More than 15 years back, when Mahendra Singh Dhoni was masterminding India’s campaign at the inaugural T20 World Cup in 2007, the Indian Premier League (IPL) was being unfurled with much fanfare back home. Reluctant entrant to the maiden T20 World Cup and consequently leaving out several senior and established stars, India was expected to merely make up the numbers in South Africa. Instead, Dhoni and his men stunned the world with the most unlikely of triumphs, their stellar run providing just the fillip the IPL, which was to kick off six months later, required.
On Sunday evening (January 29), history repeated itself. Almost. Shafali Verma’s side, full of promise and hope and dreams and ambition, stormed to the first-ever Women’s Under-19 T20 World Cup, decimating England in a lop-sided final that was over almost before it started. The tournament coincided with the crystallisation of another step in the launch of the Women’s Premier League (WPL), with the five team owners identified midway through the World Cup through a closed bid process. By the time the WPL kicks off sometime in March, maybe another Indian women’s team, the senior side in this instance, too will lift a World Cup – after all, the Women’s T20 World Cup is due to start in a little over 10 days’ time. In the same country where Dhoni and Shafali led their outfits to historic triumphs – South Africa.
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India’s age-group structure
Shafali will be in action in the senior World Cup too, along with her wicketkeeper in the Under-19 team, Richa Ghosh. Both played their parts in the eventual success, though their influence wasn’t as pronounced towards the business end as in the earlier stages. India started the competition with a distinct edge mainly because of how much senior international experience Shafali and Richa brought with them – the captain has 74 senior international caps, the stumper has played for India Women 47 times. Given that all teams at the Under-19 World Cup were navigating through uncharted territory, the smarts and the nous of these two players, who have competed in and thrived at the highest level, were luxuries India could afford to fall back on.
In the women’s Under-19 team’s triumph lies further proof of the vibrant age-group structure that populates the Indian cricketing landscape. Around about this time last year, in keeping with recent tradition, Yash Dhull’s lads cornered glory at the Under-19 50-over World Cup in the Caribbean despite a wave of Covid-19 sweeping through the ranks. Dhull’s boys had history in their corner – India has entered most Under-19 World Cups as a strong favourite for the last two decades and more, the legacy of Mohammad Kaif’s side going all the way in Sri Lanka in 2000. Shafali’s ladies had a chance to make history all by themselves, and they didn’t disappoint, putting aside a setback against Australia in the Super Six stage to annihilate New Zealand in the semifinals and formidable England in the title clash.
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This victory came about neither by accident nor through the fortuitous alignment of stars. A lot of thought, planning and behind-the-scenes work contributed immeasurably, with the girls playing matches aplenty, spending time together at the National Cricket Academy (NCA) under head coach Nooshin Al Khadeer, and gradually getting to know and understand each other, thereby nurturing a cohesion that was all too obvious. While Shafali’s bat fell cold after her early pyrotechnics – she made 45 and 78 in the first two games but tapered off to contribute just 49 in her next five hits – opening partner and deputy Shweta Sehrawat maintained her subliminal touch almost to the end. The 18-year-old from Delhi ended the tournament as its highest scorer with 297 runs at an excellent strike-rate of 139.43. As much as the quantum of runs, the quality of her stroke-play was of the highest order. Strong in the basics and excellent off the back foot, it won’t be long before she starts to make a serious pitch for a place in the senior side.
Motivation for Harmanpreet’s side
Predictably, spin played a big part in India’s race to the top with leggie Parshavi Chopra, still only 16, emerging as the second highest wicket-taker with 11 sticks. Displaying excellent control and unafraid to showcase her variety, the young lady did benefit from the reluctance of the opposition batters to leave their crease, but she herself will only get better as she plays more, and against older, more experienced batters. Notably from an Indian perspective, it was a medium pacer who walked away with the Player of the Final honours. Titas Sadhu, like the admirable Jhulan Goswami, is from Bengal, and she made her role model proud with a telling new-ball burst, finishing with two for six from four unchanged overs. Again, with more overs under her belt and more miles in her legs, she will start pressing for representation in the senior side, which will mean the already established quicker bowlers will have to be on their toes. The fielding was of the highest order, especially in the final, which is a vindication of the awareness of and adherence to fitness levels so integral to sporting excellence in these teams.
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India’s senior men’s side hasn’t won a World Cup since 2011 and a global title since 2013; for all their appearances in the finals of World Cups of both white-ball varieties, India’s women are still searching for their first silverware. Against this backdrop, the successes of the Under-19 sides in both categories must be viewed as a soothing balm, as well as the offshoot of a system which has been streamlined and given concrete shape by various decision-makers within the contours of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). The latter’s immediate announcement of a ₹5 crore reward is no more than the Under-19 squad deserves. “The team played with a fearless approach and created history by winning the coveted trophy,” BCCI president Roger Binny, himself a World Cup winner in 1983, said. “Our team’s achievement has set a benchmark to inspire the upcoming cricketers in the country.”
Shafali and Richa will be going for two titles in the space of a month when the Women’s T20 World Cup starts on February 10. Harmanpreet Kaur’s team would not have needed further motivation at a tournament of his magnitude, but it’s unlikely that it will not be inspired by the accomplishments of its junior counterparts.
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