Over the bowler’s head the ball flew. Fullish delivery. Straight bat. All intent. Four runs.
Katherine Brunt is hardly amused, but utterly flummoxed. She has just opened the bowling from the far end at the Bristol County Ground, after tea – following a maiden from Kate Cross – and is striding back to her run-up. Shafali Verma, for her part, is far from done doing what she does best with a bat in hand.
The Indian openers, Verma and Smriti Mandhana, had weathered a probing opening burst from Brunt and fellow quick Anya Shrubsole. By tea, inside 23 overs, India had nibbled 63 away off England’s 396 first-dig haul. If the visitors’ innings were to change gear, you could sense this was the moment.
Not many in women’s cricket honour the angry-fast-bowler demeanour as fastidiously as Brunt. Few in the game possess the pluck of Verma. On the experience spectrum, though, they occupy opposite ends. When Brunt made her England debut, back in 2004, Verma was not even seven months old. The ongoing one-off Test in Bristol is Brunt’s 13th in the format. Verma, on the other hand, had only played 22 T20Is before this match.
Prior to Thursday¸ Verma, 17, had faced just three balls across two T20Is from Brunt, 35 (she scored only two off those, but remained unbeaten). Before tea on the second day of the Test, Brunt had bowled 13 deliveries to Verma. Nine of those were dots and nine runs were scored off the rest.
Then came that four – reverie-snapping, uppishly driven, over Brunt’s head, after tea. Off the next ball came another, though this time a dab – no menace, all grace. Verma made room, opened up her three stumps, and late-cut the rising ball past gully onto the third-man rope.
The cow corner was aimed for next. But Verma couldn’t connect the heave. And the wicketkeeper couldn’t collect the ball. Off it, thus, flew, behind the wickets, for four byes.
The scoreboard was ticking. Brunt was ticked off. And Verma’s wry grin at Mandhana was barely the response the bowler was after. So she banged the next one in short, eliciting a seemingly casual pull. The power that’s trademark of Verma’s game wasn’t quite there, but even then, it landed past the midwicket fielder. Safe, just about.
The fizz of the face-off was far from on the wane.
In came more back-bending effort from Brunt – another short ball, but it didn’t sit up much. She lost her footing at the release and was down on the pitch. Verma backed away, left it alone and watched it whizz past alarmingly, thanks to some late movement, close to the top of off.
“I, too, felt bad. That said, I think this innings will give me a lot of confidence. I will try to convert this 90 to a 100 the next time around..”
A typical Brunt over, no matter the format or opposition, is hardly ever vanilla. It makes for captivating viewing, for its elemental cricketing components and the heart of Brunt. Her spells could even be counted among the top seam-bowling exhibits apologists for the unique charms of
women’s cricket might present the uninitiated.
To take on Brunt, multiple World Cup and Ashes winner, capped over 200 times in international cricket, is no child’s play. For a Test debutant with no prior experience of red-ball cricket at any level to be doing so, in overcast English conditions at that, might be deemed even more audacious.
En route to her 96, the highest individual score for an India Women player on Test debut, Verma scored most – 25 off 24 – off Brunt among the five bowlers she faced. She hammered 15 boundaries in all, two sixes included, in her 152-ball maiden Test innings. She hit a four off left-arm spinner Sophie Ecclestone to bring up her fifty – off 83 balls – making Verma surpass Mandhana as the youngest opener to score a fifty on Women’s Test debut, which was among the most emphatic of her strokes. The six that took her to 80 was an equally resounding statement of intent.
In terms of impact, though, the four off Brunt that kicked off the 14-run 25th over stood unrivalled. That boundary, and the over it got underway, appeared to have knock-on effects of varying degrees. The most expensive of the 60 overs England bowled on day two, the 25th over put India on an unbroken three-plus run-rate route for the remaining overs until stumps. That, in turn, helped push the match run rate to 3.21 by the end of the second day’s play, the highest until then for a women’s Test, with England’s Sophia Dunkley and Anya Shrubsole’s quick-scoring earlier in the day also contributing.
More critically, for India, Verma’s momentum-changing approach in the 25th over seemed to encourage Mandhana to play with more abandon than she had been until then in her 72-ball 28. The difference was visible almost immediately. The 26th over cost England 12, courtesy Mandhana’s three fours, a mix of pulls and a trademark back-foot punch, off Ecclestone. Her down-the-ground shots, too, gathered better timing, helped along the way by freebies and even some rub of the green.
As Mandhana grew in confidence, the pair fed off each other with visibly greater ease. Their partnership burgeoned to 167, the highest ever for India in Tests. It also bettered their 143 stand against West Indies from a T20I in 2019, the previous highest partnership between them across formats.
“We were only discussing about building the partnership and staying on the crease, so that the team will get more support,” Verma said of her on-pitch chats with Mandhana, after the day’s play. “We just played our natural game, hit the loose deliveries and kept supporting each other. It was about holding on to the crease,” she added. “We always back each other and understand each other. She always lends great support to me and guides me; it helps me a lot.”
The nature of their dismissals wasn’t much dissimilar either. Mandhana, the left-hander, sliced up a Nat Sciver offcutter to cut short her innings at 78. Not long before, right-hander Verma, eyeing a big hit to reach her maiden international hundred, had mistimed Cross for Shrubsole to take a spectacular take running in, at mid-off.
“When a batter gets out in the 90s, it’s natural for them to regret the missed opportunity,” Verma said of her innings later. “I, too, felt bad. That said, I think this innings will give me a lot of confidence. I will try to convert this 90 to a 100 the next time around and keep contributing to the team.”