more questions than answers

Deepti Sharma © Getty Images

An allrounder is a great asset to have in a team. They can bat and bowl, two of the most important facets to win a match. In theory, allrounders provide a lot. They extend a team’s batting order and also provide the captain with an extra bowling option. But that is an ideal scenario. 

One can divide allrounders into three or four categories. The first two are batting allrounders and bowling allrounders. To put into perspective, Harmanpreet Kaur can be considered a batting allrounder, while Pooja Vastrakar can be called a bowling allrounder. Then there are genuine allrounders. Like Ellyse Perry or Dane van Niekerk, who can make the team on either discipline. 

The last category is ‘bits and pieces’ players. There are a host of cricketers who can be categorised into this and as long as cricket exists as a sport, we will see several more. Due to an incident back in 2019 in men’s cricket, this term seems derogatory to the players in some ways. But that isn’t the case. It is simply the best way to explain this large category of players. 

With that being said, cricket teams largely benefit from players like this. They don’t have exceptional performances on a regular basis, but they can push a side to a win from time to time. Deepti Sharma, who was briefly made the vice-captain of the Indian team in a recent ODI series, most probably falls under this category of players. 

Sharma made her debut for India in ODIs in 2014 against South Africa. She batted at no. 3 and scored just a run from 18 deliveries. Her next ODI came about eight months later. She batted at no. 6, scoring a 52-ball 22. The next time she batted for India was at no. 3. Then at no. 6. Then at no. 4. Then she played as an opener. There was a bit of consistency around her batting order from then. But it was only till Smriti Mandhana came back from her injury. 

In fact, in the 2017 World Cup, she went from batting at no. 3 for India to coming in at no. 9 in the space of consecutive matches. She then batted at no. 5 for a couple of games, before coming in at no. 7 in the final. By now, you get the point. She has been shuffled quite a lot in the batting order. When something like this happens, either that player is extremely versatile and the team knows he or she can bat at any given point in time in the innings or the management is trying to just figure out a proper batting position for them. 

What is interesting about Sharma’s batting position is that the management doesn’t seem to have figured out what is the role which best suits Sharma even now. Heading into the World Cup, Deepti batted at various positions against New Zealand in the five-match ODI series. Her batting positions during the series were: 7, 8, 6, 7 and 3. 

Her only ever half-century batting at no. 6 came in the third match of that series. A run-a-ball 69. Considering she has a career strike rate of less than 65, that is quite an achievement. You would think she is doing fine and learning her trade down the order and performing well. But, then BAM! She is moved to 3 after one more innings. In that game, she scored a 41-ball 21. But, the team persisted with her. 

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Her 40 against Pakistan was a decent knock. Then, against New Zealand, India decided that it would be a good idea to field three left-handed batters in the top three. And then, they decided it is important to break that combination by adding in a right-handed batter at no. 3. And, Sharma was pushed to no. 4 again – a position where she had batted a grand total of one innings (back in 2015) in her entire ODI career. And this happened in a must-win World Cup match.

This is the Indian management’s failure to understand a player’s strengths and weaknesses and use them effectively. But, this is when you have to look at some of her batting numbers. Her career average in ODIs is 34.90. It includes scores of 89, 51* and 188 against a novice Ireland side. During her 188, she faced a side which had a 13-year-old and a 15-year-old, who were playing their first matches in international cricket. If we remove those three innings, her average drops to 29.63, while the strike rate drops to 60.17. 

And if we look at her numbers in each of these positions (excluding the Ireland games), it doesn’t paint a great picture of her batting. Her best average is at no. 3, i.e, 34.21. But, her strike rate is 58.13. Her strike rate even when opening is less than 60. And, strike rate is key in modern-day cricket. 

Since the start of 2018, there are a total of 23 players who have scored more than 750 runs. Among them, Mithali Raj has the lowest strike rate, 64.32, while Sharma has the second lowest strike rate of 66.31. Sharma’s average is 28.24, which includes ten knocks where she was not dismissed. 

Just to take the strike rate conversation forward, since 2018, Sharma has batted 29 times in positions 4 to 7 and has the third lowest strike rate of anyone who has more than 500 runs in that role. She is only ahead of Raj and Nida Dar, and has a strike rate of 68. All of which suggests that Deepti is definitely not among India’s best three or four batters.

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But, she is someone who is a bowler as well. She has bowled 3549 deliveries in the 73 matches she has played so far. That roughly comes down to 48 deliveries per match. Eight overs. If an all-rounder is sending that many balls every game, they are more than likely to be a team’s fifth bowler. And in cricket, having that job is not always smooth sailing. 

Since Jan 2020, Sharma has an economy rate of 5.41, easily the worst among all right-arm off-spinners in world cricket, who have bowled at least 50 overs. She has a bowling average of 44.17, which again is the worst among all right-arm off-spinners who have a minimum of 10 wickets in the same period. For all bowlers who have bowled a minimum of 500 balls in the same period, her average is the third worst, only behind Poonam Yadav and Nida. Her economy is the second worst after Fatima Sana. 

Most of the numbers suggest that her form has not been good for a while now. So what kind of an allrounder is Sharma? Batting allrounder, considering she is batting at no. 3 and no. 4? Or a bowling allrounder, considering that she sends down eight overs on an average?

Because her numbers simply aren’t good enough for the genuine allrounder category. Maybe, she is someone who can then be categorised under the ‘bits and pieces’ category. For now, India are figuring out how good the bits are and how to best fit the pieces in the jigsaw puzzle that is their top-order batting.