Deepti Sharma, India’s 26-year-old ‘senior’, talks about the women’s team’s progress and unfinished business at world events
It’s early afternoon in August in Bengaluru. The sun is trying to peek through the clouds, and there is a gentle breeze around – flaunting the famous Bengaluru weather. Meanwhile, traffic has eased during the notorious rush hours. Away from all the hustle and bustle, the UP Warriorz, the WPL franchise, is holding a week-long off-season camp at a private sports complex in the city’s eastern suburbs.
For a women’s cricket team to conduct a camp of this kind is rare in India. It just emphasizes the importance of having a professional structure, which makes opportunities flow to the grassroots.
Over a decade ago, Deepti Sharma was a starry-eyed child trying to make her way to the top of the ranks, a path full of hurdles, lack of opportunities and emerging first among them. Today, Deepti is a veteran player who is trying to help unearth young talent in a scouting trial, apart from improving her own skills, which has made her a key member of Team India.
Deepti is front and center in the camp, where the coaches have assigned specific tasks to the players. Deepti, who was signed in the auction ahead of the inaugural season for INR 2.6 Crores (US$312,000 approx), may have returned to Agra’s rain-soaked training on cement surfaces. Instead, she is following in the footsteps of fitness and cricket. Whether that’s timed sprints or hitting a precisely defined range with technical details of what you did right and what you didn’t.
Such critical comments from coaches in women’s domestic cricket, which is dominated by the star-studded Railways, are rare. This is why the camp is already a huge step for the players who have gathered.
As lunchtime approaches, Deepti prepares for another round of match simulation. Several starry-eyed young men, who had been summoned for the tryouts, watched intently as the vice-captain of the team. There is a feeling that everyone involved is keen to see what you do.
Of course, the Warriorz are looking forward to getting as much out of the week-long camp as possible. For Deepti, personally, this is a welcome opportunity to push herself hard ahead of a busy few months, as she has not played much since the WPL. All India has done in the meantime is a brief tour of Bangladesh, a series of low points marred by rooftop talk and umpire squabbles.
It starts with the Asian Games in Hangzhou, where India has secured direct entry into the quarter-finals starting September 21. Having failed to reach the final hurdle several times, India has a chance to push for the gold medal and establish itself as an Asian power to be. They will be well prepared for the upcoming tours of England and Australia in the coming months.
Deepti has been a part of all the recent setbacks, including Which T20 World Cup final at the MCG in front of 86,174 spectators. “Before, we never used to qualify (for major tournament finals). Now we qualify and play the semi-finals and the final… it’s not easy,” Deepti told ESPNcricinfo. “The more games we play, the more experience we gain. We are only slightly behind. Hopefully we will get over the line very soon.”
Experience is very relevant, because this is exactly what the WPL aims to achieve: give Indian players a platform to train and play with the best players in the world, adopt best practices and expose them to modern training methods. This can go a long way toward closing the gap from second to best.
“We have been waiting for this (WPL) for a long time and it has finally started. It has been great in terms of experience,” says Deepti. “We’ve played against some (outside) players for a long time, and now we’re playing in the same team. It’s a nice feeling – different, because everyone supports each other. That’s a good thing. You just need that support from the team. “I feel like this is going to go to a whole different level and it’s going to be a lot of fun going forward.”
Deepti is just 26 years old, but he is a senior player in Indian cricket. She made her ODI debut as a 17-year-old in 2014 against South Africa before earning a T20I cap 14 months later against Australia. No other Indian player has picked up more wickets than Deepti since her debut in T20Is (105) and ODIs (93). In February this year, she became the first Indian bowler in men’s and women’s cricket to reach 100 T20I wickets.
“I conduct my training sessions in such a way that I maintain my mental strength so that whatever I put in front of me becomes easier.”Deepti in her training routine
Deepti’s numbers with the bat are also good – 1912 runs in 74 ODI innings at 34.76 and 955 runs in 68 T20I innings at 24.48. What makes Deepti a perfect fit for any lineup is its versatility. She can bowl off the new ball and at the death in T20s and is often used to stifle the opposition in the middle overs in ODIs. With the bat, Deepti has batted at every position from No. 1 to No. 9 in ODIs and from No. 3 to No. 9 in T20Is. This possibility of facing new challenges is what drives her.
“Whatever the situation, if I have to play ball or racket, I like to face the challenges that come my way,” she says. “These challenges help me strengthen my mind. It is not easy to play in any situation, but if your preparation is strong, you can overcome any challenge.
“I do my training sessions in such a way that I maintain my mental strength, so that whatever I put in front of me becomes easier.”
Hrishikesh Kanitkar, who will travel to Hangzhou as head coach of the women’s team, recently spoke about how Deepti maintains “very high coaching standards”. This is one aspect that Deepti says she places great emphasis on.
“The mentality I have during the match is the same mentality I try to have when I train,” she says. “I’ve been trying to increase the number of balls I face during a training session. If I was facing 500 balls, now I try to increase that by 100 to 150 to get better at hitting shots.
“My preparations are always to keep the match scenario in mind. I keep practicing with the new ball, the old ball and the almost new ball. These sessions help me during the match. In a match situation, I could be asked to bowl at any time, so I try to keep myself ready.” “I try to repeat everything I did in training in the match scenario.”
While Deepti has had success with the ball, she has had a below-par WPL with the bat, scoring just 90 runs in eight innings at a strike rate of 83.33. Her overall T20 record also indicates her poor performance with the bat. In 107 innings, Deepti has reached just two fifty, and her career strike rate stands at 105.71.
With the likes of Shreyanka Patel, whose stock has risen rapidly in recent months, breathing down her neck, Deepti knows her T20 numbers with the bat need to improve. She was recently the designated winner for both India and her franchise. She needs to work on hitting power, which she believes she has been doing during training.
“Power hitting is an ongoing part of my exercise routine,” she says. “I have started practicing with heavy balls. I make sure that when I face the bowling machine, I try to go out and practice lofted shots.
“The balls are a little heavier than regular kookaburra balls. So when you practice, for example, ten balls with the heavier balls and then go back to the kookaburra, it becomes a little easier to hit.
“I like playing as a finisher because it requires more responsibility, and finishing a match for your team is a feeling on a completely different level. There is a lot of positivity inside you when you finish a match for the team.”
The next T20 World Cup is still a year away and Deepti remains a key part of India’s plans at the moment. The Asian Games represent a good opportunity for her to maximize her potential and build on her off-season gains. That could stand her and India in good stead over the next few months.
Ashish Pant is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
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